The Anatomy of Worry

I Lost My Daughter

This was at dusk, on our second day in California. We had decided to run and roller blade on the Strand, in Manhattan Beach, where we were staying. How innocently we set out. We had only a few days before I would leave her in Los Angeles and fly back East alone, and we had wanted to have fun. Neither of us was thinking about danger. We were on the beach, in the land of fun and sun! When it became obvious that, inexperienced as she was on her borrowed roller blades, she could skate far faster than I could run, I just announced, “If we lose each other, just go forward.”

I had meant “momentarily lose sight of.”

The flat, straight path curved away from the beach into a highly trafficked area in Hermosa Beach when I realized she was gone. The sky was beginning to darken. Not to worry, I thought, imagining that at any moment I would see her m the distance in her skimpy Spandex top, white shorts worn low on her hips. I would pick up speed to reach her, and when we were side by side, I would say, “Wow, I was worried for a second. We should have made better plans.”

It was not her. For a while, as I ran forward (wasn’t that what I had said, “Just go forward?”) I kept seeing her in my imagination — white top, white shorts — kept replaying the same relieved conversation, “Wow, I was worried for a second.” Though I tell her I am worried, my tone is lighthearted, because everything is fine.

I began to analyze my parting words to my daughter, to reassure myself that I had not said anything ambiguous. But racing through my head, like an indictment: No helmet, no money, no ID, no contingency plans, pretty, seventeen years old, if not naive, then still idealistic enough to believe that people are fundamentally good.

“Wow, I was worried for a second…” Even in my imagined relief my voice quavered. As the sky grew duskier, my struggle to push back the panic increased.

It was as if above me were not stars, but dimming houselights. Scenes began to unfold. I could no longer see her skating toward me; could not hear myself say, in mock concern, “Wow, I was worried,” but saw, despite my resolve and my silent self-instruction not to panic, a car going around the bend, the driver distracted, my daughter, my beautiful child…

The heart beat increases, breathing comes more rapidly.

I could not live without her, would not want to try. Would rather kill myself, but not by jumping, I couldn’t jump. Pills could leave me brain damaged, I’d never do pills. Maybe a gun to the head, though no one I knew kept once stashed, and what would I say, like, hi, may I borrow your pistol?

Oh please, please, please…

Deep in the brain, the amygdala, regulator of the fight/flight response, senses danger, and sends off alarm signals to the prefrontal cortex.

I ran forward, praying, making myself see her skating in the distance in her skimpy white garb, going through the scenario again:

“Wow, I was worried for a second!”

She is barely concerned. Everything is fine!

Still running, I had made this up. My legs were tired. A lot of time had passed. Just go forward, I thought. Isn’t that exactly what I had said? I could not start thinking I would never find her. Of course I would. “Wow, I was worried.”

Everything is okay, I told myself, but the worry spread, like a drop of liquid on blotter paper.

The prefrontal cortex receives alarm signals from the amygdala, and starts to analyze the worry. Once the reverberating circuit between the two is created, it is very difficult to intercept.

Beautiful, beloved daughter, so vulnerable. Flesh, bone, beating heart.

I would not worry.

But now, in the midst of the unstoppable montage of images, I ran, remembering her as a baby, seven or so months old. Sitting but not yet pulling herself up or walking. She’s on a freshly laundered blanket on top of the carpet. I am in the kitchen of our small apartment, no more than fifteen feet away. She is at that age where she has just attained the pincer grasp — thumb and forefinger together — and she has begun to pluck at things with her brand-new grasp — dust balls, lint.

I am grating cheese. I look at her, at the mound of cheese, at her What happens next takes only an instant — I look up and barely see the sliver of glass clutched in that neat, new pincer grasp, her mouth opening wide.

What do you mean, you looked away?

There’s no room for mistakes!

Ambulances, furious voices, full of righteous anger.

A man comes out of the shadows, grabs my daughter before she can resist, knocks her to the ground. She isn’t even wearing a helmet.

Beautiful, seventeen, no money or ID.

You, of all people, let her go roller blading without a helmet?

Please, I thought. I’ll do anything if she’ll just be okay. But I knew that if — when — we met up, my worry would just begin.

I was leaving her in LA, flying home alone.

At seventeen? What kind of mother are you?

A worrier.

You’re a worrier and you’re letting your daughter live in LA alone? How is this possible?


When I was seventeen, my sister was murdered by a stranger. I could easily put forward the theory that this unspeakable event made me into a women But it’s fudging the facts. My sister’s murder changed my life in many ways, but only proved what I knew as a young child: anything can happen.

Years before I knew from experience just how many varieties of misfortune existed. I was terrified by the pictures on pushkes, the little coin boxes for charities found on store counters everywhere. All of them had photos of people with diseases I worried I would catch, merely by staring at them.

The leprosy thing took my mind off all this. It started when I had stayed up to watch a TV program about UNICEF, hosted by Danny Kaye. He was my favorite comedian, with his bulging eyes and rubber limbs. Perhaps I thought it would be a musical comedy — Danny Kaye in Africa! By the time I saw people whose faces had been demolished by yaws, and lepers with missing digits, it was too late to turn back.

At nine, I became something of a lay expert on leprosy. I read whatever was available on the subject, and, surprisingly, there was plenty. My favorite book at the time was a memoir called Miracle at Carville, set in Louisiana, at the only leprosarium in the United States. (I also liked Out on a Limb, about a girl who’d had her leg amputated.) “Liked” is not exactly accurate: I read and reread them, the way I later read widely about the persistent, residual, life-altering deficits caused by even mild brain damage. Although it’s true that knowledge can often ameliorate worry, expert worriers know how to use knowledge to feed the worry.

Thus, I knew that leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, was caused by a bacterium, that Sulfa drugs were effective, and that the disease was not highly contagious. I knew that its incidence in temperate climates was exceedingly rare, and then almost exclusively occurring in immigrants from tropical or subtropical countries. I was well aware that as a Brooklyn-born girl who had never traveled south of Maryland, my chance of getting leprosy was just about negligible. But — well-versed in the worrier’s creed — not impossible.

You never knew. Anything could happen.

The Debate

“You’re letting your daughter live in Los Angeles?” my friend said, some weeks before my trip.

This man is a serious worrier, one of the few I’ve met who’s up there in the majors with me. He won’t let his kids take a bus, walk alone on the shopping streets of our middle-sized city. He would never let a child of his move to any city, let alone one clear across the U.S.

“Why don’t you make her go to college?” he asked, when I told him of my daughter’s plan to work in LA.

“I don’t want to make her go to college,” I said. “She isn’t ready for college. She’s too young. She’s tired of school and needs a break. I’m worried that if she’s forced into going to school, she’ll flunk out. The damage to her self-esteem will sink her.”

“You’re worried she’ll flunk out, but not worried about letting her live alone in Los Angeles?”

“It’s different,” I said, feigning utter unconcern. “She’s a good worker. She has street smarts.”

Knows enough to go to a restaurant to use the phone, to call our hotel, and leave a message on voice mail, saying, “Ma, where the hell are you? I’m at the marina; you said not to turn back.”

“You’re nuts,” my friend said. I should have refused to support her, should have made her go to college, “like everyone else.”

In defense, I tried to explain that our fears were the same. The disasters that I conjured up, full of sight and sound, were at least as vivid as his. If I could not measure my serotonin levels against his, I could make a cultural case. Not only did I, personally, worry as much or more than he, but I was part of a culture famous for worry. We eat lox, we answer questions with questions, we worry. Our defense mechanism is a kind of ghetto humor that masks our terror. (Me, yapping away in print as if this is a joke, when really I am talking life or death.) We have historical reasons to worry, having faced inquisitions, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Maybe, through natural selection, Jewish non-worriers, those less easily aroused, died off.

Cities were full of unthinkable things — murder, robbery, rape. I tried to keep my fear of these things in a locked box, because I knew that when the lid was lifted the tiniest bit, the wild, ungovernable, shrieking, Leprosy-fearing part of myself would emerge. The fears I had about her future felt more rational.

Listen, I wanted to say to my friend. Just because I worried about the water quality while still in the womb, doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t swim!

Before I lost her, it had seemed to me that I had done everything I could to teach her how to live safely in a city. Just because you know your neighborhood, doesn’t mean it’s safe, I told her. Never linger in your apartment lobby. If an elevator opens, and a man is inside alone, don’t get on. Wear your seat belt, even if you’re just driving around the corner. Get out of your car if it breaks down on the highway.

But did I worry?

“Mom-mee?” she called out to me in a little voice, the day before our dusk adventure on the Strand. “I need to make a doody!”

The circuit between my amygdala and prefrontal cortex reverberated wildly. This is who I’m leaving alone in Los Angeles? I thought.

In the dark, way down by the marina in Redondo Beach, two towns away from where we had started out, I wondered which police force to call and when.

What Happened Next

I dove into the living room, snatched the glass from between her fingers, clutched her — startled, wiggling — against my pounding heart. I kissed her all over and thanked God and thought how lucky we were that I had seen her before she ate the glass. I blamed myself for being inattentive, because I loved her so deeply, and she was in my care. But I had broken no glass that I could remember. The blanket had just been washed. She was still in my arms, her bald head damp with my tears, when I understood that all danger could not be averted. You blink. You must. One day, in the neighborhood where a child has been abducted, you let your child walk alone. You let her go to school, though asbestos once insulated the pipes. You let her play in the playground, where a child fell off the bars and was brain damaged. You let her sleep at a friend’s house. You let her go out at night. You let her drive. When you open the box, you know that danger is everywhere, no matter how careful you are, and that the only way to be alive is to acknowledge the danger that is real, avoid the obvious hazards, and then move forward.

In truth, none of my argument would hold water if I hadn’t found my daughter that night. But I did, when finally I turned back. She was sitting on the curb by our rental car, unphased, somewhat bored. And I did say, “Wow, I was worried. We should have made better plans.”

And then we unlocked the car, strapped on our seat belts, and turned to each other, ravenous, in synchrony. Worry had sharpened my senses, made me unbearably aware how vulnerable and beloved my daughter was, how much I would miss her, even if, God willing, knock wood, please please, she remained safe in the city.

Our conversation turned intense. Sushi or Chinese? Should we ride around until we found a place or consult our restaurant guide? We were deep in this passionate debate when I took my first deep breath.

 (c) 2001 Univ. of Nebraska Press; all rights reserved.  Jane Bernstein’s fourth book, Bereft- A Sister’s Story, comes out in paperback in April.  She is Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon Univ.