My phone vibrated against my hip, alerting me to a text message. “Had to take your daddy to the doctor,” Mama’s text read. “There were problems with his circamsite.”
While I’m no stranger to my parents’ unintelligible texts, this one confounded me. Circamsite? Was this a medication? An indecipherable autocorrect? I handed the phone to my husband so he could read it. We puzzled over the word for several minutes, but neither of us could figure out what it meant. A phone call was in order.
“Hey there, little girl,” Daddy said, his comically forceful and thickly accented voice filling the phone.. He sounded totally fine, and I felt the vague sense of unease Mama’s text had inspired start to melt away. “Are you ok?” I asked. “Mama said you were having trouble with something, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying.”
“Oh, it was just a little problem with my circumcision,” Daddy said.
I assumed he was joking. Who the hell ever heard of a 68 year old man undergoing an elective circumcision? Especially one who’d grown up in 1940s rural Virginia where circumcisions weren’t done and who’d also always, anytime it had been mentioned or discussed in my presence, referred to it as a needless procedure? I would’ve been better able to understand his words if he’d told me he’d decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery or had just bought an original pressing of the new Run the Jewels album.
“He got circumcised,” I whispered to my husband, whose expression changed slowly to incredulity like the sunrise fading to day. I returned the phone to my ear. “Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “You got circumcised?” Saying the words aloud myself, I couldn’t help laughing how ridiculous they sounded. “What?”
“Well, Brook honey, in all likelihood your mama’s gonna die before me,” he began slowly. “So I ain’t gonna have no one to help me take care of myself. And I could get dementia. I’ve heard tell that when that happens, men can stop washing themselves, and they won’t let anyone help them. They can wind up getting a real bad infection. I didn’t want that to happen to me.” He finished his thought: “I didn’t want to wind up at the crematorium and have the undertaker think I was a female.”
I was as amazed by the things he was saying as I was by how utterly normal he sounded saying them.
We spoke for a few more minutes, but I don’t remember much of it. I know I tried to make the (requisite?) supportive comments, but the magnitude and wild irrationality of his choice left me dazed. I couldn’t understand how he, a man approaching septuagenarian status, would voluntarily have the most intimate part of his body surgically altered—all based on a series of calamitous what-if situations that could happen in the future. Despite his explanation, I just couldn’t make sense of it. His slippery, itinerant words rolled around in my head like discarded bottles in the bed of a truck. All I knew was: this was news I couldn’t wait to share with my therapist.
When I told her, she immediately noted that my dad’s choice was a choice motivated by extreme anxiety. She reiterated that anxiety doesn’t live in the past or present—it thrives in the future tense, where things are unknown. I was stunned to hear her say that about him. I’d always seen my daddy as the epitome of brave and put together: fearless, bold, rational, and capable. And I was also shocked because of a sense of recognition. The knowledge that he’d elected to undergo a geriatric circumcision as a way of dealing with anxiety brought him into a kind of acute focus I’d never been able to deploy before.
As a child, I’d learned early on that the only chance I had of getting any requests met by him, no matter how small or simple, was being prepared to have an acceptable answer to any number of questions regarding virtually any conceivable outcome. In seventh grade, he denied my request to join my class on a week-long field trip to the other side of the state to visit some of its most famous historical and natural relics because I had been unable to convince him—even with explanatory notes from faculty about safety measures—that there were enough people there to either make sure I wouldn’t drown or save me if I did. I was the only person in the entire grade who didn’t go, and when class resumed, I felt jealous and alienated as I listened and watched classmates excitedly discuss details and pictures of the trip.
I’d always confused his behavior with knowledge, insight, and expertise. I saw everything he did as preparation rather than panic, work rather than worry. As a tiny girl, I honestly thought my Daddy was the Hulk, whose likeness I watched on television with him weekly. He was nowhere near as big as Lou Ferrigno, but my daddy’s muscled physique came from farming and laying floor covering, and he looked especially menacing compared to the country club kids’ dads whose unthreatening frames wore suits and ties. I delighted when my dad would assume the Hulk’s signature menacing pose; nothing and no one would ever defeat him, I told myself. Because I saw him as virtually indestructible, I consciously cultivated the characteristics I knew we shared.
And now, in my therapist’s office, I had another characteristic to think over.
Though I’ve always been anxious, I haven’t always understood it in those terms. That sort of language wasn’t used in my family. My aunt Bonnie was the head nurse at the mental hospital in the next town over, but my daddy adamantly preached that mental illness wasn’t real; it was a sign of a weak mind. My aunt’s factually informed, compassionate comments came and went like a breeze, but they never cut through the message that hung heavy in the air like bougainvillea: personal weakness both caused and explained mental health problems.
Until I began therapy to start dealing with the effects of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my brother, I never really understood that I had an anxiety problem, or that it could be mediated by things like medication. When I started regularly seeing a therapist and taking Prozac and Klonopin, my entire previous understanding of myself began to fade away, revealing my inner workings. I began to be able to differentiate between what I call my Crazy Brain (my anxious, irrational thoughts) and my Sane Brain (my calm, rational thoughts). Until then, I didn’t realize my emotions were essentially a Bouncy House: everything was being slammed around and assaulted by powerful, imbalanced chemicals, less than ideal physical circumstances, and a history of having anxious behaviors modeled for me.
But my Crazy Brain is bigger, louder, and more intimidating than my Sane Brain. It’s what convinces me disaster is imminent. It’s what impels me to imagine countless horrible things befalling me or my family. An unanswered phone call makes me instantly worry that that person is dead or now hates me. My mom’s cough is pleurisy—how will we afford to see the doctor? For as long as I can remember, I’ve battled those sorts of worries, but during the nine long months I was pregnant, my Crazy Brain wouldn’t tolerate any non-catastrophic thoughts. No matter what I did, my mouth was like a can-of-snakes toy—when it opened, terrified, terrible words forcefully sprang out. I recounted infinite worries to my then-fiance: What if I don’t love the baby? What if I ruin her life? What if she has spina bifida? What if she becomes involved in a sexting scandal? What if she hates me? What if I can’t handle motherhood and I have to leave to survive?
Most of his efforts to quell my worries were unsuccessful, not only because he couldn’t guarantee those things wouldn’t happen, but also because of the way he questioned my worries. He couldn’t understand how I could have these thoughts, or how they were so powerful. I couldn’t understand how he was such a Pollyanna about it all.
“The chances of those things happening are so slim,” he’d say. “Why do you focus so much on all the things that could go wrong?”
This question infuriated me. I don’t have to make a plan to deal with fantastic things, I argued. Happiness requires no plan. Catastrophe, on the other hand, necessitates a strategy. In life, as with the baby, if everything is good, then that’s wonderful and ideal—but if something horrible happens, I have to be ready to deal with it.
For the better part of a year after my daughter was born, I found myself at the bottom of the darkest, most insurmountable depression of my life. I carried the feeling that I’d ruined all our lives by having her, as surely as my legs carried my body. I couldn’t—didn’t yet—feel the kind of heart-stopping love that clutches new parents in its unbelievably perfect, wee, rabbit’s nose-soft hands. I loved my daughter—I did, desperately—but mourned the loss of my old life at least as much. And because of this, I felt deeply, profoundly ashamed. I believed I was a bad mother. I felt fundamentally undeserving of such a perfect, faultless little person.
And of course I practically vibrated with fear simultaneously. My parents visited me when she was a few months old, and though I’d hoped they would be able to reassure me, they only made it worse. They arrived, their attentive and aged faces radiant with joy. They couldn’t stop gushing. “You’re a wonderful mother. You’re doing a great job with her, baby,” Daddy said. “Even the baby Jesus wasn’t this happy.” I felt the familiar jolt of delight that only his accent and word choice elicits. “But you never know what life holds,” he continued earnestly, hugging my daughter close. I watched as she gently explored his calloused, block-like hands and sausage-link fingers with her impossibly tiny, delicate ones. “She could get hit by a tree and paralyzed from the neck down like what happened to Tommy Murphy.”
These words about a family friend’s tragedy, so casually tossed, snaked painfully throughout my chest and back as if I’d swallowed something scalding. I realized I’d not made plans to prevent my daughter from becoming paralyzed by a fallen tree—neither the potential accident nor its prevention had even crossed my mind. My anxiety skyrocketed as I considered the infinite, dangerous possibilities I had not planned against, all the ways I’d left my daughter open to jeopardy, all the ways I’d already failed her. Overwhelmed, I excused myself to go sob privately.
One day not long after hearing my dad tell me about his circumcision, I lay slumped and sobbing on the floor of my shower, gripped with the feeling of impending doom and panic. Some faint intellectual part of me wondered at how rapidly my heart was racing, how violently my stomach was cramping, how vociferously my bowels were threatening to erupt. And yet cognitively, I knew there was nothing to fear. Nothing was wrong. Nothing disastrous was coming. The baby was alive and healthy, so were we. Everything was okay. But I couldn’t translate or transfer that knowledge to the way I felt.
With concerted effort, I began breathing slowly and deliberately, practicing the 8-2-8 breathing technique my therapist had taught me (inhale for a count of 8, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 8). I closed my eyes and let my breaths blanket my mind like snowflakes.
My thoughts turned to my daddy and his choice to go under the knife—a clear case of Crazy Brain winning over Sane Brain. I’d never even entertained the notion that he had a Crazy Brain at all. In that moment, he became strikingly, tenderly visible to me—as if his visage were slowly developing in a darkroom. The person whose courage I’d tried so hard to emulate also struggled with serious fears. The man I modeled so much of myself after had been modeling anxiety for me my entire life without my knowing it. Knowing all this, I can see that neither of us are broken or mentally weak—we are both brave, scared, and human.
For the majority of my life, I have relied on therapy and medication to manage my anxiety and depression. But their utility has arguably been matched by the curious knowledge that my father’s geriatric circumcision gave me. I saw that he was acting based on worst-case scenarios, and that anticipating disaster in order to avert it doesn’t work—it only offers a false sense of proactivity and security. Knowing this, I became better able to determine whether my Crazy or Sane Brain is motivating my thoughts and emotions—to distinguish the rational anxieties from the irrational ones. Even though my daddy’s foreskin is gone, the reductio ad absurdum of its removal gave me a new sense of myself, knowledge that helps me stay less panicked and more present—and for someone with a lifelong anxiety disorder, that’s a beautiful thing.
A bona fide country girl, Brook Bolen is the redheaded, Southern, femme, vegan, gentile version of Larry David. She in lives in the heart of the Dirty South with her handsome husband, sweet pitbull son, and magical toddler daughter. When she’s not cooking, eating, or gardening, Brook dreams longingly of sleep and the mountains from whence she comes.