by Megan Taylor Stephens
Nov. 26, 2021
I seem to have slowly developed a fear of being separated from my people. It’s a very strange and specific fear that has only become obvious to me in the past few years. I think I can unpack it. Bear with me.
I love being alone—it’s a rare gift that replenishes me and reminds me that I’m not the extrovert I usually pretend to be. I don’t mind if my husband is on the other side of the world for work. He has good care around him and will be fine no matter what. I don’t even mind it when my teenagers are far away from me for a few days. There’s nothing I can do if something bad happens. I manage to let go and let live. What I don’t like is for my kids to be just far away enough to be inaccessible. So close yet so far. This crops up most when there is a body of water in between me and my kids.
It’s possible that my very specific separation anxiety may have started at this moment.
When I was three years old, my mom and stepdad took me and my sister to an island getaway in one of the many lakes of Minnesota. They dropped us off with family friends and took a much-needed mini vacay back on the mainland. It was summer. Warm and muggy and a perfect time of year to be surrounded by water. My big sis and I were thrilled to be at the rustic cabin in the middle of a lake that was only accessible by boat. And we were beyond excited to sleep on the top bunk of a bunk bed. What a treat!
At some point in the night, my position changed from next to the wall to next to the railing. No surprise, as I have always been a restless sleeper. At some point soon after, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up wailing in anguish. I had fallen out of the top bunk and had landed on the ground, splitting my chin open. A bandage was wound around my chin and the adults in charge tried to comfort me while they scrambled to find a way to get me off the island and to a hospital. I don’t think there was a phone. Or a boat. Eventually, someone rustled up transportation and I was rushed to a clinic, where I got stitches, a lollipop, and praise for being a brave little kid. It took forever to reach my parents. They really went off radar.
Flash forward to my life in Portland, Oregon. I love my life but I think I’ve come to hate the damned rivers that are at our doorstep. The majestic Willamette and Columbia rivers continuously separate me from my offspring. My anxiety and imagination are fueled by the certainty of two main things: the dozens of old bridges in need of repair and the Cascadia Megaquake that is scheduled to bring down all said bridges and countless other not-up-to-code structures in this quaint city at some unspecified point in time. It is certain yet uncertain, which makes it particularly vexing. It will definitely happen, we just don’t know exactly when.
Back to the rivers. Why was Portland set up to be on both sides of the river…and is it too late to propose a new city layout? Like an uninvited and oblivious dinner guest preventing me from dashing out of my house, the rivers throw a wedge between me and my escape plan. What if, when The Big One strikes, half of my family is on one side of the river and half are on the other side? Should I order an inflatable kayak to keep in the car? And why do my teens have to cross the river constantly to visit friends, play in sports games, and screw around on a Saturday night? Here’s another story to illustrate my paranoia—I mean, my point.
Not long ago, my friends had a little getaway to an idyllic island cabin in the Puget Sound of Washington state. I told some friends about my bodies-of-water-induced anxiety. They passed me more wine and told me there’s nothing to be stressed about. What’s the worst that can happen? At midnight, I called to check in on my then 17-year-old son, who was home alone in Portland. The Hubs was overseas and the other kid was staying with friends. My son told me, “Mom, you’ll never guess what happened.”
That’s never a good start with him. I inhaled deeply. He proceeded to tell me how someone with road rage chased him and a friend in their cars all over downtown Portland and, when the raging driver cornered them at a traffic light, he pulled a gun on them. They had accidentally cut it a bit too close when they needed to merge onto an onramp for a bridge. He was back safely home and had left a police report. He said all was well. I had a fitful sleep, as you can imagine. I obsessed most of the night about the ridiculous gun laws in this country, but that’s another story. I also plotted which ferry to take to get off the island pronto.
The day after this crappy slumber, the girlfriends cheered me up and we frolicked in a quiet little cove. We swam, splashed, paddle boarded, and reminisced about our fond childhood memories of summers spent in joyful, refreshing, rejuvenating lakes and rivers across the US. Needless to say, when the Hubs called later from “across the pond,” I did not tell him about our son’s misadventures.
My late onset anxiety is probably not 100% about water. I’m sure it has a tad bit to do with perimenopause. Exacerbated by the impending (or not?) megaquake. Enhanced by a little childhood separation anxiety. Enflamed by parenting stress from trying to raise kids in a dangerous world where we can’t protect them. Whatever it’s about, it’s probably time for me to ask the doctor for some meds for this very specific anxiety disorder that really should be in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). I am kind of partial to the water element, so I narrowed it down to two names. Should it be called Bodies of Water Induced Anxiety (BOWIA) or Effin’ Lakes, Rivers, and Islands Paranoia (ELRIP)? Let me know what you think.
My carefree kid on Sauvie Island (Wapato Island) along the Columbia River