And like the proverbial cat, it’s killing me.
On Christmas Day two years ago, as we all crumpled wrapping paper and gushed over the new gadgets we’d break or lose in the coming months, my family began a conversation about eggs because, well, why wouldn’t we? Isn’t that how everyone honors the blessed coming of our Lord and Savior? Really, if you think about it, dairy products make up a substantial portion of the yuletide celebration. We, specifically, were discussing chicken eggs. And how they became new chickens. My dad requested that I, specifically, look it up, and as the youngest child, I obviously said, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” Just kidding. My dad is about as immaculate as yellow snow.
But I did look it up, and it led to a conversation that I am positive I alone remember. I remember this conversation, specifically, because it began a three day Wikipedia deep dive that introduced me to my favorite word. Ever. That word is penes (pē'nēz), which is the original plural of penis. I now correct everyone who says penises because, well, why wouldn’t I?
Also sometimes, I scream it at Kyle mid-fight, and it really diffuses the situation. Pro tip: it’s very hard (I promise this was an unintentional pun, but nonetheless…) to continue being angry with your partner, when one of you has just yelled penes at the other. Try it out and see if I’m wrong. If it doesn’t work, you’re obviously dead inside, and you should address that.
I share all of this with you because however else my husband and friends and family would describe me, every single one of them would say that I’m a Googler. I promise. Ask them. I Google everything. How to replace a faucet. Whiskey sour with egg white. Symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s. Serial killers of the 20th century. Death rituals from around the world. Best way to dispose of a body. Whoa. That veered into weird territory. Unfortunately, those are all actual excerpts of my search history. I did warn you that I was crazy, and I believe I mentioned my fixation on death. There was a whole post about it.
But I like knowledge, and I delight in the absurd. Some people enjoy golf (my husband) or knitting, organizing—will you people please come to my house?—or parkour. I enjoy knowing. I always have. Many would say, hopefully behind my back but usually to my face, that I am, in fact, a know-it-all. And those people would be correct. It makes me feel in control. When my brain is screaming at me and the loop spins relentlessly, knowing things halts the cycle.
"With knowledge comes power and eventually, after enough time, powerlessness."
When I was child, my family ate dinner together every single night. We each sat in the same place and had the same ground rules for every meal. No TV. No telephone. No books. And my father—my sweet, weird, complicated dad—would ask me and both of my sisters how our days were, what we had learned in school. Sometimes, we would play Duck Duck Goose around the table, and I, the littlest, would dream of being picked as the Goose. It rarely happened, but in childhood, the dream itself is so often enough. Our imaginations are somehow more contained and more robust simultaneously. We don’t yet understand all of the tragedy available to us but believe unfailingly in the fantastic and impossible.
And sometimes, per my father’s request, we would read from the encyclopedia. Yes, you read that correctly. You remember those, right? In the days before the Internet, encyclopedias were alphabetized books, filled with facts, usually somewhat outdated. I’m sorry. Did you not do that with your family? How strange. Well, we did, from our 1980s World Book Encyclopedia set that was beige with bottle green spines and faded gold lettering. We were missing Volume So-Sz, which I consistently found infuriating. What if I wanted to look up sovereignty or switchboard or Jan Szczepanik? Well, it didn’t matter because I couldn’t. However, this nightly encyclopedic ritual inevitably fed my insatiable curiosity. My insatiable curiosity fed my vision of myself. My vision of myself comforted me through my inevitable shortcomings and failures. Or it used to.
But lately, I feel betrayed by my knowledge. The curiosity I’ve always valued in myself is no longer an asset. It is a glaring liability that puts me at risk for a panic attack or a sleepless night. When death is your trigger and you live in the world, nowhere is safe. I hate to break the bad news, but people die. All the time. In really horrifying and tragic ways. When they’re young and seemingly healthy and have so much left to give the world. They die from car accidents and cancer, sepsis and slit wrists. They die at school, in their classrooms, staring into the empty eyes of a terrorist and into the gaping mouth of his gun barrel. With knowledge comes power and eventually, after enough time, powerlessness.
"It is the way I make sense of the world."
I realize now that my compulsion to acquire facts and information, to just know, was itself an early manifestation of my anxiety. There is strength in knowledge. There is control. So the more wild and restless and anxious I became, the more I researched. The more I Googled. If I know the early symptoms of stomach cancer, I can catch it at its most treatable. If I know where in a plane I’m most likely to survive a crash, I can choose that seat. But the reality is far less tidy. Eventually—always—I lose control, and that is where I’m incapable of coping.
So this illness that has already stolen so much from me—my safety, my self esteem, my sleep—will take this quintessential part of who I am and destroy it. Because there is no other way. I can’t be a Googler and be in control. I can’t engage with the world the way that I used to do. It is too dangerous.
And it leaves me heartbroken. I have already lost so many fragments of who I am in this fight. To lose my curiosity, my unquenchable thirst for knowledge, is like becoming deaf and mute and blind all at the same time. It is the way I make sense of the world. It is the way I build connections and grow friendships. It is like trying to put myself back together after shattering but only having half of the pieces.
I know this all seems overly dramatic. Based on your limited awareness of my personality, that would be a valid assumption. I’m about as extra as guac at Chipotle. Who really cares if I can’t research as much as I used to or read meaningful books? But I don’t know this new person. She is a changeling, a succubus on my emotional energy. The woman that I have been for almost thirty years, the one that my family knows, my husband, my friends, suddenly, I’m not allowed to be her anymore. What if they don’t like the person that I’m forced to become? What if I don’t like that person?
The version of me that researches, that knows, that engages, that person is alive. She is vibrant and included and interesting. I’m afraid that if I surrender her, I will have nothing left. I will fade into the furnishings and watch life happen in front of me, unable to participate, unable to live fully and vividly. She feels whole to me, even as I know she is not. But I am more afraid of the consequences if I don’t surrender her, afraid of the drain on my marriage, the drain on my mind.
So, I’m saddled with the egg. It lives inside of me every second of every minute of every day, silently waiting to be fertilized by a stray factoid, to hatch into a crowing, peckish hen. Ah. The classic chicken or the egg conundrum. If there were a more perfect metaphor for anxiety, I actually have no idea what it is. For now, there will be no more penes, no more new, amusing, preposterous details to glean.
"I am simply less."
I am sad because learning no longer brings me joy, only sweaty palms and racing heart, intrusive thoughts and safety behaviors. I’m sad because I am less colorful and less informed and less insightful. I am simply less. I no longer get to delight in the exploration of novel and unexpected knowledge, of the ridiculous or reaffirming. Nothing is reaffirming, and yet everything is. Every new search is a potential trap, a trigger to a bad day or night or week, to a breakdown that exhausts my energy and hurts my husband.
And I am grief-stricken because I don’t know who I am anymore. Everything that has always anchored my life, my awareness of myself, has begun to snap and fall away. I am untethered. And I’m afraid. Because I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know who I’ll become. I am no one. Shimmering and ephemeral, but with no real substance, no impact on the world around me. Maybe I am just a ghost. Maybe I am already gone.
There is no easy resolution for this. Honestly, I’m still heavy in the midst of it, and I can’t quite see the other side. I struggle every single day, and many days, I just can’t cope with this warped limbo that is my life. I still feel the compulsion to know. I vibrate with the pursuit of knowledge, pulsing and buzzing to exercise my mind. And then I realize my limitations. And then it fades, all of it, even me. I deflate, and I can feel it suck the air out of me, pressing in on all sides until I’m squeezed out of existence. For now, there is nothing I can do.
For now, I will know the pain of wanting something desperately and living with the reality that, no matter how hard I work, I may never get it. For now, I will suppress this compulsion to maintain my own sanity. For now, I will sacrifice who I am and who I’ve been for who I hope to become. I will carve out a new niche. I will fall into the background. I will become ephemera, a shimmering ghost.
But I will still hope.
I will hope for the day that, instead of dialing back myself to meet my anxiety, my ability to cope will rise to meet my curiosity. I will hope to again find joy in knowledge, instead of only fear. I will hope to no longer be less than who I am. I will be curious and anxious and finally whole.