I never know why things pop into my brain, but this morning the term worry wart appeared. It’s such a funny expression that I just had to look up the origin. I discovered that “Worry Wart” was the name of a cartoon character created by J.R. Williams for a popular newspaper comic strip called “Out Our Way” (1922-1957). Today, Merriam Webster defines “worry wart” as “a person who is inclined to worry unduly.” But in the cartoon strip, Worry Wart was a little boy who caused others to worry.
When the term popped into my head, I was thinking about living with chronic illness and all the worries that come along with that. Worries such as being a burden to others, letting others down, being lonely, being able to afford proper care and medication, and the big one that we never really talk about—dying. Those of us living with chronic illness might certainly be classified as worry warts (the current meaning) if we choose to focus our attention there. I much prefer to focus my attention on other things, especially when the term “warts” is involved! That word alone conjures up images of witches with big growths on their noses and characters in the scary movies of which I’m not a big fan. Neither those images, nor the list of patient worries that can come with chronic illness, are things that make my life pleasant or would ever put a smile on my face. So I’m going to tuck both the list and the scary images away and focus my attention on something else.
But before I pack away all those things that one could worry about, I want to think about the original Worry Warts character and the fact that he caused others worry. I know the illness I live with causes worry for those around me, and that’s upsetting. This is one of those things I can’t help but think about at times, mainly because I have no control over it. I know the list of potential health and emotional issues raised by chronic illness is long. I know I work hard not to focus on those issues or let them take center stage in my life. I also know that, no matter how hard I try not to dwell on them, everyone—me, my family and close friends—knows that these issues exist. No matter how hard I try not to dwell on them, they are present in our lives and in our relationships and they cause worry all the way around. Unfortunately, the health issues can also create a sense of powerlessness in those who love me because they cannot fix the issues or make them go away. It seems to be a catch-22 (there’s another term I’m going to have to look up!), as already difficult emotions are compounded. For instance, if my husband mentions his concern, he worries that he’ll cause me more stress; if he doesn’t mention it because he doesn’t know what to do about it, I see him as uncaring and unconcerned. We dance around this issue often in our home. Neither of us would be considered worry warts…but the issues are real and sometimes demand our attention. After many years of trying to balance these discussions in ways that serve us both, we’ve learned that one of the best things he can do when I want to talk about something is simply listen and be present; not try to fix it, not give advice, just let me share my concerns, share his if he wishes and then move on. I often feel guilty knowing that I cause worry to those around me, but I work to let that go as well.
So, now that I know all about worry warts and don’t want to be either type—neither the one that worries, nor the one that causes worry—I’m going to put away all wart thoughts and go for a nice walk. After all, who can worry with a dog on the end of a leash wagging his tail at every passerby?