Splinters, Cartilage and Bugs: Accepting My Anxieties
In elementary school I got a huge splinter in my foot. I don’t remember when it was or where I was, and I barely remember how it felt. Here’s what I remember: My mom digging in the bottom of my foot with her tweezers like a squirrel in the depths of winter looking for a nut, and me sobbing, squealing, screaming and scared. We gave up, and I hated splinters forever. It remains in my foot to this day.
Fast forward a few years after that incident. I’m sitting at the dinner table about to pile food on my plate. A rotisserie chicken sits in front of me, sweating in its plastic grocery store cage. As I stare it down, I know what I’ll inevitably face—biting into a drumstick and chewing on tiny pieces of cartilage. When the inevitable happens, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and pretend they don’t exist.
Now fast forward to a recent afternoon that I spent weeding. I needed the hours for my high school horticulture class, and the raised beds in my backyard were as messy as they could get. I realized while weeding just how many creepy crawly bugs coexist in one 4-foot by 4-foot box of dirt. The closer you look, the more bugs you see. Worms, tiny ants, potato bugs of all sizes, little grubs, spiders and everything else you can imagine.
The countless bugs reminded me of a fractal. A fractal, in simple terms, is a never-ending pattern. Think of a branch, with branches growing off of it, with more branches growing off those branches and so on. When I think about splinters, cartilage and bugs, my thoughts become inescapable branches on branches on branches. The tree of thoughts is never-ending.
Never-ending bugs freak me out, if I’m being honest. I try to convince myself I’m better than people who scream over a tiny spider on their ceiling. The truth is, looking down into a dirty square of squirming, never-ending creatures isn’t exactly a walk in the park for my nervous brain. So I pretend they don’t exist. I ignore them, just like I ignore nasty splinters or cartilage in the chicken I’m eating, because if I ignore them, they don’t exist. They are one branch with a beginning and an end.
But this isn’t true. Just as splinters, cartilage and bugs exist despite my best efforts to ignore them, my bigger and more serious worries do, too. Sometimes I try to block out worries because I’m afraid of letting them take over my brain, like a fractal with branches that hang over everything.
The longer I stared into the dirt, I saw not only real bugs—I also began to see other items as bug-like creatures. I spied a stick that my mind translated into a worm. Dead leaf bits became spiders, and plant roots morphed into centipedes. A pebble grew miniature legs and crawled around my mind.
When I worry, my anxiety spins on and on until it becomes unreasonable. At that point, the unreasonable seems inevitable, and ignoring it feels like the only option to make it all go away. I’ve learned that ignoring my worried thoughts just makes me create bigger worries out of things that shouldn’t be worries in the first place. A stick is a worm, an interaction is a catastrophe.
If I stop, step back from the dirt and let myself think, I’ll see that a stick is a stick. An interaction is an interaction. Even though I’m a worrying person, ignoring splinters, cartilage and bugs does nothing to help me in the long run. The fractal that is my brain is full of splinters, abundant with cartilage and spilling over with bugs — but if I take a moment to collect myself, I can make it across the branches.
Lila Wright is a senior in high school living in Lakewood, Ohio. This essay was submitted for the 2022 Hadassah Magazine and jGirls+ Magazine teen essay contest, which this year asked: Tell us a personal story about an issue that has affected your mental health. Read the winning essay here.