About the Author
Award-winning journalist Susan Orlins began chronicling her worries in 2009 on her blog, Confessions of a Worrywart. She also contributes to Huffington Post and writes about food, relationships, travel, and more on NBC Universal’s Life Goes Strong website. Orlins has published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and The Washington Post Magazine. For several years, she was a contributing editor at Moment Magazine, where she received a Rockower Award for her profile of sociolinguist Deborah Tannen. After adopting an infant in China in 1986, Orlins wrote a letter home that appears in Women’s Letters: from the Revolutionary War to the Present. Chicken Soup for the Soul published her essay “Marathon Women” in Like Mother, Like Daughter, Our 101 Best Stories. Orlins is the divorced mother of three daughters in their twenties and thirties, who are what she worries about most. She leads a nonfiction workshop for homeless people in Washington, D.C., where she lives with her aging pound hound, Casey, about whom she also worries.
Downloadable Author Biography PDF Susan Orlins Author Biography
About the Book
Susan Orlins worries about everything from her dog’s self-esteem to decapitation by ceiling fan. Her anxiety also extends to the complicated territory of relationships: with ex-husbands, lovers, mothers, psychiatrists, and others. Identify with a sigh . . . or laugh with relief that this neurotic, poignant, hilarious chronicle belongs to Susan, not you.
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Praise for Confessions of a Worrywart
“A first-rate personal essayist, Susan Orlins delivers the goods time and again. Underneath her self-mocking voice, her abundant humor, her brio, there is the serious candor of a moralist who worries the problems that won’t go away.”
—PHILLIP LOPATE, author and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay
“Susan Orlins is America’s funniest neurotic since Woody Allen. Just be careful you don’t crack a rib reading Confessions of a Worrywart.”
—PATRICIA VOLK, author of Stuffed
“Susan Orlins combines the practical with the comical. A multi-tasking mom, she knows how to show and hide her feelings simultaneously. When you have the time (the kids are out of the house and your mom is in a home), read this book! You will identify and laugh.”
—SYBIL SAGE, writer for The Mary Tyler Moore Show,
Growing Pains, Magnum P.I., Northern Exposure
“Toxic chemicals. Tomatoes. Getting the bed by the window in her future nursing home. What’s NOT to worry about? Just ask Susan Orlins, America’s funniest worrywart—not because you want to wring your hands, but because you want to laugh out loud. Her offbeat take on all challenges, great and small, is a delight.”
— DIANE MACEACHERN, Author of Big Green Purse
– Starter Marriage: What I learned during my brief stint as a young bride
– How to Worry Less
– Psychotherapy from a Patient’s POV: How cognitive behavioral therapy did more to help me in one year than a gaggle of other therapists did over a lifetime.
– How Annoying Am I? (to my kids)
Moving on After Divorce:
- The Divorce Party
- Giving Thanks for the Silver Linings of Divorce
- Dating After Divorce and Other Lessons Learned
- The Family Vacation – nearly a decade of vacationing with my kids and ex-husband (and once with his girlfriend)
– Raising a Family with Adopted and Biological Children
– Worrywart’s Daughter Goes on Survivor . . . Twice (now it’s time to really worry)
– Parenting Adult Children
– Role Reversals as your Children Age
– Me, Myself, and I: Why I Write About My Life
Author Q & A
Have you always been a worrywart?
When I was a kid, I thought if only I could wear a suit of armor, I’d be safe from intruders. Then, when I learned about conductivity, I gave up the armor idea, realizing I’d have a disaster on my hands in the event of a fire.
At night, I would fall asleep clinging to my mattress, so that kidnappers would be forced to drag both me and my bed out of the house. My older sister, with whom I shared a pink room, wasn’t fearful the way I was. She got the genes for green eyes and calm; I got the ones for brown eyes and worry.
Talk about the role of psychotherapists in your life.
At age 5, my parents took me to my first psychiatrist because I was fearful. As I got a little older, therapy was my family’s way of dealing with naughty behavior: you act up, you go back to Dr. Stephenson.
By the time I was a teenager, I learned to use the psychiatrist to my advantage. One night I got caught lying to my father after I snuck out with my boyfriend. To get off the hook, I said, “Daddy I think I need to go back to Dr. Stephenson.”
Throughout my twenties I went through psychiatrists the same way I went through boys. After graduating college in 1967, I was living with my boyfriend, Dizzy, and I thought it would smooth things over with my parents if I went to a therapist. I used the doctors to soften the blow to my mother and father, an insanity plea that I could not be held responsible for my actions. My father never objected to paying the bills.
Talking about myself for 50 minutes and having someone listen appealed to my narcissistic side, so I have been going to therapists off and on ever since.
A few years ago, for the first time, I went to a purely cognitive behavioral therapist. She does not meddle in the business of my early years. Rather, she has taught me techniques to help me worry less. The unfortunate consequence is that I hardly ever have an excuse to go and see her.
You have had a great experience with cognitive behavioral therapy. What are your best tips from CBT for averting worry?
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that your thoughts determine how you feel, so plan ahead; think of something pleasant to recite whenever troubling thoughts plague you. For instance, as I’m trying to fall asleep, I like to list my friends. Not only does thinking of people I love fill me with warmth, but it also helps me drift off, sometimes after only a few names.
Keep busy. One of my favorite distractions, other than writing, is word games. If I’m in the middle of a killer Words With Friends contest, a tree could fall on my house and I wouldn’t notice.
Be aware that rumination and obsession are like drugs, in a bad way. They activate the pleasure center of the brain, so the more you obsess, the more you are drawn to obsess. It’s an addiction. If you think about it that way, it can help you realize what’s happening and put the brakes on some of that worry.
Assign a time of day to worry. I tell myself that, instead of now, at six o’clock I’ll worry about Casey soon becoming fifteen years old; often the clock strikes six and I’m just not in the mood to worry how old my pound hound is getting.
If you are worried about an upcoming event, accept it the way you accept a cold. You know it will be unpleasant, but you know it will pass and you’ll feel well again.
Try to imagine sending your worries, each time they pop up, into the back of a bus, where you are the driver and they are seated behind you. This puts you in control. (It also conjures up a picture of my travel anxiety sitting next to my bedbug fears, chattering and singing camp songs. Bedbugs are a friend of mine, they resemble Frankenstein . . . .) Another image is to put your woes into helium balloon and picture them sailing away. (Don’t actually do this with real balloons, as they are bad for birds and other living things.)
Are there benefits to excessive worrying?
I count myself among the worried well, whose inner cavewoman is afraid of the dark and who anticipates trouble behind every rock. Less evolved than those of the unworried, my impulses would have served me with honor in the Flintstone era.
So I try to worry well. From my cognitive therapist, I learned that worry hits the same pleasure point in the brain as do addictive substances. As with chocolate, reminding myself that the more I worry, the more I crave to worry helps me temper the urge to obsess.
- Worry serves a purpose, notifying us to avoid risky behavior; use it to take action:
- Devote a time each day to worry.
- Write down problems and solutions; if something is troubling you at bedtime, put it on paper and out of your mind.
- Cognitive therapists advise worrywarts to imagine the worst that can happen.
- If you have an overwhelming collection of worries, such as if you are going through a divorce, look only three feet ahead of you.
- Greet your worries then imagine them floating by, like clouds or being tied up in a garbage bag and hauled away.
- Accept that you have worries and if you want to take them with you, picture a small red wagon and when they pop up, put them in the wagon to see what you can do about them during your worry session.
- Talk to a friend, one who is not judgmental.
Discuss China and what it was like to live there in 1979 and 1980?
When I landed in China for the first time in 1979, I felt as though I had entered an old black and white movie, except everyone moved in slow motion, as though they had no particular place to go. Framed pictures of Mao felt ubiquitous before I even left the airport.
My new husband and I were often aware of being watched or listened to. Wherever we went, we attracted a crowd. On the other hand:
Frequently after dinner Jeff and I went for a walk. On one such stroll, Jeff pointed out that with so few white people in Peking, no matter what we did, the Chinese thought it was typical behavior of the “round eye” or “big nose,” as Caucasians were sometimes referred to. Simultaneously, to prove the point, we broke into a Mexican hat dance in the middle of the sidewalk, jumping from foot to foot with hands on hips then linking arms and spinning around. The stares we drew were neither greater in number nor different from the ones we got when just sauntering down the street.
Sometimes before bed we ambled along a path I dubbed Lovers Lane. It was a tree-lined strip near the hotel, flanked by a narrow road on each side. Given that many Chinese lived with multiple generations sharing only a couple of rooms, the nighttime darkness on Lovers Lane provided couples, even married ones, with welcome privacy. Whenever we walked in unlit areas, we saw silhouettes of embracing pairs in the shadows: behind bushes, against walls, or on secluded benches.
What was it like raising two biological Caucasian daughters and one adopted
We picked up Sabrina from the hospital in Beijing when she was six days old. A few days later I was in our suite at the Peking Hotel reading The International Herald Tribune. An article about a study of identical twins reared separately suggested that practically every personality trait was in the genes. Here I had this new baby and now I was learning that I had no control over how she would turn out. However, we did have control over imparting our values.
I loved having a different set of genes in our home. If you were to look in each of our bedrooms, you would know which one was hers. While she was growing up, every week there would be a little bag outside the door of her neat, organized room of things she was giving or throwing away. The rest of us rarely got rid of anything.
It has always felt so natural for her to be part of our family. No matter what sibling rivalries arose, Eliza never said anything about Sabrina being adopted or being Chinese, unless you count the time Eliza said to me, “You love Sabrina more because she’s adopted.”
What advice do you have about raising children as a divorced parent?
- Make “new traditions.” We take a family photo each year with our dogs; sometimes we wear funny hats. We now have a whole string of them hanging on the wall.
- Encourage a warm relationship between your children and their other parent. This is one of the best things you can do for your kids.
- Never badmouth your ex; if you do, the kids are likely to spring to the defense of the other parent.
- Make sure the children know that they could not have caused the divorce, nor could they have prevented it.
- When you are divorced, showing empathy for your kids is especially important and expressing your unconditional love for them helps them feel secure.
- Arrange for someone outside the family for your child to talk to. If you can afford it, seek a child psychotherapist. As with finding a mate, it can take more that one try to find the most suitable match.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this memoir?
In the chapter “‘I May Have Ruined the Marriage, but You’re Ruining the Divorce,’” I was tapping out the the words about how upset my husband was when he realized I had gone to a divorce lawyer. As I wrote, insight into why he was so upset came to me through my fingers and the keyboard:
I thought, Is he crazy? Does he not get that I went sneaking off to see a lawyer because he had gone sneaking off to be with another woman?
I asked what he would advise his daughters to do if someday they were to find themselves in my situation. However, nothing I said could calm him down. I get it now. He was honestly committed to reforming, wiping the slate to start anew, exposing himself raw in therapy, giving detailed answers to every question. So he must have felt terribly violated that I went to a lawyer without telling him.
While writing the chapter called “Searching for Susan Fishman,” I came to another realization, that I no longer yearned to be Susan Fishman, my twenty-something, long-haired, smooth-skinned self:
I picture myself on a sunny Saturday afternoon walking up the path to her Georgetown apartment, my stomach churning, as though she were a child I had given up for adoption and we were about to come face-to-face for the first time in decades. I ring the bell, and then smooth out my skirt while waiting for her to open the door. . . .
During our visit we chatter like girlfriends. She talks about her carefree life of biking everywhere, always with a bag of popcorn in her basket in case she gets a whim to see a movie; I hint at how cautious I have become. She wants to know what it was like to be with the same man for eighteen years, and I tell her it is not at all as dull as she imagines and that the sex is better than she anticipates. Toward the end of our visit, my enchantment takes a turn:
I don’t want to spoil the surprise of her future by revealing too much about the global adventures I have had. It occurs to me she would not be terribly impressed anyway, given her incuriosity about the world.
The sudden reminder of her pinhole lens—how little interest she has in pursuits that have meant so much to me—makes me startle and want to go charge my brain with a book. This fissure in her razzle-dazzle sparks in me a renewed appreciation for Susan Orlins and recalls a recent evening during which I described Susan Fishman to a friend. “She sounds like a ditz,” he said. “I’m glad I know you instead of her.”