Natalie was reading a section of my novel in-progress when she asked about the “hand towel” one of the characters had placed in the bathroom for her guests. “Might it be an embroidered linen hand towel?” asked Natalie. “That is so much better!” I exclaimed appreciatively.
Finding vivid words to describe feelings, not just objects, can actually be helpful when going through emotional times. In fact, finding accurate words to describe one’s state of mind can be critical to solving acute states of unease. For example, can the over-generalized word “anxiety” to describe almost all sensations of uneasiness be ultimately unhelpful and unhealthy for us?
I am reading (for a second time) Chaim Potok’s wonderful novel The Chosen, which I first read when I was in high school. Natalie read it last fall and her enthusiastic response made me want to read it again. In the story, one of the characters suffers an injury. While he is in the hospital, he describes himself as “frightened.” In a later chapter, when he is on his way to see the doctor to learn about his prognosis, he says he is “scared and nervous.” As I read these words – frightened, scared, nervous – I realized that we don’t often hear them anymore. I think they’ve been usurped by — “I’m anxious.”
What other words can one use to express emotional sensations that might be more specific than “anxious”? I thought of scared, frightened, uneasy, tentative, shy, trepidation (trepidatious should be a word), and nervous. In other words, I ask myself, is the hand towel cotton or linen, embroidered, monogrammed or patterned?
A recent article in The New York Times caught my eye. Titled “Readers, Put Away Those Handkerchiefs,” it relays that English-language books have become steadily less “emotional” over the twentieth century. Researchers tracking “mood” words in both British and American fiction interestingly found that “happy” and “sad” periods in literature coincided with historical events, such as a “sad peak” during World War II. Could my perception that we are seeing a more frequent use of the word “anxiety” mirror something about the period in which we live? And is it even possible that the pharmaceutical industry’s invention of anti-anxiety medications to subdue/squelch/cure anxiety has played a role in squelching the language of emotion?
Not long ago, I underwent a stressful medical test – a breast MRI to confirm post-surgical scar tissue. (vs. recurrence of cancer cells). Scheduling the appointment had involved an insurance authorization rigmarole requiring multiple phone calls to an unhelpful doctor’s office. Learning the results had taken three days longer than I had been told it would take. By the time I learned that I was fine, I was undeniably anxious. Feeling frightened, scared, and nervous had morphed into fear of recurrence, fear of medical procedures, and fear of pain. Knowing I didn’t want to go through this each time I had a diagnostic test, I decided to schedule an appointment with a therapist whose name I had been given. During our phone conversation, I told her that I wanted to find ways to deal with post-cancer fear. She told me she was no longer taking clients with my insurance and suggested the name of another therapist. Her parting words were, “Tell her you’re dealing with anxiety.”
Ugh. I hung up the phone and groaned. I was angry. I had specifically stated that I was grappling with “fear.” I looked out the window and made a mental list of what had led me to phone her.
I was dreading the zillion phone calls I would have to make each time I needed to schedule a diagnostic test. I found waiting for test results terribly stressful. (Research actually demonstrates that waiting for test results is more stressful than receiving a diagnosis). I was nervous I’d have to be poked and prodded every few months. I was scared after all I’d been through. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to get to the other side of this experience. And I desperately wanted to feel less frightened. I asked myself what would help.
This is the list I came up with:
Finding a doctor with a more caring office staff.
Finding a doctor who understood how much it helps to hear test results as soon as possible.
Finding a doctor who could relate to me as a quilted hand towel vs. a general hand towel.
Finding a doctor who wouldn’t tell me that I was going to have to find my “new normal” (this is cancer lingo that has never worked for me).
I needed to change doctors.
A year later, my new doctor phones with test results as soon as he receives them (he leaves a message if I’m not at home and follows up via email). His office processes authorizations efficiently without needing to be reminded. I feel seen by him as a person, not just a patient. And guess what? My fear casts a smaller shadow. It’s still there (maybe it always will be), but I’m learning to soothe it rather than smother it.
Try to find the specific words for your feelings. This is not just a writer’s tool; it is a living tool. It’s surprising how clarifying it can be. It can also help reveal possible remedies and solutions.