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Learning to Roll With One's Anxieties

July 30, 1986|SHERRY ANGEL

I laid the essentials for my survival kit on the checkout counter and looked around, hoping nobody would line up behind me.

I was buying a first-aid kit, band-aids, a flashlight, a transistor radio, batteries, bug spray, comic books, canned foods and a sturdy, hand-operated can opener. Somehow, stocking up for a disastrous earthquake didn't seem the most fashionable thing to be doing in a Newport Beach shopping center. I was surrounded by people with deep tans who probably had spent their day on the beach, napping with total abandon or perhaps fantasizing their next big business deal and the luxury cruise it would pay for. How could they understand?

I had planned to buy more, but settled for a few basics until a bigger shopping trip when I could add to my survival kit inconspicuously (the way I bury "feminine products" at the bottom of my grocery basket).

I had resisted this overt display of earthquake phobia ever since the Mexico City disaster last September. At that time, I read the warnings about the inevitable Big One coming in California in the next 100 years and started collecting safety tips in a file labeled "earthquake preparedness."

But that was it. Doing anything more would have been a concession I wasn't ready to make. It still couldn't happen to me .

Fortunately, I wasn't here for the 5.9 rumbler that recently rocked Palm Springs and surrounding areas. I was on vacation and heard about it from the safe distance of a gourmet restaurant in rural Tennessee. When the restaurant owner, chatting between servings on a slow evening, mentioned the Palm Springs quake and announced, "I could never live in California," I chided, "Oh come on, we Californians never worry about falling into the ocean. We'd much rather feel the earth move a little than get blown off the map by a tornado or a hurricane."

That was easy to say in Tennessee. Then came the 5.3 quake just south of Orange County the morning I returned from my trip. Our pet rabbit's prescient pounding on his backyard cage woke me first. An instant later, the windows started shaking. I leaped out of bed, grabbed my 9-year-old son, who was sleeping soundly in the next room, and dragged him into the doorway. By then, nothing was shaking but me, and he gave me that "Sure, Mom" look when I told him there'd been an earthquake.

I felt ridiculous standing in the doorway, knowing my son had been frightened by me rather than the quake. But worse, I realized that if it had been a real emergency, I wouldn't have known what to do next. Turn off the gas? Where? The electricity? How?

I'm a 31-year-old career woman and I consider myself independent, but I could see how far I'd gone in turning over the technicalities of home ownership to my husband. He was out of town when I had that revelation, but when he returned, I started asking questions.

First, however, I introduced him to our new "earthquake box," explaining: "It's mainly for earthquakes, but it's also good for tidal waves, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and nuclear wars."

He understood. He's all too familiar with my fear that somehow, either through a natural disaster, a plane crash, a freak accident or a grisly murder, I'll predecease him. And he's 34 years older than I. He reassures me that the odds are in my favor, but when I read newspaper reports about untimely deaths, I wonder, "If it can happen to him or her, why not me?" According to that line of thinking, each morning you wake up, you're lucky to be alive. That's not such a bad way to approach life, but you can be paralyzed by the conviction that the odds are always against you. I avoid that by following a few simple rules:

- Never let fear of flying stop you from traveling.

- Don't carry a weapon or sleep with a knife under your bed, even when your husband is out of town.

- If your son wants to do something that terrifies you, but it's a reasonable request by most parents' standards, say "yes," even if you're sure you are sending him to an early grave.

Following those rules frees me to say "you go on without me" when my son asks me to join him on a roller coaster ride--such an unnecessary way to die--and to stay inside during thunderstorms such as the ones that recently came our way (because if lightning strikes anyone, surely it will be me). And I feel free to assemble my "earthquake box," even if my family feels I've elevated caution to an art form.

My husband laughs at my fears, and that helps me take them less seriously. But sometimes I throw him off balance.

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