Conquering Fear

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We used to have a lot of things to be fearful of. There were large animals, poisonous snakes, disease, all sorts of things that kept us on our toes. Fight or flight kept us alive for thousands of years.

But today, it often keeps us from achieving our potential. 

Today, thankfully, we are mostly safe. Our day-to-day experience is unlikely to bring us in front of a tiger looking for lunch. Or a bomb. Or a deadly disease.

We are able to live, day in and day out, without immediate threats to our bodies, our children, our pets, our homes. But that reptilian part of our brain is still trying to protect us from danger at every turn. We still see fear all around; the junkie pandering for change could attack us. As could that dog. Or that person walking towards us at night. Or the rapidly approaching train. 

When I was young I had an overactive imagination. I couldn’t separate reality from fantasy, and empathized with everything around me.

When I was two, my mother took me to a Disney movie that began with a Donald Duck short. Donald Duck was a fire fighter, waging battle on a burning building. He was winning the fight, when the fire personified and started chasing Donald. I became hysterical, screaming in the theatre as the fire got closer and closer to Donald’s frightened feathered butt. I had to be bodily removed from the theatre before the actual movie even began, inconsolably crying for my poor duck friend. 

I tried to put on a brave front in front of friends, and ended up watching seemingly innocuous shows that kept me up with a knotted stomach and nightmares for years.

One Scooby Doo episode where green goopy monsters run around after people I watched left me terrified for years. I watched the whole episode wide-eyed, and learned that the monsters were actually just regular people who got drenched in green goo.

Despite knowing this, every night I was terrified that these green monsters were hiding behind the living room couch. Every time I’d wake up to pee in the night, I'd tip toe to the bathroom carefully avoiding the creaks in the floor so as not to disturb the monsters. I even learned how to pee against the side of the toilet bowl, not an easy feat for a girl, so that the tinkling noise didn’t disturb them. I would race back to my room, ignoring the creaks in an effort to outrun the monsters I was certain were hot on my heels, knowing that if I could get under the covers before they caught me, I was safe. 

I wish I could say I overcame this overdeveloped sense of fear during my childhood, but it continued to hound me.

When I lived in Manhattan right after graduating from college, I felt danger on every corner. I startled so easily, friends made fun of me. I still do. I was sure I would wind up hacked to pieces in an alley, or fall onto the subway tracks beneath the train that seemed to go so terribly fast. It felt like fear and the specter of death were always with me.

I tried to combat this fear by taking deep breaths. Somehow, the desire to take a deep breath tightened up my chest and made the one thing I wanted more than anything in that moment, a deep calming breath, impossible to take. It was a cruel spiral of trying over and over to draw a deep cleansing breath, only to feel my lungs clench up and keep the air out. This added to my anxiety, and several times grew into full-blown panic attacks. Even thinking about it now makes my chest tighten. 

The truth is I didn’t even begin getting over my fear until my thirties!

When I started dating Jason in 2009, I couldn’t understand why anyone intentionally watched sad or scary movies. I firmly believed that there is enough sad and scary stuff in the world, adding more is ridiculous and potentially harmful. Why would I choose to be sad or scared when I could be happy or amused? Why add fear of sadness to a world that has enough of that as it is?

Jason had a different attitude, which was that the wider one’s range of appreciation and experience is, the better. He asked me to watch a movie he loved and deemed “not very scary, made for children, and very beautiful” — Pans Labyrinth.

I reluctantly agreed with several conditions. First, I could turn it off whenever I chose, no questions asked. Second, we watch it on a laptop so it wasn’t too big. Third, we watch with the lights on. Fourth, I could put my hands over my eyes without censure. And five, Jason hold me tightly the entire time. The ENTIRE time. No letting go for even a moment. 

He agreed to each of my terms.

I made it most of the way through, several times with my eyes covered by my and Jason’s hands. Jason did an admirable job of holding onto me without letting up (best cuddler ever). I made it until the scene where the eyeless  monster plucks his eyeballs off the table and pushes them into the palms of his hands. He raises his hands over his face so the eyes are generally in the right spots and then writhes around chasing after the little girl. Game over! I made Jason turn it off and couldn’t sleep. 30 years old and I couldn’t get through a movie made for children. 

Fast forward to 2012, the year after I beat thyroid cancer. I decided to stay on Cymbalta, my pharmaceutical friend, and made the command decision to live a larger life.

I celebrated my healthy prognosis with a terrifying new year’s resolution: do the things that scare me the most. Tackle those very things I’d studiously avoided before.

Things like skydiving: why would someone choose to jump out of a plane and feel their heart jump into their throat? Or Burning Man: living in the 115 degree desert with crowds of hippies on all sorts of scary drugs and acidic sandstorms that blind you? No way! Or the Folsom Street fair: BDSM and old naked men masturbating in public? No thank you. And last but not least, scary and sad movies.

My tools in my tool belt were limited, but powerful; an intense desire to conquer or at least control these fears, my pharmacological aid, a bunch of research into the science of fear and a willingness to practice. I remembered my mother and how she conquered her fear of heights, and that helped give me strength as well. 

Whenever Mom got on a ladder or near a ledge, vertigo would set in and she would panic. Her incentive to conquer her fear of heights came about in 1995. Mom very much wanted a fireplace, but it was going to cost $3,000 to install. The house also badly needed painting, and the cost to paint the whole exterior was $5,000. Mom and Dad struck a deal: If Mom painted the house herself, saving them $3,000 of the expense, they would spend the savings on the fireplace. I remember helping Mom paint the house. She tied a rope around her waist, climbed out the bathroom window onto the first floor roof, and painted with her lips pressed so tightly together they turned white, and matched her white-knuckled fists. It was terrifying for her, but she persevered and gradually, day after day, overcame her phobia. By the time the house was finished, she was no longer afraid of heights! The vertigo just didn’t come, and she could go right up to the edge. 

This taught me an important lesson: fear feels very real. Palpable, even. But that doesn’t make it actually real. More than that, it doesn’t need to control us or our actions. We can beat it. 

So 2012 became the year I conquered these four fears. And thus began the most rewarding period of my life.