This world has become a scary place lately, hasn’t it? Bombings, shootings, terrorists attacking, lone gunmen making treacherous plans, police brutalizing minorities, internet bullies leaking personal photos — and that’s just what’s happening in someone else’s neighborhood, if you’re lucky enough that it’s not happening in your own. There are things happening right down your block that are terrifying too; junkies, rapists, Trump supporters, possibly living right next door to you. Really makes you want to curl up into a ball until it all goes away, doesn’t it?
Except it won’t go away. It never goes away.
Welcome to my world.
I have lived with fear for my entire life. No, I do not live in a war-torn country unless you consider America to be one (and I kind of do). No, I am not running from bombs and I am not homeless. The majority of my struggles are very much first-world ones and I do experience a certain level of privilege in society due to the fact that I am not only white but just happen to carry an authoritative tone that seems to make people — even stuffed shirts — want to trust me.
Nonetheless, I have spent my life terrified of one thing or another and, more importantly, letting that terror overwhelm me to the point of making poor choices. At best, that much fear results in a crippling level of inactivity and, at worst, makes some of the most vile decisions you can imagine.
For me it was a combination of factors including a lack of empowerment, a diminished idea of what a woman (or a young girl) could and couldn’t do and a sensitive heart that just refuses to live anywhere but my sleeve. Like it or not, I don’t just feel my own pain, I feel your pain and his pain and her pain. Sometimes, it seems like the best thing to do is hide away so the pain can’t reach me.
Pain is hard, fear is easy. But fear is also isolating and, in its own way, just as hurtful.
I began my relationship with fear very young. The first memory I have of it was my father’s anger. My brother and I had just done something foolish and childish and, furious, he flew into a rage about it and knocked our heads together.
The look on his face was an icy grip on my stomach; whatever I’d done had thoroughly displeased him. I learned to fear his displeasure that day and even now, thirty-three years later when I don’t even speak to him, its recollection causes me an upwelling of anxiety.
From there, I was really easy to control. All he had to do was tug on that terror — which he took as respect — to pull me back from whatever Bad Thing he didn’t want me to touch. Why can’t I help clean/touch/go near the couch with mold on it? Because I could get sick and die. Why can’t I go out at night? Because I could be raped and killed. Why couldn’t I become a singer? Because I would inevitably be rejected and never get a job and end up homeless and probably die.
How dare I even ask.
These are real things that I heard. Less extreme examples would result in just his disapproval or, worse, his anger. At an age too young for me to consciously remember, fear of his anger became fear of the world’s anger.
And the world is an angry place. There are plenty of ways for a sensitive young woman with no sense of independence or self-confidence to get knocked around. Whatever defiance I had for the fear I’d been taught, often enough, resulted in proof positive that my father was right. And if he was right about that, he was probably right about the rest; I could die out there.
The real kick in the pants is that, while staying away from the scary things, I nearly killed myself. It would be really neat and tidy, great for the story, to tell you that it was right around then that I realized I couldn’t be a hostage to the fear anymore. But that is easier said than done and I am still working to break free.
By now, nineteen years post-suicide attempt, fear is just an old friend of mine and not a great one. Our relationship has been so dysfunctional; I gave everything, I got nothing. But for a while, we were so inseparable that I wasn’t even sure how to live, if I could survive at all, without it. What will keep me from doing stupid things? Terrible things happen to girls who are not smart enough to be afraid. What will protect me from getting hurt? How can I be trusted to look after myself in this world without a healthy dose of fear keeping me from touching all the hot things?
Well, because I’m a human being with a brain in my head. That’s how. But let’s put that aside for a moment — what is a healthy dose of fear, anyway?
Simply put, fear is a natural function with protective purposes; it warns us away from danger.
A classic example of a healthy thing to fear is fire. Fire damages things and people and it is completely reasonable to recognize and be afraid of fire’s dangerous and sometimes deadly potential. But fire is useful, too, for a lot of reasons. And when you have confidence in dealing with it, you can harness its power and use it with respect to that danger to alleviate both the cold and the dark and improve your overall quality of life.
That’s a healthy amount of fear and, in turn, a healthy response to it. A not-healthy response would be, say, to ban fire from your home forever. To the other extreme, another not-healthy response would be to just stick your face in the fire in absolute defiance of cowardice.
So there’s a balance to strike even with something that is healthy to fear such as fire. And fire is an easy example because fire is not a person. Fire is more predictable than not. Fire never tries to apologize for what it is, won’t play with your heart by promising to change. Fire can’t make you feel like a piece of shit just because you opened your home or heart to it a little. Fire hurts in obvious ways and there are benefits for its victims. And there are alternatives to it now, too, so if you really can’t stand it then you can almost avoid it as much as you’d like.
But that’s a problem because avoidance of a thing does not educate you about a thing. If you don’t educate yourself, you can’t build confidence and, in turn, mastery.
Most examples are more complicated than fire and many of the things you fear feel far more sinister than that. But let me tell you, as a voice of experience, complicating the way you respond to it is not the answer. Neither is simplifying it.
Here is something that is simple: I have never been more afraid of anything than I am of myself. I’m afraid I’m not smart enough, not educated enough, not calm enough, not patient enough, not loving enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not passionate enough, not forgiving enough, not funny enough, not kind enough, not fast enough, not good enough. I’m just afraid I’m not enough. And I am most afraid that, no matter what I do or tell myself or learn to master, I will never be enough.
That’s what my father taught me by introducing me to his fear because when you are afraid all the time you cannot be confident. The less confident you are, the less capable.
What are you teaching your sons and daughters by introducing them to your fear?
Even now, I speak about my fear as if it is a separate entity from me. Even with the most full understanding of it that I’ve ever owned in my life, I still prefer to imagine it as something that is outside myself. But it’s not. Somebody gave it to me, yes, but sometime between then and now it became one hundred percent my own and I am the only one who can do anything about it.
There is one way out of this cold darkness: every day I make the conscious decision to live outside of my fear. Some days — some weeks — I don’t do as well as others. But I get up the next day and make that decision again. And I just keep going because, on this road, forward is the only direction worth focusing on.
These days, this world and its craziness, I look around myself and I see that old friend of mine, that old fear, just everywhere I turn. On the faces of my friends old and new, in the demands of our politicians, all over every headline. Every other meme is some sarcastic rebuttal that breaks down to a fear of the unknown, an unwillingness to educate, a lack of mastery over our environments, ourselves. We the people have become paralyzed by fear and it is not getting better.
So as someone who has spent a lot of time with terror, I ask that you please consider my story and, when you find yourself swelling up with panic and you’re about to propose a solution, stop. Think about your fear. Think about it on a personal level, think about it on a global level. Think about it, reason it out, come to terms with it and find ways to act without factoring it into your decisions. Recognize whether the danger is real and, if it is, learn how to deal with it in a rational way.
You don’t have to spend the rest of your life in the cold and dark.
This essay has been nominated for the Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments will be taken into consideration by the judges.