“Fear is weakness. It is evidence you don’t have enough faith or self-confidence. Fear is an emotion and emotions can’t be trusted. Suppress it, silence it, strike it from your psyche. Confess it only as a lament and an apology, “I am afraid; it’s stupid, I know.” Confess it as moral failure: Father, forgive me for I have sinned—I am afraid.”
These are some of the lessons I was taught about fear. Some of the ways I approached it and considered it in my mind. Each one laying insidious traps for me.
For most of the last month, I’ve been unable to sleep. You might say I planned it. I took a step into uncharted territory in my personal life that I assumed would stir up memories, deep-rooted pain, and…fear. I didn’t anticipate the amount of fear that would surface. I would wake up after brief intervals of sleep in a panic, startled into consciousness by a flash of terror that seemed to emanate from my body. I would tremble from the inside out. For hours each night, I lay awake, my body assaulting me from within.
“You’re not safe. Run!” it screamed at me. “Get out now. Don’t do this. Don’t let somebody hurt you again. You’re not safe.”
At first, I calmly spoke to my body, addressing the parts that felt the most anxious: my chest, my lower stomach, the lump in my throat that made it difficult to swallow.
“You are safe now. Be at peace.”
My body didn’t believe me. Fear didn’t believe me.
I listened to meditations and practiced slow, intentional breathing to bring myself out of fight/flight.
It worked for a few minutes at a time.
Fear crept into the daytime, lurching up in my stomach as thoughts flitted across my mind. The hair along my scalp and back stood on end. I couldn’t focus. My appetite disappeared and even force-feeding myself was difficult. I lost weight. I couldn’t even feel hunger pains. It felt like my body was on fire and I began to wonder if I had the tools to douse it.
I sought advice and encouragement from a few close friends and a life coach. They offered well, but my body regurgitated it like a colicky baby and leapt back into the fray.
Fear raged on.
I lay one night, utterly overcome by exhaustion and sorrow.
“Will the past steal my present again? If I can’t be at home or safe in my body, where can I be safe? Will my body sabotage me to the grave? What if I can’t stop this avalanche?”
There are questions few of us remember to ask in our desperation to make a situation “right,” or comfortable, even just bearable, again.
“What do you need?” I spoke into the dark. “What can I do to help you?”
I waited for an answer while ruminating on the wisdom of our bodies, how intricately they are made, how profoundly they remember (even if only through visceral reactions to things we can’t actively retrieve), how incredibly and deeply they know us.
In the middle of my despair, my mind lit upon a prevailing truth, one that’s shone with ever-increasing glory in the last three years, especially: My body has been the conveyor of my survival. My body has made it this far, without fail. My body has only ever sought to bring me into the next moment, the next day, the next place of peace. I can trust its work.
How was it doing so in this case?
Fear. Fear was the agent. Fear was the friend screaming, “Danger! I love you! Danger!”
This friend, this helper, this one always seeking my best—I had not listened to it. I had done exactly what I was trained to do: muffled it, cheapened it, dismissed it, and hated it as a crude part of me I wished to castrate and fling to the wind. I had broken faith with myself for years and years and now, when it didn’t need to speak up, it did anyways, recalling the past, trying to warn me, desperately seeking to save me.
I cradled myself and whispered sadly: “Oh, Fear. You tried to keep me safe over and over. I didn’t listen to you. I didn’t honor you for your wisdom. I stayed for so long when you knew I was in danger. I silenced you. Even now, you’re still speaking for my good. I’m sorry. I will never ignore you again. Thank you.”
I won’t tell you that my body stilled, and I’ve experienced transcendent sleep since. But I believe the tide turned in that early morning. Fear could rest as one finally acknowledged and my body gained a greater trust in myself. In knowing that we are imperative parts of a whole, not fractured enemies. That fear is good and right and a beautiful part of my biology, direction, and future.
Fear is not a character flaw or an invisible foe to be wrestled against and reviled; it is worthy of honor.
Why did I take the step that was the catalyst for this flood? I’m writing about that next.
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