This is the first instalment of a three-part series about fear. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to break fear down using the past, present, and future. I want to explore how fear affects our lives and what strategies we can use to cope with it. Also, which strategies suuuuuuuuuuck and are super unhelpful, because that’s important to know too. So enjoy! (Or don’t? I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but like, I hope you like it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!)
Fear is a bitch.
It’s true! Fear is the worst.
I suspect that fear is the culprit behind the vast majority of the struggles people have with just about everything. Anger, sadness, embarrassment, resentment, judgement, ego, narcissism—you name it, I think fear is the root cause.
Fear has been and continues to be a big part of my own life, playing a starring role in the abuse I experienced and feeding into the mental health struggles I continue to have.
So I want to break fear down; I want to dissect it into parts and try to look at the different ways fear plays into my life and the lives of others. Today, I’m starting by looking at fear in the past. And also fear of the past, which I think is an important distinction.
Little bit of a story time:
I vividly remember moments of intense fear in my childhood. Moments like being three years old and waking up in the hospital post-tonsil removal surgery, likely drugged up, and completely terrified because I had no idea where I was, I was freezing cold, and I had no one with me.
I remember at age five, waking up from a nightmare where I imagined that my mother’s head fell off, which was a terrifying and visceral experience for me at that age!
I remember being ten and hiking in the mountains with my family on a trip to the west coast of Canada. I decided to walk atop the raised barrier guiding us along the path and protecting us from literally falling off the edge of a mountain. I tripped and fell, only to be caught in one of those slow-motion-like moments where it’s as if you can watch yourself in a weird, suspended reality but are actually helpless to stop whatever bad thing is happening. As a child, that fall seemed terrifying; I’m not sure if it actually was, but I do remember the intense relief I felt when a woman on the path below caught me and stopped my descent down the mountainside.
So clearly fear has been a companion for most of my life. I’m sure all of you could also think of fearful experiences from your childhood. These would be moments that stand out in your life, either reminding you to be grateful for your health or your loved ones, or leaving you with physical or emotional scars as a testament to the scary shit you went through.
Research tells us that young children need moments of failure, risk, and yes, fear, in order to develop skills like resilience, self-awareness, coordination, problem solving, and grit. It makes sense, right? But in a healthy, typical upbringing, fear should sit at a level where it offers at most a strong warning about the dangers of not being careful, or brings home the reality of the “real” world so that we learn to be smarter.
To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but can also become a part of daily living.
As I grew out of my kid-years, fear became a stronger presence in my life. I coped by turning against myself inwardly, while pushing myself to appear confident and strong outwardly. I’m not saying that fear was the only thing present in my life as I grew up—not at all! I felt joy and excitement and all kinds of other feelings! But fear was always lurking in the background, sometimes taking centre stage, and ultimately leading me into bad relationships with hurtful people that set me up with the life I now find myself in.
The scary moments in my childhood did little to prepare me for what it would be like to live in fear on a daily basis. In fact, those experiences I just described, and the other, similar ones I had as a kid, say nothing of the anxiety that became my companion over those childhood years and truly manifested in my adolescence and young adulthood.
To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but has ultimately become a part of daily living.
I think fear is what allowed me to be victimized. Fear kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up. Fear let me be vulnerable to the wrong people. Fear made me a perfectionist. It told me I wasn’t good enough. It said that I was ugly. Stupid. Too sensitive. Too emotional. Fear stole my self-confidence and pushed me to strain against it and keep pushing until I burned myself out.
Pretty much, fear made me it’s bitch.
This brings me to thinking about my fear of the past. I’m sincerely afraid to delve into my past because I fear being brought back to the deep, dark chapters of my life, when despair and hopelessness were the most pervasive feelings I had. As someone who has been suicidal, manic, and everything in between, there are just too many times that I shudder to bring up. It’s physically painful to think about these memories; I’m not kidding! Every time I post something here about my past, every time I talk with a counsellor, every time I see a baby photo of my kids, or I come across something that reminds me of my marriage or my wedding, or even things like high school or that ridiculous childhood dream about my mother’s head falling off, I have an emphatic response that zooms me right back to that moment and I feel it as if it’s happening all over again. It takes hours, or more often days, to move beyond those feelings.
So what do I do about it? What can you do about it when you start down that rabbit hole of reliving your worst moments and memories?
Well, oftentimes the best strategy I have is to distract myself from it. Short-term, distraction is a great tool for preventing you from following that White Rabbit into Wonderland. But it’s not a great long-term solution. Long-term, I’ve learned that I need to devote more energy and time into acknowledging those moments of struggle so that they become easier to face. I’ve had counsellors describe this approach as “turning towards” your feelings, or “looking at them with detachment.” You could even suggest it’s a type of exposure therapy. However you want to describe it, turning to look your fears in the face can be a powerful strategy in learning to manage them and move past them in order to lessen their grip on your life.
Sometimes, we can choose to look back at painful things and this can be an empowering way to re-frame the experience of reliving difficult or scary moments from our memories. But sometimes our fears from the past get triggered unexpectedly. Someone says or does something, or you see a movie or hear a song, or smell or taste something familiar and it brings you right back to that awful, terrifying moment. These are the hardest occurrences of fear to manage. They jump out at you like high school kids at a tacky Halloween haunted house fundraiser. It doesn’t matter that they are ridiculous; what matters is that they still scare the shit out of you!
Why is it so damn hard to face our fears of the past?!
Because fear is a strong, mother-fucking beast! That’s why it’s so hard! And that’s why I can’t say everything I want to say about it in just one post. So I’ll stop here for today and ask you to look for another instalment next week. Until then, I’m going to try and imagine that you’re out there, kicking fear in the ass and, if even only for a moment, or only in a very small way, you’re recognizing your strength and your resilience and continuing through the fear. Remember, the scary stuff in that haunted house is all just smoke, mirrors, and a gawky teenaged kid in a Jason mask.