Looking Back-How Fear Became My Friend

My gut twists with that kind of anticipation one gets when they know something horrible is about to happen. I breathe deeply and look at the calendar.

It is July 10, 2017, four days before the anniversary of my brain injury.

My inner clock reminds me of this day every year, just like it reminds me of my father’s death, and every major event I’ve ever encountered. It remembers without knowing.

A force clutches at my throat, so tight, I can barely breathe. I inhale the sticky summer air. Tremors crawl beneath my skin, a little earthquake inside me, invisible to others, more than real to me. It is the beginning of a small panic attack as I remember the reason I am in this state.

I live in fear of this day, a day I both remember and forget.

July 14, 2010:
Red, yellow, and green hot-air balloons danced across the summer sky, in a world as blue as the ocean, on a day as hot as hell. In the distance, the Cascades rose, showcasing frosting-glazed tips.

My husband and I sat in our car, waiting to turn into a tiny fruit stand. A screech sounded, a noise so powerful, it sucked the air from my lungs, and arched my back into one solid mass of muscle.

My world went black, a darkness so deep I can only imagine it akin to death. A moment when time was erased, and crushing metal and flinging brains were neither heard nor felt.

Within days, I lost the ability to read, write, speak, and comprehend. My world, my life, was stolen.

You know the rest of the story, or pieces of it, anyway. You know I survived. But it wasn’t easy, and I’m not completely better. Though I can once again read, write, and comprehend, and I can talk faster than a storm, I live with a residual that never goes away.

I live in a state of fear.

We all have fears, but when one has suffered a trauma, fears can sink beneath our skin, living in our veins as if they are blood themselves.

As I am reminded of my anniversary, fear tightens its grip around my chest, trying to steal my life. Fear is my ticking time bomb.

There is a funny thing about fear. It can stop us from pursuing life, or push us into it.

Fear once stopped me from living. Even before the accident, I was often afraid. I lived in a little cocoon that became my tiny world. I didn’t want to go on anything high, for fear for I might fall off. I didn’t like camping, for fear of bugs. Fear was my enemy. But one day, I had to make fear into my friend.

After the accident, I needed new doctors. Fear squeezed my hand and choked my neck as I sought out help. When I enrolled in writing classes, fear was the pit in my stomach, the hug around my neck. Fear helped me meet people, and make new friends. Fear brought me to places I have never been.

Fear is my enemy, but often my friend. Without fear, I wouldn’t be where I am. In spite of fear, or maybe because of it, I move on.

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The Little Girl with Red Hair and What She Taught Me about Courage

I was five when my parents and I moved into our new home, a large bungalow on a quiet suburban street. My mom and I stood on the front lawn, taking in our new surroundings. Our next door neighbor walked over and introduced herself. Holding her hand was a little girl with long red hair, and a quiet, confident personality.

“This is Jean,” said her mom.

I hid behind my mom’s legs, clutching her trousers until my mom pried my fingers loose and made me say, “Hi.”

Our friendship was initially forced on us, but it didn’t long for us to become best friends. Jean became my confidant, the keeper of my secrets, the one who knew my every dream. We read the same books, played the same games, sometimes even inventing our own. We played dolls, built houses out of large cardboard boxes, threw Frisbees, rode bikes to the beach, and created many (often failed) concoctions in the kitchen.

But as much fun as we had together, Jean and I were completely different.

Jean could cut a worm in two, watch both parts squiggle across a hot sidewalk while she gave her scientific explanation as to why this worked. I sat by and watched, horrified and disgusted, trying hard to be brave like my friend. But I never was.

Jean had a bravery I didn’t know. Perhaps it came from being the youngest of many children, a kind of survival technique, or maybe it was because most of her older siblings were brothers, and she learned bravery from them. But whatever it was, compared to her, I was a pampered little girl, devoid of any courage.

Jean taught me my first lessons in bravery. She taught me to wear scars like badges of honor. Once I skinned my knee, and when I started to whimper, she said, “Don’t cry.” And I didn’t. I didn’t even cry the summer I stepped on a bee, or the time I stood on a pile of hot coals.

One summer Jean sat on her front lawn, holding a saltine cracker smothered in peanut butter. She stretched out her hand, waiting for a little gray squirrel to snatch the cracker from her fingers. I think Jean was afraid, but never once was she not courageous.

She was even brave the day her family was taking her on vacation. I clung to her, afraid to let her go, afraid we’d never see each other again. As she got into the station wagon, she looked back at me, and with tears streaming down her freckled cheeks, waved goodbye.

I learned a lot from the little girl with long red hair, that even in the face of fear, we can be courageous. That if you let fear lead your life, you will never truly live.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met her. I wonder if I would have fought my fears the way I did, if I would have survived traumas, an auto accident, and a brain injury.

Through each event I was afraid, yet I had learned to move ahead anyway, to fight my fears with courage. All because of a little girl with long red hair.

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I have never been fearless. Beneath this layer of tough and confident skin is a little girl filled with fear. Afraid of spiders and bugs with multiple legs, careening off a mountain, or falling off a ledge, I’ve dreamt of every fear imaginable. Some of my fears were illogical (like falling off a mountain, considering I will probably never go mountain climbing). Some are silly (like the spiders). Some fears, like locking the doors at night, and buckling the seatbelt in the car, are practical. But there are other fears, the ones no one wants to talk about, that are downright scary.

They are the fears inside our heads. The ones that wrap around our brains, twist inside our minds. They hold us captive, prevent us from life, keep us tied to jobs we don’t want, stop us from exploring our dreams.

I have had many fears in my life. I hid them behind hurts and scars, let them stop me from forming friendships, and even building a career. My fears stopped me from failure. But they also stopped me from success. I lived in fear, but was I really living?

Not until my accident. Until the worst fear I’d ever known paralyzed me. Until I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer phones and doors, or speak to others. I was afraid of everything, including my own family.

When I began to heal I realized that fear was, and always had been, ruling my life. I realized I needed to conquer my fears. I began, one small step at a time, going to the store, to the doctor by myself, taking classes, talking to others, and eventually, finding my way back to church.

I am still learning about fear, still working on conquering a few demons. Maybe I will be my whole life. But I am further along than I have ever been, and closer to the life I’ve always dreamt of.

I will probably never skydive, or parachute in the big open sky, and I can guarantee you won’t find me holding a handful of spiders anytime soon. But I don’t think any of that matters.

What matters is that I am no longer letting fear rule my life. I am determined to be fearless, to shed the tough skin and let the girl beneath live the life she was intended to live.

What fears are holding you back? Are you ready to live a fearless life?

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I fear for the next generation. For the way we have selfishly pillaged and stripped the earth of its beauty, replacing once-forested areas with oil refineries. For the way land sits idle, like a forlorn war zone, void of life.

I fear for the future generation that will never see the full glory of the earth we were blessed with. Instead, majestic mountains will be the artistry behind mounds of trash, landfills will replace fields of wildflowers.

I fear for our future, where ships that once swam easily across the sea now rise high and cast their waste overboard. Where fish now feast upon garbage, gasping and choking, dying, leaving our circle of life.

I fear for the future, for where we once breathed clean air we now breathe poisons that fill our lungs and seep into our pores. Where the winds of bygone days blew across fair plains, pure and crisp, their tails now pick up toxins that kill and destroy.

I fear for the next generation. For once we leave this earth, we will be thrown back into the heap of rubbish we have created. But the next generation, they will be left with our mess.


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