I’m less afraid than I used to be.
Which is kind of like saying Quentin Tarantino is mellower than he used to be. Five percent more chill still leaves plenty of room for amped-up-like-a-meth-head-on-espresso. Likewise, my emotional landscape still contains ample space for paralyzing, soul-crushing fear. But as I’ve matured, I’ve managed to clear a small patch in the dense jungle of things I’m afraid of. Of which I’m afraid. Whatever.
And by “matured,” I mean “stumbled blindly into middle age.” See, I’m much less afraid of honesty than I used to be.
For much of my life, I feared that admitting I had done something wrong, or messed something up, or failed to do something I had promised to do, would get me in trouble. That meant disapproval, and disapproval has always been my personal kryptonite. I can’t bear it (although I’ve come a long way, baby). So I came to fear the consequences of being honest in unpleasant circumstances. That gradually spread to a general fear of saying or doing anything that cast me in a less-than-stellar light. I was the kid who pretended to know everything. I had watched every popular TV show, I knew every new band, I had been to all the fun, exciting places my friends had been. If I couldn’t fake knowledge of something cool, I pretended to disdain it rather than admit I was clueless. I was probably pretty insufferable in that regard.
But being dishonest, with yourself or with others, becomes a lot of work in the long run. It makes your conscience (assuming you have one) feel sick and exhausted. I finally reached a point in my life when I had been caught in enough lies – stupid little fibs, as well as big, inexcusable betrayals of truth – that I feared disapproval less than I feared losing myself in a sea of dishonesty. I finally decided that the truth, no matter how hard it punches, is always a softer blow than living a lie. Always.
Not all my fears are so abstract and heavy. When I was a kid, I was scared spitless of snakes. Not so unusual, except I was also fascinated by them. I loved snakes. The first book I ever wrote, in the third grade, was about snakes. They are beautiful creatures and don’t deserve the bad press they’ve gotten since the beginning of time (I’m looking at you, Book of Genesis). But I harbored an enormous fear of being bitten and dying. In my mind, no one was ever merely bitten by a snake. You were bitten and you died.
My wonderful third-grade teacher, Miss Ruhl, in an attempt to encourage my interest, actually gifted me a garter snake and a glass tank to put him in. His name was George. He was adorable. But having that snake in my bedroom almost gave me a nervous breakdown. I wouldn’t touch him, I wouldn’t feed him. Occasionally he would wedge himself in the narrow space between the top of the tank and the screen covering it, and I literally would run screaming from the room, convinced he was about to get loose and come after me. This was a garter snake. He was maybe a foot long and no bigger around than a pencil. I straight-up thought he was going to kill me.
When I got a little older, I realized that one of my most common stress dreams (because of course I have a stable of them) involved being bitten by a non-venomous snake. The bite was always on my hand, which I would hold up to observe the tiny, U-shaped row of tooth marks (the hallmark of a harmless snake) on my skin. And then…nothing happened. Pretty boring dream, actually. But I figured out that my own subconscious was using snakes to symbolize problems that were far less worrisome than I made them out to be. Later still, my niece got a pet corn snake, who loved nothing better than to curl himself around a wrist and chill. That’s when my adult ego finally beat out my childhood fear; I wasn’t about to show a kid that I was afraid to hold a snake. So I let him slither onto my arm…and it was amazing. Now I would enjoy having a pet snake, but the only place we could keep one is in the cage with the guinea pig, and Precocious Daughter is against that idea, for some reason.
Then there’s the telephone. For years, I was terrified of making phone calls to people I didn’t know or who weren’t expecting my call. I suppose it was because when I was a kid, my dad was a computer guy (back when computers were room-sized and used punch cards), and he was frequently on call in case something went wrong at work. And typically, when his work did call, his reaction was less than pleasant. He also hated getting phone calls from telemarketers, and his reaction to those was unpleasant, as well. At some point, I came to fear that every call I made would be answered by someone like my dad, who didn’t want to talk to me and wasn’t afraid to tell me so.
I’m not exactly sure how I overcame this one, other than simply becoming more confident and less intimidated by my dad as I got older (as if that were at all simple). I still don’t love making blind calls, but usually, I can swallow my discomfort and just do it already. Ironically, over the past year nearly every phone call I received has brought bad news – bad news about selling my house, bad news from my ex, bad news about my parents’ health – and so I’ve developed a new fear of answering the phone. I’m hoping this is short-lived. One day the Lottery Commission might call and tell me I’m a millionaire, and I don’t want to send it to voice mail just because I’m afraid to answer.
While I’m proud of overcoming these fears, I have plenty of emotional dragons yet to slay. I’m still afraid of heights, dark enclosed spaces, and those dreams where you try to run from a zombie but can only move in slow motion (you too, right?) I’m pretty sure I’ll never be free from fear. And that’s OK. As long as fears keep me on my toes without knocking me on my ass, they can be useful buggers.
Tell me what you fear. It’s OK, this is a judgment-free zone. No need to be afraid.
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