March 8, 2014

Facing Down the Fear.


“No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear…the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.”

~ Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times


I am not afraid of spiders, snakes, public speaking, blood, cities, heights, airplanes, or the dentist.

But I am afraid of other things. Those fears are so deeply entrenched that their roots are decades old, with tips that entwine with the very marrow of my bones.

I have always squandered energy on the illusion of holding off the Scary Things. I construct byzantine cages to keep myself “safe.”

A lesson kept showing up: when I faced the fear it lost its power over me and I was stronger than I’d imagined. The “worst” thing almost never happened, and even when it did, I survived. I resisted that lesson with fanatical and preternatural willpower.

True story: years ago I began to get collection calls from a “Mrs. Johnson.” I didn’t understand how just one student loan had gone to collections when I had consistently been in touch with the lenders and made arrangements, but I didn’t dare question her.

Thus began a reign of terror that went on for months. Mrs. Johnson was trained to humiliate and paid bonuses to shake down scofflaws. She pushed all my buttons about guilt, and fear and inadequacy. I tried the whole “I’m a good person can we work this out” thing. I told her I was working part time, but that I had two sick, elderly parents for whom I was responsible.

She said “I never heard such a thing! What kind of grown up person owes this much money and doesn’t take a full time job to pay it off? Who do you think you are?” I believed her.

Week after week she escalated: I was lazy, she was going to take our house and empty our accounts. She would not accept any kind of payment plan. I considered seriously the fact that if I killed myself the debt would die with me and I would have peace.

A calm, wise friend suggested that I talk to a lawyer. I resisted, because I was too ashamed to tell another living soul what I had done.  I had destroyed my family’s security by being irresponsible and dodging my obligations.  I hyperventilated over antipasti in an Italian restaurant, and fought even the suggestion that I take a step towards a possible solution.

“But you don’t understand” I told her. “My mom just had a kidney transplant and my dad has heart trouble and I have a half-day kindergartner and I can’t go to work full time right now because Rob travels and who would take care of SAM, and I can’t get a full-time law job fast enough to pay these people because I haven’t practiced for years…”.

I finally agreed to see a lawyer, a friend who was happy to help for no charge, because I’d been kind to his disabled daughter.

He did not blanch when I told him the story.

He called Mrs. Johnson and told her that she was not to contact me until she was able to produce documentation that the loan actually existed.

She couldn’t find it. There was no basis for a debt. It was probably a mistake.

That was the end of it, after I let it go on for months because I was afraid to look at it closely. It was easier for me to believe that I was the scum of the earth than to ask for help and clarity.

Did I learn from that experience? Did I change based on the clean, cool relief that came with facing fear head on?

Not hardly. I was still terrified of the scale at the doctor’s office, terrified that my quarterly blood tests results would be “bad,” terrified that I was going to get fired, terrified that my husband would get fired, and terrified that my parents would die.

And all of those things happened, except one. I lived through them, faced hard truths, and slowly (really slowly) began to see that there was always a way through, a way to face reality, take a hit and come out stronger and wiser. There was no magic formula; I had to trust myself to figure things out and remind myself that if I did it before, I could do it again.

So recently, when I needed to turn over a big rock and look at yet another terrifying thing, my first impulse was to put it off some more. I probably couldn’t do anything about it anyway, I told myself, and maybe it would resolve itself if I waited. (Neither of which was actually true).

As usual, ignorance was not bliss. Not knowing the truth kept me awake at night to create elaborate, embellished scenarios about how awful things might be and how unfair it all was and how I was under so much stress already that I didn’t need more bad news.

This morning I dug down to the bottom of my growing stability and strength and I turned over that rock. I surrendered to reality, invited it in, and told myself that no matter what I found, I could work with it accept the truth and move forward.

After all that, there was nothing much there. No monsters, no trauma, just a little problem easily solved with a phone call. Which I made immediately, rather than letting it fester into yet another Scary Thing.

My first impulse may always be to build a wall, to run away, to fantasize, catastrophize, panic and avoid until I can do little else. But this time, today I stopped running and stood my ground.

And standing on that ground, right now, I feel my heart slide down from my throat to my chest. I feel the lowering of my shoulders, and the slowing of blood in my veins. Hope seems real again, and peace and even joy. I pray that I can remember this feeling the next time I’m afraid.

I pray that this becomes my habit and my refuge, this facing of the truth.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Pamellah Hein on Flickr



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