The experiment begins: Why I decided to face my fears

I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy cat. Back in my latchkey kid days, I used to press the panic button on our home’s security system anytime I heard a menacing sound—say, the radiator clanking or a car backfiring on the street. In college, I wouldn’t try pot not because I adhered to a some Victorian moral code but because I was sure that the one time I did so, it would be laced with crystal meth. It took me until age 38 before I could sleep in my own house alone. But wait, there’s more: I am also fearful of bats, rats, heights, depths, cold calls, small talk, flying, clothes-shopping, confrontation, failure.

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  Scary things.

This is to say that, like most people to varying degrees, I’ve been well acquainted with fear, in its everyday, lowercase form. And like most people, I’ve compensated for it. I’ve climbed St. Paul’s Cathedral, exchanged forced niceties, picked up the phone, and so on. That changed in late 2013, when my amygdala, terrorist bitch that she is, took control and the era of capital-F Fear began.

Unlike the fleeting fears I’d had since forever (uh, what’s that sound?), this was no jolt of adrenaline in the night. My amygdala, the Voldemort lurking inside my brain, was charting a new course, in which fear took precedence, motoring down everything else in its path. And to my surprise, the constant presence of Fear didn’t make me feel scared; it made me feel… nothing.

If I had to pick a date when the Fear began, I might say November 23, 2013. On that morning, my 11-year-old daughter, B.—who had been suffering for two days with Fifth disease, a normally benign childhood affliction—awoke to discover that she couldn’t move her left leg. Overnight, it had frozen in a straight line, her toes rigidly contorted en pointe. 

I could also say the Fear started two weeks later, when B, now confined to a wheelchair, was diagnosed with reflexive sympathetic dystrophy. It is a rare and chronic neurological syndrome which corrupts communication between the brain and the nervous system, causing swelling, sensitivity to touch and terrible burning pain that registers at the very top of the McGill Pain Scale. Higher than the amputation of a digit, or childbirth.

Or maybe it was December 16, when B’s nerve block procedure (done with the goal of relieving her pain) precipitated a breakdown. She had woken up early from anesthesia to find several doctors attempting to bend her joints. Once she was able to utter sounds, she began to scream and didn’t stop for 45 minutes. I tried to calm her down, to reason with her, and got nowhere. I looked into her eyes, imploringly, trying to reach her. But she wasn’t there.

Or the day when one of her doctors tried to persuade me she didn’t have RSD at all, but was suffering from Hysteria and could only be cured by hypnosis.

Or when she woke up, yet another morning, and this time found she couldn’t move three of her limbs without searing pain.

Or New Year’s Eve 2013, when she lost the ability to open her mouth, to chew or to speak.

I do know the Fear was in full force by January 3, 2014, when we brought B to Robert Wood Johnson’s Children’s Specialized Hospital. I felt it as we struggled to place her inert, pain-wracked body onto a waiting room bench, which she kept slipping off of. I felt it after our meeting with the hospital staff, when they told us that, sorry, there was nothing they could do for her until she got well enough to enter the rehabilitation program. And when I averted my eyes from B, who chafed against the straps of the chair and flailed her one good arm, incoherent from the pain and shrieking in tongues. I remember falling to my knees. I remember crying. I remember asking how any child could be too sick to go into the hospital. But truth be told, I don’t know what I actually did. The Fear had separated me from myself; it was running the show, and I was merely an observer.

***

The Xanax-numb haze conferred by the Fear had its advantages. It allowed me to remain rational on the day that the nurses brought out “the lift.” The lift was the torture contraption designed to scoop up invalid patients and place them on a chair or toilet. It was mostly used for geriatric patients; B’s pediatric nurses hadn’t had much experience with it. It raised B up in the manner of a cartoon stork lifting a baby in its beak, except 100 X less gentle. It lurched, it froze, it keened, it forced B’s legs into a sprawling V, while her upper half flopped uselessly over the side of the seat. The nurses kept shaking their heads, checking and rechecking the manual. While B wept, I was able to clamber wordlessly over the bed and prop up my child’s head.

The Fear helped me get through the three days we had to “cast” her leg. I was supposed to be at the procedures for moral support. It didn’t turn out that way. B wouldn’t stay still; she kept writhing as two Amazonian women used all their power to bend her leg  at the knee into a simple right angle. They needed my assistance. So while they bent her legs, I held B’s torso down with all my might while she screamed and swore and vowed never to love me again. I blinked back tears (I didn’t want her to see them) and never let go.

***

B got better. She was released from the hospital in late February 2014. She regained her ability to sit, to chew, to stand—and by summer, to walk unassisted. And my husband and I were relieved. We told everyone that anyway.

But I still couldn’t really feel relief—or anything, for that matter. For me, the anesthesia hadn’t worn off. Perhaps it was reflexive self-protection, just in case B’s condition were to worsen again. Or maybe it was a wholly logical reaction to working in magazine journalism.

Before B got sick, I’d been planning to leave my glossy-magazine editing job. It had been a wonderful place to work, with smart and compassionate colleagues, but I was ready for new challenges. After B’s illness, however, I felt immobilized. Once I managed to stop fretting about B (would the RSD return? would she ever be 100% well again?), I’d turn my quavering attentions to the fear of losing my job—which automatically triggered nightmares about decimating our savings and having to move into our Honda. I couldn’t believe I’d considered leaving my position previously: Had I lost my marbles? Was I somehow unaware of the Death of Print Media and that I was lucky just to have a job?

I wasn’t just afraid of taking professional risks. Suddenly, everything seemed threatening: I stopped riding my bike, because I didn’t want to worry about the traffic. I didn’t want us to take a really nice vacation, because of the money. I didn’t really want to go out much, because it was so much easier and safer to stay home. My beautiful B was walking again; I was frozen in place.

And then, in late October, I got laid off.

Guess what happened next?

This.

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And this.

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And this.

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I baked cookies. I spent more time with my kids. I started writing things I cared about. No financial Armegeddon. No squalor. Our Honda was still just for driving.

***

One of my favorite movies is Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life. In the film, Rip Torn, an attorney in purgatory, tells Brooks’s deceased ad executive that the only way to get to heaven is to have faced as many of your fears as possible. That is the measure of a well-lived life.

Back in December, I started a little experiment for myself: To attempt to face one of my fears every week or two, no matter how big or bitty, for the next year. And now and then, to talk to some smart people (expert types) about fear and ways to keep it under control. And it occurred to me that this might be worth writing about.

I almost scuttled the idea. (A longtime editor, I am exceedingly good at killing ideas.) I was afraid it would look like one of those gimmicky I-did-this-for-a-year memoirs that were all the rage a while back. I worried it would make me look neurotic, or self-aggrandizing, or as though I thought I was the only one who ever went through a terrible illness and/or a layoff. Plus I read somewhere that blogs were so 2005.

I considered all these points. And then I started writing.