Gratitude, Joy, Oneness and Service (Day 1014 – Day 1024)
I don’t usually ask friends for a theme on which to write, but lately, my thoughts have lately been rather too singularly focused and so it is helpful. Today, I am grateful to my friend CMF, who has asked me to write about fear.
Fear is probably the oldest of our emotions, linked to chemical reactions in our animal brain, the amygdala. As we have evolved out of the wilds, so have our fears. We fear becoming something we do not want to become or not becoming the person we believe we were meant to be. And we fear being perceived in a way that would be damaging to our ego. Unless we have a pathological dysfunction, each of us suffers from a myriad of fears.
What is the source of all our fears? And where does it begin?
According to research by Dr. Jee Hyun Kim, fear and anxiety begins in childhood and what we don’t resolve in childhood stays with us, to be resolved as adults. Yet children, if provided an intervention, are much better able to resolve these fears than the adults they become.
I have only a couple of memories from my early childhood. Like most introverted children, I had one or two playmates and I was inseparable from them. When I was a child of 5 or 6, I developed a debilitating fear of dying in my sleep. Every night before bed, I made my mother check that my heart was still beating, and that my belly button was not bleeding. I was hysterical at bedtime, and this lasted for over a year. My mother didn’t understand what all this weird behavior was about and dismissed me as being silly and most likely trying to stall at bedtime.
What she didn’t realize was that although she may have known that my best friend and classmate had died suddenly that year, – and, in retrospect, I’m not sure that she did know it – she probably didn’t know what I knew: that my best friend had died in her sleep of heart failure and internal bleeding from a hole in her heart.
I can’t blame my mother for not knowing this. As soon as I heard of my friend’s death, a part of my brain that contained all the memories of her was suddenly closed. It was like a giant metal shutter had come down and walled off that part of my mind from the rest of me. Now, as an adult, I understand that was my way of coping with severe trauma, but it appears that the adults around me didn’t recognize it at that time. I still have no recollection of my friend, to this day.
What I learned about death was that it didn’t just happen to old people. It could happen to children, and when it happened, you went away forever and you were forgotten. This is something that not a lot of adults truly want to face, but it is a fact I faced at the age of 6.
Like many children, I went to bed every night with a prayer begging the angels to come and take our souls if we should die in our sleep. It probably scared most children getting tucked in for the night, to have to pray to be taken in their sleep! We didn’t pray for salvation should we die when we woke, oh no…sleep!…that was the realm of death. My friend was proof.
To soothe myself in the wake of her death, at bedtime, I returned to sucking on a baby pacifier and I rubbed my own soft spot between my nose and lip, just mothers do to soothe a baby to sleep. (If you identified ‘oral fixation’ you win a golden prize) I knew I was too old for such things, but I did what I needed to do. I was ashamed, and I became isolated from other children, unable to attend or have sleepovers for fear of ridicule. I deprived myself of the friendships that might have helped me grieve and move on from the loss of my best friend.
My father did not approve of this regression. It became one of the many subjects of arguments that erupted between my mother and father, once the children were in tucked up in bed and out of earshot. Unable to sleep, I would lay in bed, listening to them argue and worry about what would become of me if the fighting escalated further. This just made my need for the pacifiers all the more intense.
One night, without warning, my parents took away my pacifiers and forced me to go to bed without them.
I fought off sleep, every night, and as my elder sisters snoozed in their beds, I had no recourse but to listen to the discussions that led to disagreements that no longer included my pacifiers but had moved on to arguments that led to shouting followed by deathly silence. I lay awake paralyzed with fear.
Having exhausted my mother’s patience on my nocturnal death rehearsal, and my father’s patience with my weakness for pacifiers, I found myself alone and in the dark, and I felt, at the age of 6, that I was truly on my own. Too old for bedtime stories, I listened to the CBC television, broadcast on the radio. The sounds of crime dramas filtered out the sounds of the arguments around me.
Pacified by murders and burglaries, I learned to sleep. A few short years of sleep followed, until Hollywood decided to take a crack at scaring the daylights out of the entire planet, just as I was hovering around puberty. As my body was changing in ways I couldn’t understand or control, there on the screen was a young Linda Blair thrashing around the room, atop her bed, possessed of the Devil. Every time I had a hormonal impulse, or a naughty thought, I was convinced I was possessed. I went as far as to beg my mother to call the priest to exorcise me!
Demonic possession was more than my mother could handle. Don’t be silly, she told me. She had her own worries. And apparently, so did my father. Suddenly, and completely, he moved across the country, and my sister soon followed. He was transferred with his job, but we stayed behind to sell the house. As days turned into months and years apart, it didn’t feel that way. It was just me and my mom left behind.
He visited every month, but the arguments got worse, when he did. At night, before he would leave for the red-eye flight, my father would slip into my bedroom and talk to me when I should be sleeping. And his regrets came flooding out. I witnessed a heaviness, beyond my childhood ability to comprehend, that seemed to weigh on him. He would always leave with the parting thought – which he probably meant as an endearment – that I was his last child, his baby and, as he said, “his last hope.”
Afraid of sleep, afraid of my body, afraid of my thoughts, how could I bear the weight of carrying my troubled father’s last hope? When I did manage to sleep, like a child possessed, I started sleep walking into my father’s bedroom, whenever he wasn’t home. And then, I stopped sleeping altogether, until dawn.
My mother struggled through a marriage at a distance, menopause and all that means for a woman, and I was largely on my own to struggle through the seeming demonic possession of puberty. I learned to push down my silly feelings, to stay awake until dawn, and lest I become like Linda Blair, I screwed the lid on tight.
I was a relentless, restless, reclusive pressure cooker.
In my twenties I developed anxiety, panic attacks and a phobia that seemed to be about a fear of losing control. I had a very complex melange of thoughts, beliefs and maladaptive behaviors to work through. But work through it, I did. And, while I learned to sleep before dawn, I never managed to do so without the light on. To this day, I sleep with a light on.
I am grateful for the lessons I received in cognitive behavioral therapy that helped me remove the lid of the pressure cooker and look inside. As I challenged my beliefs and thoughts, I learned that it is possible to experience and accept the presence of agonizing fear and still face it and move forward in life. As I faced down my fear, it always came down to this essential question: What is the worst that can happen?
The answer, when the spiral was fully unraveled, was the point where we began, in childhood.
The worst that can really happen is death.
By the time I was 20, I had lost a childhood best friend, witnessed a fatal motorcycle crash, lost classmates to car accidents, a beloved boy to a camping accident, 4 high school friends to drunk drivers, a flatmate, two cousins, both grandfathers, and an aunt. I had no illusion of living forever.
And then my mother died.
It was beyond my ability to make sense of that event. Over the many years that I grieved her, intensely, I asked myself: what is the worst thing about dying?
Recently someone said that they admired me and my bravery in setting off across the world and making a life for myself. Many times, people have told me they admire me for travelling solo around the world and for pursuing my passions without the support of others. But, you see…even though I managed to accept death, all my brave actions come from fear. My lingering fear is the deathbed regret.
I watched my mother die at a young age, with unfulfilled dreams and missed opportunities.
When I was 16, my mother and I went to Key West. On our last night, she wanted to go watch the sunset and I wanted to go watch some TV special about a rock band. I was petulant and I won the battle. We’d be back in Key West, I reasoned. We’ll do it next time, I said.
As a teen, I had no way of knowing that we would never get back to Key West together, and that she would never see that sunset over Cuba again.
A few years later, as an adult, I went back to Key West and watched the sunset. But symbolic gestures would never give her that last sunset that she missed, because of me. It is a regret that I will live with, all my life. I decided that the best way to learn from that mistake would be to never take for granted that there would be a next time. And, so, my motto became: Do It Now! I stopped being held back by a fear of dying and I started living.
Like all of us, I am still afraid of a painful or difficult death. I am afraid of dying alone and unloved, because of my choices to live an independent life, to remain unmarried and childless and by my choice of partners. But more devastating to me is the thought of a death that comes before I have fulfilled my purpose.
If I were to die today, my deathbed regrets would be that the relationship with the young man remains unresolved and that I lost a meaningful relationship. I have apologized for my transgressions but I would regret not holding him accountable for the ways he treated me with a lack of mutual respect. I would regret that I was not what he needed in that moment, and that I didn’t leave him feeling that I accepted him, his needs and his limits, as well. I would regret that neither of us managed to slow things down and take space, even though we both knew we needed that. I would regret that he might associate our relationship with sadness or anger or fear rather than remember that there was love. I would die with the knowledge that the last time we spoke, his words were aggressive and unkind and would feel deprived of a heartfelt apology based in self-reflection and remorse. And, I would be sad for him that not returning to make amends might one day become his own deathbed regret.
I would also regret that I did not live to see my father really accepted me or my dreams. Despite telling him over and over that writing was like breathing to me, and that my dream was to create my body of work, he always asked me what I wanted to do with my life, as if he hadn’t heard me. He cannot see outside of his world view and so, he cannot see me. Yes, I would regret not holding him to account for treating me like I don’t exist, but I would also regret being withholding towards him.
Other people’s acceptance or lack of acceptance of us is not something we can change. And so, if I died today, my greatest regret would be that I didn’t accept and fully mourn that I could not be who they wanted me to be, and simply see, hear, accept and love myself in the way they could not, and move on to become who I am meant to be. I would regret that I didn’t find a way to let them know every day that although they couldn’t give me what I needed, I still loved them and accepted them. And I would regret wasting so much time feeling hurt about not being seen by men who could not see beyond themselves, when that time could have been better put into living my purpose.
I am alive and they are as well, and as long as this holds true, there is still hope that I can resolve what remains to be resolved and make my decisions based on a motivation to fulfill my own purpose.
And still…I will always regret that I never shared the sunset in Key West, with my mother, one last time. I have lived and continue to live my life, as much as possible, to add no more of those types of regrets to the list. I have sought to learn to walk my path in awareness of the fragility of life, and navigate between reckless abandon and the paralyzing fear that comes with that awareness.
Writing about fear (my topic was not courage, but alas, fear) is a difficult thing to do, if the goal is to be uplifting. But, in the telling, I have re-lived and connected seemingly unrelated events in my life and felt a Oneness with, and a tenderness for, all the many selves I have been and the many selves I hope yet to be on this journey. It might seem difficult to find gratitude in those moments, but looking back, I can see how they are the threads with which the tapestry, that is my life, has been woven. I am grateful for it. I may get t-boned in a car accident right after I post this, but I have this moment, with you. It gives me a quiet and humble joy to think that maybe someone might be moved by something I have shared here or through the last 1024 days, and if I can be of any service in this one storytelling, it is to encourage others to really listen to children, and to provide them the security to help them rise in power and face their fears, in their own way, and in their own time. Anxiety in children is not silly and there is no room for tough love with children.
In the past few weeks I have noticed many friends reveal a growing awareness that life is so short. Yesterday I celebrated the birthday of a long time friend now in her forties, and I thought about a question the young man asked me in December. “Are you afraid of growing old?” he asked. It is a question that only a young person would ask because it is not the staving off old age but the staving off of the alternative to growing old that motivates us all. If there is any meaning in this story, it is that we can choose to live in the shadow of the fear of death, or we can embrace it and live so that we will have no regrets when the inevitable comes. From cradle to grave, we know the truth: nobody gets out of this life alive. So, let’s make the most of it. And, let’s Do It Now!
For what are you most grateful, right now?