As a teenager I spent a lot of time in my room watching TV movies that usually involved some sort of family tragedy: AIDS; homelessness; cancer. I filled my head again and again, tears streaming down my cheeks as I sat in the dark. I read Stephen King and then wondered why I had sweaty nightmares.
Then the hypochondria started. That’s the funny thing about fear. It takes different forms. Maybe for awhile you worry about the state of the world or someone getting killed in a car accident. Then you feel like you’ve gotten past that but suddenly you’re afraid something is going to happen to you. Sometimes you go through long stretches of not being fearful at all (these usually happened when I was nice and busy with life) and you think, hey, I’ve beaten this thing, only to see it rear its ugly head once again, in time.
Over the next 20 years, the list of conditions I at one point or another was convinced I had is downright laughable. Lyme disease, MS, ALS, brain tumors. Stomach cancer. Lung cancer. Throat cancer. Bone cancer. Any kind of cancer. I would never visit doctors claiming to have any of these ailments. Instead, I’d go in for a much smaller complaint…a sore elbow, an infected cut in the mouth. In my mind, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for the moment when the doctor would come in and put her clipboard down and sadly take my hand in hers and share the devastating news.
When I was 26, married but not yet with kids, the September 11 attacks occurred and suddenly my fear had a new focus. The hypochondria faded as I dwelled on the horror and tragedy and everything in its aftermath…the anthrax scare, the ever-smoldering buildings and missing people, the fear of flying. A typical person would have walked away from the news coverage after awhile. I didn’t realize it then, but I actually had an addiction to upsetting and troublesome things. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. And all the time in the background it fed the soundtrack that played even as I went to church and prayed and acted like a good Christian…
God is not good. I can’t trust Him. Bad things keep happening.
Three years later, Anna was born. You might think I then would have immediately jumped into adding my new daughter to my worry list, but no. An interesting thing happened. I disappeared into a baby bubble. I had two scares – the ultrasound that showed a “shadow” on her heart that turned out to be nothing, and a head injury when she was five months old that had us overnight in the ICU. I told myself I had learned to give my daughter over to God, that she was in His hands. Then I got blessedly busy with being a mom and loving life. I had an adorable baby, a loving husband, a new home. I was living the safe life I’d always dreamed of. The demons faded, until the night we got a phone call from Dan’s parents when Anna was about 18 months old. Dan’s mom had had a recurrence of melanoma. Nearly Stage 4 cancer. I looked online 10 minutes later and saw she had only a 60 percent chance of living 5 more years. That night, I tossed and turned all night.
The fear was back, big time. The bubble had burst. Somehow I had had this idea that I’d left the past behind me and done my dues, and that now I would live some sort of charmed life. I had always been looking for that time when there’d be nothing to worry about. I was beginning to realize that time was never really going to come.
This is the thing: fear is a thief. It robs you of the present; it robs you of joy; it robs you of strength and sometimes it robs you of your sleep and health. For me fear was a whisper that often came when I was in the midst of enjoying something. It visited when I was alone. It tormented in the quiet and dark hours until in time I didn’t remember what it was like to fully rest.
People cope with fear in different ways. Some numb it or bury it. Some people ignore it and act strong (I know several people, for example, who have addressed their fear of doctors by simply refusing to visit them). Some people talk to a professional and try medication. I don’t think this is a place for a debate about anxiety meds, and I do think they can be helpful, particularly for those whose brains are really wired to be fearful. One could say that was certainly me, and I wouldn’t argue. I can only say that I didn’t go the medication route because I always knew deep down I was missing something in this fight against fear. I needed to find it.
Something told me that part of this fight with fear had to everything to do with facing it.
To be continued...