If I’m being honest? Well, everything.
Let’s start with coconuts. If you’ve never spared a thought for what can fall out of trees and kill you, maybe you should. In 1777, a woman in the Cook Islands was killed by a falling coconut. In 1952, a coconut murdered an infant. In 1966, a perfectly innocent man was killed by a coconut while eating lunch in Papua New Guinea. And in 1991, someone attending a funeral in Sri Lanka died from a falling coconut. So for heaven’s sake, next time you’re anywhere near coconut trees, look up because those things are bloodthirsty killers.
I’ve also received electric shocks twice, one even blackening my hand and fingernails, so I am very afraid (I think reasonably) of electrocution killing me if it happens a third time.
Therefore, I worry about toasters, outlets, electric razors, stoves, cords, computers, light bulbs, and just general electrical malfunctions.
I’m afraid of walking into spiderwebs or being attacked by insects. This fear I blame on my father. Ever the sadist, he learned he could terrorize me by bringing spiders into my bedroom and holding them under my nose or leaving them under my bed. What a guy.
The summer I was nine, my grandpa collapsed in front of me with a stroke, and this taught me to expect that anyone may suddenly drop dead. Which, by the way, is true. So enjoy your time while you have it.
I am also afraid of being crushed to death in an earthquake, plummeting to my death in a faulty elevator, being locked into a room and left to starve, seeing ghosts, or being burned alive in my home.
Two years ago I learned this is a perfectly sensible fear. I woke up to the smell of smoke, someone pounding on our front door. Firefighters were evacuating two apartment buildings. They rushed us all out into the parking lot. Josh and I packed our cats into their carriers, grabbed our meds and wallets, and bumbled down the stairs to join our neighbors in the parking lot. We waited there for I don’t know how long. An hour? Two?
In the midst of trauma, people try to reclaim a sense of normalcy. All of us stood in the cold, dewy grass wearing nothing but our pajamas, do-rags, robes, and flip-flops. Yet we shook hands. Introduced ourselves. Greeted the neighbors we already knew. We were able to pretend for maybe ten minutes that it was a neighborhood barbecue. And then, inevitably, we fell silent in our huddle of three or four dozen frightened, helpless people. Our homes were quite possibly about to burn down. And no one knew for sure that everyone had got out. We tallied cars, shared what information we had about people’s work schedules, guessed where people might be. But we didn’t know. We could only stare, numb and stupefied, as firefighters doused our roof with water and vanished into the smoke that had obscured everything else.
So yeah, fires can take you at any time.
I am also afraid of suffocating (men have strangled as well as nearly drowned me). I’m afraid of being pinned down, which has preceded nearly every assault I’ve survived so far.
And I’m afraid of having a stroke or aneurysm, mistaking it for a migraine (which I have about 15 to 20 days a month), and doing nothing while my brain slowly dies.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So yes, I’m basically an encyclopedia of human fears.
Thing is, I’m hardly alone in that.
Roughly 18% of the U.S. population has a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Now with the pandemic, growing struggles for basic human rights, and what is likely to be a contested election on our hands, anxiety is on the rise. The Washington Post reported this spring that closer to a third of Americans are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
As I mentioned in my previous post, PTSD is not an anxiety disorder, but there is some symptom overlap—as is the case for many mental health disorders.
So basically, an unprecedented number of Americans are suffering from uncontrollable worry, constant fear, and overwhelming sadness. This pandemic, and the heartless indifference towards human suffering we’ve witnessed, has cost many of us a great deal.
The end result is that many of us are unwell, or more unwell, than we have ever been before. And that can feel like a helpless, hopeless thing.
When I’m confronted by something unpleasant, I have two competing impulses. One: Race away from it and hide in a dark, quiet closet until it goes away. Two: Leap from a diving board and plunge right into it, struggling against the terror until I conquer it.
Both, it turns out, are faulty.
While the old adage that we have to face what we’re afraid of is true, we gain absolutely nothing from forcing ourselves to stride into a lion’s cage and lock the door behind us. Locking myself in with a wild animal is just dumb. And that’s what our fears are: wild.
Contrary to popular film and best-selling pap that encourages us all to believe that fairy tales come true, fear can be conquered, racism is easy to solve, all gay people are carefree, and sexism doesn’t exist—most of us will always be afraid of something.
There’s nothing wrong with fear. The first time I felt fear instead of numbness during an assault was the first time I fought back. Fear is useful. It’s protective. And anyone encouraging you to get rid of it should be considered with suspicion.
So while running towards what we’re afraid of can make things worse—by putting us in needless danger or intensifying our terror until it overwhelms us—so too can running away from it. In fact, as Tull, Gratz, and Chapman (2016) point out in their book The Cognitive Behavior Coping Skills Workbook for PTSD, “The more you avoid, the more you confirm the idea that what you’re afraid of is dangerous and should be avoided.”
So what do you do?
Because yes, you absolutely cannot walk into that cage and face those fears when you are already underwater, five seconds from drowning. You can’t. You shouldn’t. It won’t help you.
But you have to eventually.
So you train until you become a lion tamer.
Becoming a lion tamer is different for each one of us. It depends on what you are afraid of. It depends on what resources you have. It depends on what you start with.
For me, it meant spending the entire month of June tracking my symptoms and learning, in the course of a usual day, what made them worse.
Thinking about the past: worse. Intrusive memories or reminders of the past: worse. Disagreements: worse. Nightmares: worse. Meditation that wasn’t guided, just me sitting alone with my thoughts: much worse. A message from work where I received bad news or even just a setback: much worse. A conversation where someone dismissed, minimized, or talked over me: so much worse.
It also meant I spent a few minutes every day trying out tools that might, in the aftermath of a trigger, help me return to baseline more quickly. These include slow breathing and deep breathing practices. Mindfulness can also help. So can progressive muscle relaxation. And regular exercise, of course, decreases tension and anxiety as well as enhances sleep, mood, and confidence (Tull, Gratz, & Chapman, 2016).
Most meditation apps offer some form of guidance for these practices, but I usually turn to PTSD Coach, which also helps me track symptoms and measure which tools help and which don’t. I also like exercise trackers and have used everything from pen-and-paper to preloaded apps on my phone to specialized apps like MapMyFitness. Recording what I did and how I felt afterward has been a huge help when it’s time to reflect, at the end of each week, on what worked and what didn’t.
Each week, I set aside an hour on Sunday night to reflect on how the week went. I use my PTSD Coach to see if symptoms got worse or better. And I look at my records of what tools I used and how they helped (or didn’t).
So in June, I learned some things. I learned that progressive muscle relaxation is not for me. I’ve known people who swear by it, but any increase in tension can fire off a migraine for me. No good.
Meditation is also tough for me when I’m having a hard time because I just end up ruminating, becoming angrier, more distressed, and more triggered than when I started.
However, deep breathing and slow breathing both work wonders for me if a calm, soothing voice is talking me through it. For me, though, exercise is the number one tool. I’ve always gone for a walk when my rage spirals out of control. And when my hopelessness overwhelms me, dancing or jogging have worked wonders. Now I know why.
We’re all different. But the point is that every tool is, on some level, a skill. And when we’re in a crisis, we don’t have time to get better at something we’re bad at. So I choose the tools that I already know how to use, things that come naturally.
Still, this is only the third step. This is the time to pack before the journey. It’s worth spending a month on that to ensure I have everything I need, and nothing more. I know the next steps will plunge me into the woods that I have avoided for so long, examining a past I wish I didn’t have. I don’t want to map the consequences of that past because I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t cause it. I don’t deserve this life sentence. But I have to navigate it all the same.
At a certain point, my rage at my past has become just an excuse. I have to move forward. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. My fear is not an enemy. It’s my companion. And I’m one step closer to being able to distinguish between healthy fear and unhealthy fear.
First, you learn to tame the lion.
Then, you learn to travel with it.
And finally, the two of you together learn what to run from and what to face.
After three decades of trauma, my lion is fierce and forever wild, and I expect that we will never be companionable. But I respect it. And that’s a start.
The rest? It will probably take what life I have left. But I’d rather that than no life at all.
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*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.