And for a brief period of time, I was not afraid to die. After I left my first husband, I became fearless for a short time. This is interesting because in our relationship I was the big scaredy cat. I was scared to fly. I was scared to drive in the mountains. I was even scared of the dark. I remember distinctly thinking, as I took my first plane ride without my first husband, I’m not scared anymore. If I die, so what, I die. People die every single day. It was a gloriously fun and reckless time in this way.
When I met my current husband, he admitted to having horrific panic attacks from time to time. But I still didn’t’ trust that he would understand mine until the first night I felt one coming on when we were together. I hadn’t had a panic attack in so long I wasn’t even sure that’s what was happening. We were lying in bed and I told him I thought I was beginning to have a panic attack. He was not the slightest bit ruffled. He calmly told me not to get up, to close my eyes and then he asked me a simple question. Where do you feel the most calm? Think of a place, he said, where you always feel calm, like everything is okay in the world. My mind immediately went to the swimming pool at New Mexico State University. It had only been a few months since I had graduated from there with my Master’s degree. I swam in that outdoor pool regularly. I especially liked doing backstroke and watching the birds flit back and forth between the flag-lines. This is where my mind went as my new boyfriend lay quietly next to me telling me that I was okay and that I was going to be okay, that I knew what this was and I knew how to ride it out. Stay in that same happy place, he said, until it passes. And it did.
As I’m writing about this, I know absolutely why I panicked in that moment. Falling in love again meant I no longer didn’t care if I died. I was attaching myself to someone again. The fear of that attachment being lost or changing or being damaged in anyway was already a little overwhelming. I knew I wasn’t ready – and I really wasn’t. But, we proceeded to fall in love anyway and very shortly after we met, I was pregnant with our first child.
This is another plane ride I remember well. I flew back home to Michigan, from Reno, NV (where I was working at my first official, salaried teaching gig at University of Nevada, Reno) all by myself for Thanksgiving. Tim and I had known for about a month that I was pregnant. I told him I had to make this trip alone because it was the last time I would ever get to be with my family by myself – from then on, it would always be me and this kid and… if we were lucky, it would be all three of us. On the plane, I remember thinking about my last trip to Thanksgiving with my ex-husband. It was an awful trip because we had already broken up but we were pretending to still be together so we didn’t ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. He held my hand when the plane took off (I know it’s a stupid Sinead O’Connor song but he really really did it) like he always did and I thought, I don’t need you to do that anymore. I might have even said that out loud. I wasn’t scared to fly anymore. But, then, suddenly on this last trip alone back home to Thanksgiving, with a baby growing like a flame inside of me, I was terrified again. I can’t die, I thought. Now, I can’t die because I have a baby. And my fear of death was thus reborn.
And I make it through most of my days not fearing death. But at the end of most days, when I’m lying in bed with Lucy (my second child), singing her to sleep and watching her eyes close and feeling her hands loosen on me, the gong rings in my ears again. Death sucks, it says. Someday death will take us from each other, it says. And I can usually hold off the actual panic but the crushing pain of that realization is often breathtaking.
I have attempted a few times in the past year to chronicle my “journey to wellness.” So far, it’s a long boring story that basically begins at birth. I have gone through many stages on my road to wellness. This most recent stage feels definitive. For the first time in my life, these past two or three years, I am finally putting what I have known about nutrition and eating for a long time, into actual practice. My main motivation for staying healthy is to not die young. But there are no guarantees. Being fit and healthy is only one factor in many that help us get to a ripe old age. This is THE factor that’s in our control – everything else is a crapshoot. The truth is, I actually probably have more of a chance of dying in a car accident on my way to or from work – which I do every day – than dying from this surgery. Why, though, does that fact not bring me any comfort at all?
One of my coaches sent me a great email about fear this past week: “running from a fear is more harmful than facing it. Panic comes in waves, and those waves never lose their size if we don't push right through them. The idea is that, when we begin to feel panic about one particular thing, we should allow that panic to run its course. Let it scare the shit out of us. Let it overwhelm us. It will not kill us, and it will fade faster that way. That doesn't mean the fear won't return, but the next wave won't be as overwhelming. And the wave after that will be even less intimidating. Eventually, if you haven't rid yourself of the fear entirely, you will at least be a seasoned surfer.
Not facing the fear, on the other hand, allows the anxiety to follow you and hurts your health more than facing it would. You end up multiplying the fear because now you not only have the fear ... you have a fear of the fear. And you end up mythologizing those waves when, really, they're just finite fits of chemical turbulence in our brain.” This is why "Fear is a Liar."
So, I’m not sure if what I’m doing is facing the fear or not but it sort of feels like it. If I’m saying it out loud, if I’m writing it down for the whole world to see, is that facing it? I hope so. I am definitely letting it scare the shit out of me. I guess I just want to make it clear to the Universe – since, the Universe is in charge of how things go – that I’d like to live to be a very old lady. I walked by a very old lady today raking the thatch from her yard today and I thought, “what a badass!” When I’m that old, I want to be out raking the thatch from my yard too – except I’ll be wearing really cute yoga pants.
I also feel it’s very important to note that in case the very worst thing possible happens during or after this surgery, I want my talented friends Michelle Westkamper and Rebecca Dopart – who do not even know each other – to play and sing “For Good” from Wicked at my funeral. I imagine Rebecca playing the piano and singing Glinda’s part and Michelle singing Elphaba’s part. Since Michelle and Rebecca don’t know each other, they’ll have to plan to visit Michigan for at least a few days before the funeral. My other friends wouldn’t want them to be lonely so everyone will come and it will turn into a gigantic party and, unlike my brother who didn’t want anyone to cry, I want to be clear that I am perfectly comfortable with y’all sobbing uncontrollably from time to time and in between that, soft whimpering cries will do. For god sakes, let there be plenty of chocolate. And dance your asses off!
So, there, I’ve said that – to me, that feels a bit like facing my fear. Considering what I want the world to look like for a few days after I’m gone. But, I’m not going anywhere. Not yet. What I’m doing is having this surgery which will enable me to continue to lead a healthy, active lifestyle so that in ten years, I can do an ironman so that my level of fitness will carry me through to the years it takes to get me to the point where I’m a fabulous super old little lady raking thatch in my front yard in super cute yoga pants.
The waves of fear about this surgery are going to continue to come. And I’m going to get very good at riding them. Bring it, Universe! I’m afraid but I’m still very much here and as long as I’m here, I’m surfing.
Fly, rake and keep on surfin’