Fear. It can be crippling. It can also change as we age. What’s your biggest fear right now at this moment? Will you have the same answer tomorrow?
When I was little, my biggest fear was abandonment. After my father passed away, my mother remarried the man who would end up raising me and shaping my life in ways I didn’t know were possible at the time. I was only four, which is how old my daughter is now. I didn’t understand everything that had happened. I just had a fuzzy memory of my mother holding me over the side of my father’s hospital bed and telling me to say goodbye. I hadn’t said anything; I’d just waved. Waving instead of speaking is something my daughter does sometimes when she’s apprehensive about something. She’s afraid of the dark and worries when she thinks I am mad at her.
Not long after my mother and stepfather got married, I began having a recurring nightmare. I think I was about six when it began and it happened several times during the next few years. I dreamt about having to go hunting with my stepfather, just the two of us. In the dream, he made me stand under the water in a creek so that he could stand on my shoulders and look for deer through his binoculars. When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I pushed him off my shoulders, and he fell into the water and hit his head on the rocks. He wouldn’t wake up. At that point, I would always wake up crying. Pretty twisted for a kid’s dream, huh?
I had some help from a wonderful school counselor, who I had thought of as a special friend. I didn’t realize until years later that I was being counseled. I cried a lot during the first several years of elementary school. It was hard for me to put into words what I was feeling, but looking back, I was missing my dad and didn’t completely have a grasp on the meaning of death. I had lost my dad and my grandfather in one year. I think my dad’s death affected me more because I was a bit older for his death, so it stuck in my memory more since I was there when he died. With my grandfather, it had been different. I was three, and I remember going to his house and looking for him in his recliner, but he wasn’t there. My aunt told me that he had died when I asked where he was. So death was the first significant thing in my life that messed me up and led to the fear. I’m not saying I’m special. A lot of people have to deal with that kind of pain at an early age. Eventually, my fear of abandonment lessened, and the nightmares stopped.
My next biggest fear was not fitting in. I’ve written before about feeling ugly while I was growing up. I don’t have a good explanation of why I thought I was unworthy or less than other people. For now, I will blame hormones, low self-esteem, and the general shittiness that comes with growing up. Luckily, the fear of losing myself outweighed my fear of not fitting in because when I was a teenager and was presented with the very real opportunity to partake in some illegal drugs, fear helped me walk away. Having survived high school, I know that life gets better. At least, that’s what I tell my son when someone makes fun of him. I tell him that some people are just mean and there’s nothing we can do about it except control our reactions. I told him that for some people, school is where they peak and then it’s all downhill for them after that. For people like he and I, we will reach our peak much later in life, and that’s okay. I sometimes think I am just now reaching mine.
At my son’s age, he doesn’t know that when it comes to parenting, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I just make up stuff as I go and hope I get through to him. Part of being an adult is not punching the little jerk who called my child ugly names. Another part is taking responsibility when we are the jerk. I was mean to someone during elementary. Really mean. I apologized at the time and became friends with the person, but years later I still felt guilty about the way I had behaved. I contacted the person on Facebook several years ago and apologized again as I was thinking back on my atrocious behavior. The person acknowledged that we were all jerks in elementary sometimes and then we had a good laugh about it.
During college, I feared that no one would ever love me romantically. It was before I realized that I needed to love and respect myself first before anyone else could fall in love with me. That didn’t stop me from making some really bad decisions along the way. My first real love scarred me so badly because it was mixed with so much fear and lack of respect for myself. It wasn’t a healthy relationship. It wasn’t really a relationship at all because he didn’t want a serious one and I did. I kept hanging out with him after a really scary night when I realized I was in love with him. I had it in my head that he could possibly love me too, but was afraid. Whatever he was feeling is his story, not mine.
My desperation was ugly, painful, and pathetic. I loved him so much that I didn’t have any energy left to stand up for myself—to not let myself be used and discarded. No matter how much the memories became romanticized in my head, at the end of the day, we were both stupid kids who didn’t know what the hell we were doing. He was a jerk to me, and I was psychotic—every single cliché of a crazy ex-girlfriend who never actually was a girlfriend. I forgave the guy a long time ago, but it took me years to forgive myself for what I had allowed to happen—the manipulation, the answering of “yes” to a question when my gut had told me to say “no,” and the waiting for him. My art professor gave us the assignment to draw a figure on a threshold. I drew a dark and twisty self-portrait which I titled “Fear.”
That fear of being alone stuck with me when I finally dated other people. After some casual dating with a couple of guys, my friend and I started a relationship. I didn’t elaborate on what happened with us during my love history story, but basically, he and I had been friends since freshman year. We had met online because he liked my SparkNotes profile statement of “I am currently between religions.” After chatting for several weeks, we realized we had mutual friends, so we met in person and continued to hang out at different times throughout the years. We spent New Year’s Eve together one year in his apartment, and his roommates all assumed we were dating. We never dated until I was in grad school. He was in love with someone from high school who didn’t love him back, and I was in the same situation with the guy I was seeing.
So Friend and I took comfort in each other after my heart was pulverized for the last time by the guy I loved and Friend’s loved one got engaged. We were both lonely and decided that we should get married. He told me he loved me and I said the same thing. After about ten weeks, he told me that he realized he wasn’t in love with me and that we shouldn’t get married. After he had suggested that we still “date” and I had told him to get the hell out of my apartment, our friendship and relationship was over. It took me longer than him to realize that the love I had felt for him wasn’t romantic. For a while, I wanted to get back together with him until I came to my senses.
All the heartache I felt after our breakup wasn’t really about Friend at all; it was about the first guy again—whom I had never fallen out of love with. Friend hurt me, but he also taught me that just having someone say “I love you” doesn’t mean it is real or that it will last. I needed that lesson to let go of that fear and just love myself. I also had to forgive myself for falling in love with the idea of him more than the actual him. (He’s married now and has three little boys. I ran into him and his wife at a children’s clothing sale and we exchanged pleasantries.)
I tackled my fear of being alone and gave the middle finger to the dating world for a while in 2003 after some advice from my stepfather. He told me that being confident and loving myself would make me more attractive to the right person. He said to stop looking and someone would find me and love me more than I could imagine. My mom had told me the same thing but I couldn’t hear it from her. After a tearful conversation with me telling her that maybe I was just one of those people who wasn’t supposed to have anyone, I took some time to reflect and realized that being alone was nothing to fear. I started enjoying my time alone and spending time with some friends. My heart was still broken, but it was beating and I was breathing so I stitched it up and tried not to worry so much. Then, in 2004, I met the man who would later become my husband.
Fear came back while I was dating Jonathan. I was worried that one fight would be the end of our relationship. But it wasn’t. The biggest fight we had while dating was when he asked me if I still had feelings for the first guy I had loved. I was honest, and it upset him, but we talked through it. The only way I could explain it was that I had given the other guy a piece of myself that I could never get back and I was still healing from that. That, in no way, meant that I didn’t love Jonathan. I was terrified that I would do something to screw up what we had, but we managed to work through everything and all the pain we had both experienced. It wasn’t long after that when Jonathan asked me to marry him. There was not even a second of hesitation before I said “yes” to spending the rest of my life with him.
My fear of abandonment resurfaced during the first year of our marriage. I worried that Jonathan would get bored with me. He was afraid that he wasn’t providing well enough for me. Silly things. I had a hard time a few months into our marriage when the first guy called me. I sat there on my couch staring at the phone in disbelief at the number being displayed. I hadn’t realized that I still knew the number by heart. I held the phone in my hand and let it go to voicemail. I felt sick to my stomach as I heard the alert a minute later that told me I had a voicemail.
My husband and I listened to the message together as the guy who had broken my heart told me that he had heard I had gotten married. He said he wanted to wish me happiness and good fortune. Jonathan said it was nice, but he knew the call had upset me. I was mad at myself for being upset and mad at the guy for calling me after so many years and wondered why the hell he still had my number. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I stayed up playing Bejeweled on my husband’s Xbox, so I wouldn’t have to think. After a couple of days, I was over it. Later, when a mutual friend got into an accident, I saw the guy again and introduced him to my husband and showed him a picture of my son. Jonathan and I have run into him several times since then, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I think my marriage is stronger than ever now. Jonathan and I have been together more than twelve years, married for eleven.
When my children were born, fear took on a whole new meaning. I think every good mom worries about the safety of her children. One of my biggest fears today is that something terrible might happen to one of them. I close my eyes and pray for their safety every single day. That’s all I can do to keep the fear from crippling me.
So, what is my biggest fear? Inadequacy. When I look in the mirror, I still see that four-year-old who misses her daddy, the frightened child with the nightmares, the 15-year-old reeling from rejection, the 18-year-old who fell in love with the wrong person and had her heart broken almost beyond repair, and the 22-year-old who took part in destroying a friendship. The 23-year-old who found her soulmate is there, too, with the 26-year-old who became a mother and the 28-year-old who held her mother while she cried at the funeral home the night after my stepfather died—the moment that still holds the title of the hardest thing I have ever done. Also in the mirror is the 30-year-old who endured a difficult pregnancy to bring her second child into the world and who took a leap of faith buying a fixer-upper dream home.
Who I see now is the 35-year-old who is finally accomplishing the dream of having her first novel published. I’m surprised when I glance in the mirror and see that I’m not 15 anymore, not 18, or 23 or 30. I fear that no one will like the novel or my writing—my voice. I fear that I won’t be a good enough wife or mother—which I feel like I fail at constantly with the forgotten awards assemblies and the lack of Pinterest-project Valentine boxes or handmade Halloween costumes. I fear that I won’t be good enough at work. All that fear can be exhausting. Fear takes me back in time to the emotions I felt when it first came into my life, and all I can do is go along for the ride.
When I fear that I’ve waited too long, I think of Mary Higgins Clark who had her first successful novel published when she was in her mid-40s. I think of Harrison Ford who worked as a carpenter before he tried acting. I think of Rachel Platten who is my age and is just now finding mainstream success as a singer/songwriter. It’s not too late to conquer the fear.
So what do you do with fear? You talk it out—or write it out in my case. You be brave. You pray if you believe in God. Having fear does not make you a coward. Crying or asking for help does not make you a coward. I am lucky to have a great role model with my mother, who is the strongest person I know. She taught me that being broken or afraid does not mean you have to stay that way—not when you have some damn good glue to put yourself back together again.
-Brandi Easterling Collins