Recently I agreed to cover a friend’s class while she was out of town. The night before the class, I felt a familiar knot of anxiety. I had felt this same knot the first day I taught a class, the first day of graduate school, the first day of college, the first day of any job I ever had. This anxiety and fear has always been with me.
When I was child and teenager, I would describe places as territories. Any place that caused the knot—which seemed to physically interrupt the ebb and flow of my body, which seemed to be like a knot in piece of wood, which also seemed to be a clenched fist in my gut—was a place that was outside of my territory and most places were. The very act of driving down a neighborhood street that I was unfamiliar with was enough to cause this anxiety. Walking up to some door for the first time, I would, and still, imagine what I would do if this was the wrong house or if this was the wrong date and time. The worst for me was on family vacations. I could calm myself by saying that the places we visited were meant for tourists that they welcomed strangers, but if we stopped at a grocery store in a strange city for supplies it terrified me. Surely, the staff and other customers would recognize that we were strangers that we did not belong there, and then they would…I was never quite sure what they would do. Taunt us, throw things at use, torture us in a horror movie sort of way. Even as a child I understood that these outcomes were unlikely, but still I felt the fear.
Fear is not always bad. You should trust your gut. If a stranger knocks on your door trust your instinct to not open it, even if the stranger becomes insulted at your rudeness and wonders why you can’t see through the peephole that he’s not a serial killer. If you find yourself at a party were you feel unsafe, leave even if your friends are angry at you for dragging them away from a good time. If something about a parking lot seems off, bug the security guard, get him or her walk you to your car. These are all good instincts that should be trusted.
But for all the good that fear does, it can also be crippling. I wouldn’t have been able get a job or go to school, if I didn’t ignore the fear I feel when entering a new building. I wouldn’t be able to leave the house, if I gave into the anxiety. Hell, I wouldn’t be able to sit down at my computer and write these words much less post them in a place where anyone can see and judge them. I would never get to try new restaurants and to explore.
When I was teenager my film tastes were different from my friends, which meant I often found myself alone in a theater watching films like The Importance of Being Ernest or The Exorcist re-release. If I listened to my fear, I would’ve missed out. Being a girl alone is scary and with good reason. There were many moments where being alone seemed to expose me to danger. Sitting in an empty movie theater, a man sat down right behind me even though every other seat was available, even though I sat in an aisle seat (an easy escape). In a diner reading a book, some stranger saw my solitude as an invitation to sit down at my table and start a conversation, asking if I was waiting for someone, asking questions where the answers seemed to suggest the chances of people missing me if I were to disappear. Hell, even walking down the street men yell nasty things, pull up in their cars and ask if I need a ride (even walking through a parking lot with my car keys in hand). These are all situations where fear is the necessary and the correct response.
The only way to avoid them is to never leave the house, but I have a life to live. All I can do is try to be aware of my surroundings and even rude sometimes. In the movie theater, I stood up, moved to the other side, sitting a few rows back, so I could keep an eye on the man during the film. In the restaurant, I was polite, but I paid my bill as quickly as possible and left—talking on a cell phone to friend. I would not hang up until I was in the car with the doors locked and the engine running. In these situations, I would like to hope that these men had good intentions and were just oblivious to why their behavior would be a nerving to a teenage girl, but I can’t know for sure.
Fear, for all it does to keep you alive and safe, is also embarrassing. I was embarrassed that I was rude to these men, but embarrassment has little to do with keeping one safe.
I’m embarrassed that after I watch a horror movie I need to turn on the lights in the house. Many friends who share my love of horror will point out that they can no longer be scared because they don’t believe in ghosts or zombies, as though fear is linked to belief. I do not believe in ghosts. I turn on every light in the house not to keep the spirits at bay, but because I know how the eyes can play tricks on you that a shadow in a dark room can become a figure. I turn on the light because imagination is what scares me, and the idea of seeing something that is not really there is perhaps scarier than ghosts.
As you, dear reader, can see, for someone who is often afraid and feels anxiety whenever entering a new place or situation, I do a lot to court that fear. I watch horror films even though I know I’ll give myself nightmares. I go to new places and dare do things alone. I even subbed for a friend, though the very idea caused me anxiety.
Fear is to be trusted; it tells you when you’re entering a new territory where you’re unsure of what will happen. But not all fears are equal. When I entered my friend’s classroom, I feared that I’d embarrass myself and let her down, and while these things could have happened they were risks I can take. The time in the movie theater and the diner what I feared was much worse, so I listened to instinct. Being aware of our surroundings is not a bad thing.
In graduate school, a professor told our class that the subjects that frightened us were what we needed to write about. She was right. Only then do we become super aware of the words that we are putting on the page, become aware of what we’ve been avoiding. When we write about things we are comfortable with, we do not scrutinize the corners the way same we scrutinize the rooms in scary old house.
Perhaps my love of horror films is connected to my love of writing. In both, I face things that I could easily hide from, things that will give me nightmares. But when the credits role or I step away from my keyboard, I’m safe at home. Fear is necessary and not to be avoided. It tells us when to run, and it tells when to turn on the lights and scrutinize what once was shadow.