[Editors’ content warning: mention of mental health issues and eating disorders]
Fear starts young I’ve found. The notions of purity attached to youth make for a perfect blank and believing slate from which fear manifests. I was, for a time, clinically afraid. I think the longevity of my exposure to fear has provided both a safeguard by which I am now very familiar with it and a false sense of security since fear, by nature, can never be fully known. As a young child, I suffered from night terrors, most of which followed the same pattern – the feeling of being hunted. Every sleep of mine was punctured by the sense that I was being watched and followed. This kind of fear is more refined than the modern horror movies which favor immediate capture and release. In this way, much of my childhood was clouded by unease, a kind of chronic fear that seeps into even the safest of places. I slept on the top bunk of the bed and would hesitate each time I went to climb up or down. To plunge my foot into the darkness that enveloped each stair would certainly end with my being grabbed by some greyish hand and heaved into the darkness, never to return. To say the least, I had a flair for the dramatic.
Sadly, my imagination proved to pale in comparison to the real world as far as sources of fear go. I remember when I first learned what anorexia is, and because I too at the tender age of 14 hated my body, I was tormented by the idea that I would one day become anorexic. It became an obsession, this fear, and innately pathological. Thoughts can be powerful and persuasive guises worn by fear. My entire sense of self became distorted and haunting. If I can say one thing of my life, it is that I have trembled at the foot of my own mind’s capacity to create and destroy; at its ability to simulate realities. Though I was not in fact being hunted, nor was a creature from the abyss lurking in the shadows to grab my foot, nor was I diagnosed with anorexia, my fear of these potential realities so entangled me that I felt as though I was.
Nothing seemed to penetrate this cloud of dread until I was posed a serious question by a little girl sitting on the sidewalk watching bugs. My immediate reaction to her friendliness towards the crawling critters was gross outrage, to which she simply responded without looking at me, ‘why would you be afraid?’. I had never been given the opportunity to question my fears, never mind interact directly with them of my own free will. So, I sat down with her and mirrored her actions, bringing my face right to the ground to inspect the tiny details of each ant or beetle, even picking them up. There was a wonder to it, marveling at these creatures whose fear of me surely rivaled mine of them. I began to think of fear as a door, one that you could gape at in horror or open to face its true form. It was then that I started using curiosity as an antidote to fear. If one can understand fear, even just get a mere glimpse of its humanity and innocence, then fear will tremble before you.
Curiosity compels us to walk right up to what frightens us and turn on the light. Have you ever considered that when fear shakes you, screams at you, pulls you to take a step closer into the dark, it’s because it is trying to tell you something? Darkness is a weak hue to say the least – all you need to do is shine a bit of light on the subject to discover that all along it was the truth hidden beneath its shade. Fine, maybe peeking behind the curtain is the result of a somewhat morbid curiosity, yet it still has an allure to it doesn’t it?
As a teenager, my travels within fear grew far and wide. I was terribly drawn to the macabre. Speaking tenderly of Edgar Allen Poe’s deep sorrow with great sympathy, and gazing wide-eyed at the very simple act of magnification that Hitchcock used upon everyday unease to create uncanny semblances of real life through the lens of horror, I was entranced. I ran toward gothic literature with abandon, finding it to be a truer version of life than any other. I was, and always have been, an emotionally charged individual. So anything which leaned into emotion, even uncomfortably so, was right up my alley. I actually wrote my college entrance essay about a cemetery. It was the favorite place prompt and I was completely serious in deeming it so. If you haven’t caught this by now I will tell you, I was not a popular kid. It was likely due to the fact that I had a ghost as an imaginary friend when I was six. So, while other teens revelled in testing the limits of their youth, I contemplated the beauty of mortality. Death has never scared me, living always has.
The reality I evaded so precariously in high school was that fear serves a purpose. In my defense, the way I felt fear was debilitating and pervasive. I was not exactly open to the idea of thanking fear at this point in my life. This resentment of fear would in turn make for an erratically indecisive person. In the years to follow, I swung back and forth between the extremes of rejecting fear and obeying fear, constantly at odds with my right to autonomy and my cowering in submission. Fear was the gatekeeper between hiding myself from the world and claiming who I actually was in the light of day. That is what I was afraid of, really, at the end – myself.
I had good reason to be too. When I arrived at university I began hurtling out of the orbit of my own wits. It was at this time that I became acquainted with the full gamut of emotions, like seeing in color for the first time. I was addicted to eliciting them, even those that were painful or embarrassing. Looking back, I recognize those behaviors and feelings as signs of what I now know to be bipolar disorder, but at the time it was a rebirth into feeling. The rush of fear was of the highest rank in emotion and one that propelled me into thrill-seeking with a sense of blind fearlessness. Think roller coasters and haunted houses but ones where vulnerability is the peak just before the plummet and the guttural release of a scream. My use of vulnerability with such abandon was based on the conclusion that fear was the cage by which all other emotions were held hostage. Fear was a false idol and I was setting it ablaze.
Surprisingly, this rebellion did not last very long. In the wake of my incendiary emotional revolution was a great deal of pain. No amount of curiosity could muster a meaning from this; it was as if I had quite literally burnt bridges. Fear can hold us back as much as it can thrust us forward, it is somehow both the kerosene that lights a flame and the lips which blow it out. It is the giver of light and bringer of dark. What I did not know at the time of my uprising was that all the while I was still afraid. It was a new type of fear, one I could not detect at the time of its arrival. It was the fear that comes with becoming real. Knowing yourself is as elusive as knowing fear. They both may actually be illusions, ones that pin us to the ground like gravity. I grew up believing I would one day know who I was and that I was just in the waiting bit. It was as if I was waiting for a guest to arrive, so I could finally meet myself. But I was waiting for years, looking for someone else to be me. I think I thought I would mess myself up, that I should be drawn by someone else, someone better. Truthfully, I still feel like a half drawn being and rarely do I trust myself with the pencil. I started to become real when I stopped believing that I could be messed up, when I realised life was messy and I was a scribble in a massively abstract and beautiful painting. The fear that came with this realisation was the kind that settles in your chest with awe, opens your eyes wide, and pulls at your feet with horror. It asks you to run away and stay in place all at the same moment, precisely before it hits you: being human is a terrifying notion because you are your life’s work.