Monday, May 17, 2010

Irrational Fears

We were driving through New Mexico from Kansas, where we lived, to visit my sister in Arizona.  It was the middle of the night, and pouring rain.  I'm not a skittish driver, and I'm not usually afraid of driving at night, or in the rain.  The highway began to curve; it was a long, slow arc to the left, around a rock wall.  The road opened up to the right, but because of the night sky, and the rain, I couldn't see what it was opening up into.  A lake?  A cliff?  It was just open space, and darkness.

As I began to steer slowly to the left, following the curve, I could suddenly see our car sliding rightward.  Toward that open space.  Off the cliff.  Into the lake.  Out into night air and nothingness.  Only we weren't sliding.  And I knew that, but it didn't stop me from seeing it.  I saw it happen, as if it were happening, all the while knowing it wasn't actually happening.

Which is why I called out:  It feels like we're sliding!  It looks like we're going over the edge!  My husband (then-fiance) reassured me that we weren't sliding, or going over the edge, and then offered to drive since I was obviously freaking out.

I thanked him, but continued to drive.  I was 22.  My fears were not going to get the better of me.


My sister completed grad school last week.  Her graduation was held downtown on Saturday afternoon, and we took the toddler.  Of course, he wasn't able to sit quietly for the two plus hours the ceremony lasted (actually, it was longer than that, but we left after she walked the stage), so the hubby and I took turns playing with him in the spacious hallways while the other one attended the ceremony.

The building is a huge, brick, multi-storied affair, used for theater productions.  We were seated in the balcony, and there are many places where I could look down to the first floor.  Along one of the side walls was a velvet curtain that you could reach out and touch.  It draped from the ceiling past all the levels of seating all the way down to the floor.  I held my son in my arms and let him touch the velvet.

Suddenly, in my mind, I saw him falling over the railing and down, down, down with the velvet to the bottom floor of the auditorium.  I imagined people trying, and failing, to catch him, as he plummeted past.

I walked quickly away from the velvet curtain, and we played elsewhere for the rest of the ceremony.  My heart is thumping in my chest just typing this.


I never heard the story of Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick until I read Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates.  It wasn't until I got to the end of the book that I found out it was based on a true event.  Much like the anti-abortion movies I watched as a Catholic child, that book dug its way under my skin and has never quite left.  If the intent of the novel had been to brainwash, it would have been a smashing success in my case.

My biggest irrational fear is getting trapped in a car under water.  Now that I have a child, that fear is so much worse.  Don't get me wrong; it's not something I think about every day, and it has no real effect on my behavior, or my everyday life.  In fact, my mother-in-law, after hearing about my fear, bought me a little hammer designed to break a car window in the event you are trapped under water.  Because my disorganization is larger than my irrational fear, I have no idea where that hammer is now.  I do know it's not in my car.

But I have visualized saving myself, my son and my husband from seatbelts, and windows stuck up, and doors nearly impossible to open and air so far up you can't even see to the surface, so many times it is surely ridiculous.  And again, I must remind myself to breathe--slowly, deeply--while I write this.


During my first pregnancy, I was blessed with the certainty that everything was going to be just fine.  I felt great; the baby would be healthy, and all was well with the world.  I'm usually pretty happy-go-lucky, so this wasn't out of character, but the depth of my certainty surprised even me.  I just felt it, all the way down to my bones: things were good.

I think it was my miscarriage that has made me more skittish this time.  I'm a little bit afraid to be certain.  I waited with my heart in my throat for the heartbeat at the first sonogram.  I'm still afraid to exhale until the next appointment, when, at twelve weeks, I'll be mostly out of the woods, as far as miscarriage is concerned.  I spent a week battling a crazy little voice inside my head that was just certain this was an ectopic pregnancy, all because I had mild pains low on one side of my abdomen.  I called the doctor's office, and they didn't think they needed to see me, which quieted the voice, but didn't shut her up altogether.  I'd like her to shut up!


When I was six years old, I came home from school one day, where my mother met me in the hallway with a broom.  She walked me upstairs, explaining that a bird had flown into my bedroom, and she needed me to go in and shoo it out the window with the broom.  I found out later that she had recently watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and was in the grip of an irrational fear of her own.  She said that knowing it was irrational allowed her to send me in with the bird without fearing for my safety, but there was no way she was ready to face that bird.

At six, it never occurred to me to ask why I was the one assigned to this particular chore.  I waved the broom overhead like a wild woman, watching the bird dive and weave through the room, until it eventually made its escape.  I thought it was grand adventure.


A car that drives itself off a cliff can turn into a magic carpet.  A child falling from a great height can grow wings, and begin to fly.  A woman trapped in a car underwater can transform herself into a mermaid and rescue her family with nimble fingers and lightening-quick fins.  An unborn baby dances with danger, like the rest of us do, and a heartbeat is a drumbeat is a story told round a fire about the miracle of us all, living and breathing and loving each other, despite all odds, every day.

I will wave a broom overhead, and whoosh my fears out an open window.  As a girl, I conquered the fear of my mother.  This makes me invincible.  I will remind myself of this every day.  I am 34.  My fears are not going to get the better of me.

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