Have you ever been convinced someone you love is going to die? Like, that cough is gonna make them keel over? Like, what if they were born with lungs that can’t support their body and the doctors have never realized this? Like, that cut will get infected and the infection will spread to their heart and their heart and by then it will be too late to do anything about it so you might as well say your goodbyes now? Like, what if the tree in the yard falls on the house and everyone is killed except me because of course I would survive so that someone would be here to grieve? I could honestly go on and on. I watched ALL of the Final Destination movies in high school, I am hyper aware of the freak incidents, especially when driving behind logging trucks.
I know I’m not alone in the moments that where I think that the sky is falling. When I spiral out into the worst case scenario. But I swear, it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember a lot from the ages 13-20, but what I do remember was an unwavering sense of invincibility. Though I listened to A LOT of emo music and alty 90s radio jams (you’re listening to 98 point 5, your choice for the hits of the 80s, 90s and today), I also listened to A LOT of Beyonce and Ludacris. It’s all about balance. Somewhere in those years I carefully crafted my character, hiding the sad girl who listened to Fiona Apple and wrote poetry far away from the carefree wild child who knew every word to Big Poppa. Two. Different. People. Retrospect could be exhausting, so I drag and dropped a bunch of memories into the trash. Another survival mechanism. I’m only just now realizing that if you want that trick to work, you actually have to take out the trash. Oh well, it’s probably better this way. Before I started digging in the metaphorical trash can I was convinced I was invincible. There was actually one night in college where one of my best friends and I drunkenly walked home from a party at 3 am screaming “NO PAIN!” at the top of our lungs. The poor neighborhood. Poor us. We were both clearly in a lot of pain, but it was easier to get drunk and denounce it to the streets of Eagle Rock than actually look it in the eye. But we were invincible, right? No pain was a rule to live by and I was always a rule follower (I know, hard to believe, but it’s true).
On a certain level of my consciousness I thought that I couldn’t die because the pain was my burden to carry. I never truly acknowledged it (except for in relation to men, because they were the perfect avenues for emotional displacement) and since I had three people I love die in a span of five years (childhood friend, mom, grandma), I was pretty sure I was being spared for some sick reason. Interestingly, I never thought my close friends would die either, I could see the same self-assuredness in their eyes as they took on the world through all of their pain. Their bulletproof laughter mixed with mine and we dared our sadness to get the better of us this time. From what I can remember, I was definitely sad, but wasn’t afraid. Or at least I wouldn’t admit it. Maybe that’s another byproduct of surviving, you don’t have time to think about being afraid. I spent so much time pretending everything was ok that I convinced myself that “ok” was my baseline state of sad, anxious and overconfident.
It wasn’t until I came out of the fog in my early twenties that I started to feel what it meant to be truly happy (thanks largely to my amazing partner and my doggos) and also began to feel the crippling fear of what might happen if that happiness was taken away. As soon as I felt safe enough to start opening to the possibility of grieving my mother I opened myself to the reality that someday I would have to grieve again. That someday everyone I love would die and I had no control over when that day would come. I had left my emotions buried in the pile of clothes on my floor for the better part of 10 years and now I knew that the next time death rolled through town I’d have to actively pick them up and acknowledge them in real-time. After years of being invincible, I became utterly paralyzed by the idea of coping with death.
At any given moment everything I love could be ripped away from me in the same way my mom was, in the same way my grandmother was, in the same way Tenicia was. It was terrifying and exhausting. Almost daily my brain would think of new ways to kill off the ones that I loved. Tragic incidents the repercussion of which I would have to deal with. I packed my bag and moved to the land of worst case scenarios, where I could get lost for hours from the comfort of my living room.
Here is where I tell you that getting dogs was the best AND worst decision I ever made. I love them so much I kicked myself for knowingly becoming attached to a creature pretty much guaranteed to die before me. I’m being completely honest when I say I’ve thought my dog was dying because he was breathing. Don’t judge me. You never fucking know.
However, as I have begun to truly sit with my grief, welcome it, acknowledge it, accept it, embrace it, I have realized that my fear has begun to shrink. Where it once was this looming, ominous monster threatening to take me out at any moment, it is now more of a mosquito: fucking annoying, unpredictable, likes to show up in summer, could potentially kill me, but is more easily swatted out of the way. I remember the first time I realized that I wasn’t being controlled by my fear. It was a windy day in February of this year (yeah, like five months ago). Usually wind meant one of two things: a tree was going to fall down (probably on our house) or the neighborhood was going to catch on fire. But on this particular day neither option crossed my mind. Instead I lounged around my house reading a book and scrolling through instagram. It wasn’t until my partner called to see how I was doing with all the wind that I realized, wait, I’m doing fine (looks at self suspiciously in mirror). I hadn’t even thought about it until he brought it up. I was amazing and fucking excited. I wanted to tell all of my friends, but when I pulled out my phone I realized how difficult it would be to explain “omg, you wont believe it, I wasn’t afraid of the wind today!” So I made a mental note to bring it up with my therapist and treated myself to a chocolate bar.
See, over the past year I have been creating my own form of mosquito repellent, if you will. It’s works, but it’s all natural, so you have to keep applying. It involves walking my dogs everyday, regular therapy, working with nervine herbs (particularly Oatstraw, Willow, Rosemary and Lavender), meditating, making frequent trips to the ocean, realizing that I’m not alone in my grief and fear, and basically rewiring my brain so that happiness and fear are no longer codependent. I can have one without the other, preferably happiness. Duh.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have my bad days where if my back goes out I’m probably irreparably damaged and will never walk correctly again (this was last week, btw). However, I’m more comfortable in my knowing that if something tragic and unpredictable happens I am strong and capable of dealing with it. I am aware that the only real control I have in this world is over my reactions (ownership of our reactions deserves its own post one of these days). I am constantly reminding myself that worrying about something doesn’t actually help the situation. I am learning that when I have these flashes of doom and gloom I can say “welp, that would suck, but there’s a 97% chance that that won’t happen and if we live in a crazy 3% world then at least I’ve thought of this possibility so it doesn’t take me completely off guard.” Is that considered self soothing?
Today, fifteen minutes before leaving for work I found out that my mentor and father figure was checking himself into the emergency room. I didn’t have many details on why he went in or what was happening, just that he was “waiting for tests.” I was stunned. My first response was to jump to the worst case scenario. Of course I had thought about what I would do if he died before, I’ve thought about what I would do if any one of my loved ones died (probably including you). Death is a reality in my world in the way it isn’t in many other’s, I still haven’t figured out if that makes it better or worse. This morning, however, fear was reality for all of five minutes until I realized that fear wouldn’t help him. Saying a quick prayer, making sure he knew I loved him and making it to work safely would help him more than me crumbling under the weight of fear first thing in the morning. I let myself feel sadness and concern, neither of those are fear. I made it to work, I asked for periodic updates throughout the day and at around 4 pm I received word that he was home and tired, but fine. I made it the entire day without letting myself dive headlong into the river of fear that has so many times threatened to drown me. It made me think, maybe this is what it feels like to evolve.