Is Fear Pathological?

File:Shirley Strickland.jpg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Melburnian, October 2006.

2013 was a lousy year for running in my life. I kicked off the year with a persistent tendon injury in my foot which forced me off the road for a few months. Then, just as I started to ramp up my training again, things came to a head with my neighborhood stalker and completely ruined my running routine.

I still ran a lot despite the stalker, but it wasn’t quite the same as before. One major change was losing my favorite route, because it took me past his house.

Today I ran my old route alone for the first time since that day almost 9 months ago. It starts at my doorstep, takes me to a park that’s a couple miles away, and then back to my home. I always know I’m halfway done when I see the pink wooden turrets of the playground’s castle in the distance.

Today I ran that route, only in reverse. I drove to the park and ran the opposite way starting from the castle, and when I neared my own neighborhood, I turned away and ran back.

I’ve missed my old route. It has good landmarks to mark the distances, it’s scenic, and most importantly, it has gently rolling hills. I love running hills like these. There’s a rhythm to them that makes running uniquely pleasurable and somehow adventurous. You reach the base of the hill and attack it, quickening your stride, swinging your arms in short, tight arcs, breath accelerating, heart racing, calves aching until you’re at the top. Then instantly the rhythm reverses. You ease off and let gravity do the work as you float downhill, and I swear it feels like flying: easier and more natural than walking. Sometimes you feel like you could run forever.

Flats are the worst, though. I hate running long stretches of flat ground. It’s one of the reasons that I hate and despise treadmills and tracks–while they’re better than nothing, they take much of the joy out of running, the rhythm and flow, the alternating of fight and victory that convinces you to go just a little further than you thought you could.

Life’s like that, I think. We suffer on the climbs, and we exhilarate in the floating, flying descents, but somehow the flats are the worst. The stagnation, the parts of your life when you feel like you’re running parallel with your dearest goals which never seem to come any closer.

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Did I mention 2013 was a terrible year for running in my life? I spent most of it running flats. After I ceded my neighborhood route to my stalker, most of my runs took place at the track in a nearby park. It had a lot to offer safety-wise: set back off the main road, there was no way the creep could follow me in his car or even know I was running there. And I got to know the little community of people who frequent the track everyday, elderly retired folks and athletes and children, mostly. But running a flat 1k loop is torturous. It’s got nothing on the hills.

I realized something else today: how much my experience with the stalker has shaped my life. These days when I run, I watch passing cars reflexively, and if I see one that looks remotely like that gray Nissan Sentra that I’m oh-so-familiar with, the panic starts in the back of my brain. Suddenly I’m arguing with myself. “You’re okay,” I say, “you’ve got your cell–here, in your pocket–and besides, look, it’s a Honda, see?” Meanwhile the other voice jibbers about pain and death and panic and running away to hide, NOW, before it’s too late.

I mean, I get it. My brain’s trying to be helpful. All those months ago, in an instant my fear ran right up the scale until it hit with certainty: “I am about to die.” And when I didn’t, my brain made a few extra connections, turned up the volume on certain warnings, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence.

It used to be worse. There was a time shortly after that day when I was afraid to check my mail. That got better with time. And I was terrified of my old running route. Even today, I never fully forgot the panic.

I used to think this sort of fear was pathological, but I’ve discovered something: almost every woman has a story like this.

It happens at parties, when in a corner, we start sharing these tales. And instead of shock, the other women nod, eyes wide, and they understand. And I hear over and over again how many of us are afraid. Perhaps most of us, to some degree. We swap “safety” tips and compare notes and exchange sympathetic hugs before we go back into the world to run uphill against the fear.

In fact, I think that we consider it pathological for a woman not to be afraid.

This occurred to me while reading James Tiptree Jr.’s short story, “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!” The story revolves around a woman undergoing a psychotic break. She believes she lives in a future where for unexplained reasons, men no longer exist, and everyone in the world is friendly. This means she’s wandering around a big city alone at night, in high spirits, rejoicing in the health of her body and the beauty of the world. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, a group of men stalks her. At the end, they violently attack her.

The story is told in retrospect through interviews of people who saw her the night of the attack. These people fault her for her optimism, happiness, and lack of fear, and they universally perceive her demeanor as pathological. As a result they blame her for what is done to her, even though they all have the opportunity to intervene along the way.

This resonated with me: that we live in a world where women are supposed to be afraid, and for some reason we consider the fear a healthy thing, to the point where failure to be afraid all the time is held against us. And so we blame ourselves and obsess over how we “provoked” our harassers and attackers into targeting us, accepting without question that it is wrong to assume we can live without fear.

Every woman has a story like this, after all.

But I don’t want to run on the flats for the rest of my life. I love people. I love talking with strangers, finding shared interests and common ground, the blossoming of new friendships and deepening the roots of old ones. My life would be much less rich if I lived in fear all the time.

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I don’t want to be afraid of people. I don’t want to be afraid of you.

But how do I balance that against the fear? How do I fight back against the constant, exhausting barrage of threats masked as concern, the idea that it’s my job to hide myself, lest bad people choose to inflict harm upon me?

I don’t really know, honestly. But I’m going to keep running the hills. I hope you’ll run with me.

On the horizon, I see a castle.

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2 thoughts on “Is Fear Pathological?

  1. Having grown up in a strict religious setting, it was very hard to shake off the idea that if I wore certain clothes or if I went out drinking, that being attacked was a consequence of those choices and I would have no right to complain about it, let alone complain about the low-level harassment that’s nearly guaranteed from those settings.

    It really was a revelation to me, sometime last year, when I went out in a dress with no sleeves and I didn’t feel vulnerable. It sounds crazy, but it took a long time for me to get there.

    1. Juuuuuust now getting to read comments – I apologize for taking forever! I really connected with what you had to say about the difference between being raised to believe that clothes=consequences vs. realizing you really can make your own clothing choices. I hate that violence against women is treated as some sort of logical “consequence” for women doing perfectly legal, normal things like wearing clothes and drinking. It obviously feeds into bigger social problems, like the fact that rape is so underreported, and the high rates of domestic violence.

      I really admire you for reaching a point where you can move past the fear. I hope to get there myself, someday. Hopefully sooner rather than later!

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