Tag Archives: Fear

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.

File:Tracks.jpg

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.

File:Castelo-dos-Mouros 1.jpg

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.

Creeper Guy Revisited: You’re Always the Hero of Your Own Story

English: A stereotypical caricature of a villa...
You always know the villain by the awesome mustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to share some thoughts looking back on my experience with my neighborhood stalker (a.k.a. Creeper Guy) two months ago. As always, if you’d prefer to stick with the flash fiction, no hard feelings here. Check back tomorrow or browse the archives.

Let’s start with a familiar story. It’s about a hero, a villain, and a damsel. The villain’s of the mustache-twirling variety. Because he has it out for the hero, he’s captured the damsel and tied her to the train tracks. The hero somehow learns of this plan, hops on his horse, and rides to rescue his lady.

In the distance he hears the sounds of the train whistle growing louder and louder. Does he get there in time? Of course! He’s the hero. He jumps off his horse, duels the villain, and unties the damsel just moments before the train whooshes past.

It’s a classic story, and a good one. And the perspective matters. As readers, we see through the eyes of the hero because that’s the perspective I told the story from.

But we reflexively do this all the time. You are always the hero of your own story. When we hear about a dangerous situation, we imagine that in similar circumstances, we’d outsmart the bad guy and save the day.

Take my Creeper Guy story. While I received an enormous outpouring of love and support, I also received well-intentioned comments like this:

“Show me where he lives, and I’ll beat him up if he bothers you.”

“If someone ever came after my family like that, I wouldn’t think twice about shooting him.”

“Shame on you for not calling the police sooner. You should have called a long time ago.”

“I’ve never run into crazy guys because I always run with my dog/with a friend/at the park/etc.”

In all of these statements, the person casts themselves in the role of the hero within my story. They presume that, given the same circumstances, they would have made a different decision that would result in a more victorious outcome. My actions (specifically, the months and months of inaction that preceded my eventual phone call to the police) don’t make sense. That’s not what the hero does. The hero is bold, decisive, and in control of the situation. The hero beats up the villain and saves the girl.

English: Poster for The Perils of Pauline (1914)
The damsel’s in a default state of fear. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But let’s revisit the story again.

She’s minding her own business, overpowered by a stranger whose intentions are inscrutable. She’s restrained. She’s lying on the train tracks while her kidnapper looks on and laughs. She hears the whistle of the train approaching. All she can think about is that she’s about to die. She would do anything to get away, to hide, to rewind time to that point in her life just hours ago (a lifetime ago) when mustache-twirling strangers only existed in the movies.

You see where I’m going with this.

Being a damsel in distress is inherently disempowering. It’s a role defined by helplessness and limited options. In my experiences with Creeper Guy, it really bothered me that this jerk could singlehandedly terrorize me into not running for weeks at a time. He had all the power. It’s a sick feeling. Whenever I had a run-in with him, I’d be afraid to check my own mail for days afterward, lest he be out there in his car, waiting. It’s the “flight” portion of the “fight-or-flight” response.

Remember: I’m exactly like you. I’ve had fantasies all my life that if anyone messed with me, I’d put them in their place. But when the reality of several tons of metal comes barreling after you, you run. You hide. You don’t want to think about it. You want to go back to that time in your life when your neighbors were harmless, when stalkers only showed up in the movies.

So what changed?

I already told you, remember? It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

Frank Bernard Dicksee. Chivalry
Me, Creeper Guy, and Connor Choadsworth. Hint: I’m not the damsel this time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am dead serious. Here’s the secret, the essential difference between the damsel and the hero: The damsel runs from danger because she doesn’t want to die. The hero runs towards danger because he doesn’t care if he dies. He has someone to fight for.

There’s a world of difference between fear and anger. Fear paralyzes. Anger empowers. As I sat at home staring at my iPod that day, I felt overwhelmed by the injustice, that this jerk would ruin my favorite episode of one of my favorite podcasts… well, you gotta draw a line somewhere. Wanting to defend the honor of Connor Choadsworth provided just enough rage to change my “flight” into “fight”. Having someone to fight for transformed me from damsel to hero in an instant, and heroes have options. Heroes are able to take action. So I did.

As a result, I think I better understand why people behave the way they do under stress. More importantly, I can silence the voice in my head that tells me that given the same situation, I’d do it differently. Just because I want to cast myself as the hero doesn’t mean I’ll have that option. Circumstances dictate so much. Who can know for sure what you’ll do until you’ve lived it?

For example, as the Trayvon Martin case has unfolded over the past few weeks, I found myself profoundly overwhelmed with its parallels to Creeper Guy. A pedestrian in his own neighborhood, being followed by a neighbor in a car whose intentions were unclear. The fear, the sense of danger, the inherent physical imbalance between vehicle and foot traffic. And if Creeper Guy had left his car and come after me, what would I have done? I have a bittersweet admiration for the young man who, being braver or more reckless than I am, rejected the role of the damsel outright. Hero or villain? Let God decide, but I can empathize.

The line between these roles is a thin one. We never know what role we’re going to play until we’re playing it. One can transform into another so easily with just a change of motivation. Maybe the best we can do is to be conscious of these roles, and do our best to understand each other accordingly.

Do you usually picture yourself in the role of hero when you hear other people’s stories? What should we do about it, given it’s so reflexive and automatic?

Medical Microfiction: Trypanophobia

Cringe-Worthy

In dark alleys and back rooms, in bars and clubs, the kids have invented a new thrill. They’re lining up for miles to experience the rush.

The ritual goes like this. There’s a man with a needle. The silvery point hovers in the air, just over a bulging blue vein. The audience stands at attention, hushed. The needle touches skin. It digs in. The onlookers feel it: a rush of chills, a tingling, bells in the ears and clouded eyes. Knees buckle, breath releases, and they’re out cold.

They’re not looking for a chemical high. They’re seeking their own terror.

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Fear of needles
Fear of needles (Photo credit: david anderson : da-photography)

In the past, I’ve written about using what your body already produces to save lives. There’s always a demand for blood and bone marrow donations, which save lives in a way so straightforward that I feel no embarrassment in using the cliche. Such activities are easy, international, and cost you nothing.

I talk about this stuff a lot because I hope by getting the word out, a few more people might consider giving it a shot. Recently, a friend pointed out a problem with my advocacy: some people refrain from donating blood or joining the marrow registry because they suffer from a paralyzing phobia that renders it impossible.

Trypanophobia, or the fear of needles, is quite widespread in the populace. In the United States, roughly 1 in 10 people suffers from this phobia. Unlike many other phobias, the most common type of trypanophobia induces a physical response that can lead to wooziness and fainting. To put it another way, if you’re afraid of spiders and you see one in your shower, you’ll startle and try to squish it or run away. If you’re afraid of needles, your vasovagal syncope will kick in and you may pass out if you see or even think about needles.

മലയാളം: വെള്ളിലത്തോഴി എന്ന ശലഭം
This was going to be a close-up of a needle, but I decided to be nice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What on earth is “vasovagal syncope”? If you’ve ever jumped out of bed after a hard sleep and found yourself feeling a little dizzy, then you’ve experienced it yourself. Your heart rate fails to provide enough blood to your brain, so you feel weird and woozy until your heart catches up.

People with trypanophobia can experience this reflex just from thinking about needles. So what’s a needle-phobic person to do? Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with it. Doctors can numb the area with different anesthetics before they use the needle. They can also make use of some of the new needle-less drug injection methods, which are very cool indeed. A third option is behavioral therapy, which aims to desensitize you to the stimulus through gradual exposure. Trypanophobics can also take anti-anxiety medications which help prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure.

All this talk of phobias makes me think of horror movies, and how we watch them even though they scare us. Or because they scare us. Thus, today’s story: where teenage trypanophobics deliberately seek out vasovagal syncope just for kicks. It’s no dumber than huffing aerosol from a plastic bag, and probably a good deal safer!

Are you afraid of needles? What tips or tricks do you use to deal with it?