Do you ever experience fear and feel scared? I do. In fact, I think I’ve spent more time with fear than any other emotion throughout my life. But it’s a complex concept, fear. Personally, I’ve been both carefree and adventurous, gone bungy jumping, sky diving and traveling all over the world without so much as a hint of a safety minded approach. But making a phone call to someone unknown – be it a new hair dresser, the tax agency or the local supermarket – and I start sweating. Over the years, it’s become quite clear what categories of life situations freak me out and the ones that don’t. Recently, however, I’ve experienced a sudden and quite overwhelming change in my emotional life. Up until about 6 months ago, I’ve been very whatever as far as any physical issues or problems of mine. I’ve only been to the doctor a handful of times in my life (and those times were all following horse related accidents) and haven’t spent many seconds worrying about my physical health. And then my mom got breast cancer, almost exactly 1.5 years ago.
My mom and I are very close to each other. It’s not just the mother-daughter kind of thing making us close (even though that’s there too), but there’s a whole range of life events tying us together and creating an almost tangible connection regardless of the physical distance between us. And while at different points in time, we have gone through many similar challenges in our lives, leaving us both with an assortment of almost identical scars to heal and lessons to learn from. Going through the 1 year of cancer treatment, following along from the sidelines and witnessing my mom showcase all the strength I of course knew she possessed, my focus was on her. I didn’t think twice about myself – except the moments when I got angry at life for being so stupid and unfair – but instead directed all my attention towards my mamma. Now, that cancer diagnosis is in the rear view mirror, thankfully. But as my mom started recuperating, regaining her life and living again, something happened in me. When the immediate danger had been fought off and things were supposed to go back to happy and normal, I started noticing how fear, bit by bit, was working its way into my innermost being, dismantling all the trust towards life I have built up these past 6 years and whispering in my ear that… it’ll be me next.
I’m carrying an overbearingly heavy fear that I’ll get cancer now. It all stems from a conviction that whatever my mom goes through, I’ll need to go through too. If she had to face chemotherapy in her life, then I will have to as well. Before you start scratching your head, wondering where in the world I find the facts to support these assumptions, know that I know these are irrational fears. I’m completely aware of the fact that there’s no logical reasoning behind any of these thoughts, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make the fears less overwhelming. In general, I like to believe things happen for a reason. I like to think each individual life fills a purpose on this planet and I like to think nothing occurs by chance. I find great strength in these beliefs. They’ve carried me through some rough patches before and I rest peacefully in thinking whatever happens is for the best in the long run. To me, life feels a lot less intimidating this way. A lot friendlier, a lot more forgiving and inviting. With that in mind, though, it’s hard for me to not be convinced my life “needs” yet another lesson, yet another challenge, yet another rough patch. So when my mom gets cancer, why on earth would life spare me?
These past few months have seen more googling about diseases, symptoms, types of cancer and everything in between than my whole life has seen altogether. I experienced a painful sensation down at the bottom of my spine a while ago – boom, chordoma (trust me, I’d never heard of it either, before the all-knowing internet told me of yet another cancer form to be scared of). Then I had some night sweats – boom, lymphoma. Then a lump in my right breast – boom, breast cancer. And last week, I freaked out because of a skin discoloration. Boom. Skin cancer. But it’s not just cancer. A month ago, I got intense shivers and a high fever in literally 30 min, from being totally fine before. Instead of assuming I had the flu (which I’ve had before and dealt with pretty undramatically), I got it into my head I had gotten TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome). This is despite the fact that I don’t even use tampons at all anymore (shoutout to menstrual cups!), but I still panicked and thought I would never see the light of day again – or at least not with both of my legs still attached to my body, because the stupid internet told me all about a case in Canada where a girl had to have both of her legs amputated following TSS. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.
I’ve felt uneasy and a little out of balance for a while, unable to pinpoint what has been bothering me. Life is great. I’m literally living my dream here, with Mike and our running, our little house, our slow lifestyle. Yet, there’s been something off in my soul. While I started noticing these hypochondriac tendencies already in the late fall, it wasn’t until just recently that I started talking about my thoughts – simply because they were taking up more and more of my headspace, making it impossible for me to ignore. I invited Mike into my sphere of disease related fears, voiced some of it all to my mom and allowed myself to ponder this whole thing in itself, instead of just focusing on that birthmark, or that localized pain, or that lump in my breast. And slowly, something shifted. But before we get into that, I need to share another (very real) fear first.
Climate change. Since I was 12 years old and learned about PCB in the oceans in school, I’ve been somewhat aware of what the heck is going on out there. But just like for most of us, it wasn’t until quite recently the scope of the challenge we’re facing became painfully clear to me. I’m scared. I’m scared I won’t get to teach my future children how to ski. I’m scared life as I know will dramatically change. I’m scared we’ll see war. I’m scared of mass migrations, famines, forest fires, flooding and extreme draughts. I’m scared we’ve damaged our planet beyond repair, and I’m scared we won’t be able to adapt to new ways of life. For a few months now, these fears have weighed more and more heavily on me, leaving me feeling guilty I even exist. Unable to enjoy anything, only paying attention to seemingly “off” things with the weather, absorbing every piece of “evidence” the world as we know it is slipping out of our hands. While climate change is real and by far the most pressing issue of our time, my head has been spinning way, way, way too fast, and come to plenty more disastrous and drastic conclusions than any scientist out there could even think of (trust me).
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling a little drained. My struggle has been two-folded – the burdens in themselves, but also the burden of not being able to figure out how to handle them. When I sort of “turned my life around” (sounds so pretentious but you know what I mean – and you can read more about that here: Decompression) 6 years ago, I did so by taking (positive) control of my own life. I moved into the driver’s seat, so to speak, after 25 years of sitting in the backseat with my eyes closed, just holding on. I made peace with my weaknesses and found ways to deal with them, to put it simply, and I’ve been doing great since. With cancer and climate change and fears left, right and center, however, I’ve been partly derailed. That uncomfortable, restless, anxious feeling I haven’t had to deal with in so long has reentered my life. So what to do?
I wouldn’t be sitting here, sharing this with all of you, if I hadn’t made some progress and found a way to tackle it all. Not that I’ve been in a seriously “bad” state or that I’d been unwilling to open up unless I had it all figured out, but more because I have a feeling I wouldn’t have felt inspired to write this particular piece otherwise. It’s important to me to allow all sorts of emotions and feelings to roam here, but it’s equally important that what I write can ease someone’s mind, nudge someone in the right direction, lighten up someone’s burden. If we’re just after doom and gloom, we can just turn on the news. As my best friend Danielle pointed out the other day, referencing Andy Warhol (I know, she’s one heck of an intellectual woman) – media and the news are products that are being sold to us, too. And what’s a better method for selling than scaring? Nothing, at least to my knowledge. I think it’s safe to say the news doesn’t always provide us with a true representation of the world at all times. I, for one, never hear them say anything positive. And that simply can’t be the case. Anyway.
I went to bed the other night, feeling very… well, in a pondering kind of mood. I needed to think. So I did. And I quickly realized what core “principle” of mine I’ve lost touch with recently – my mantra of making the most out of every moment of my life. It all started 6 years ago, when I was grieving so much I couldn’t even tell one sad thing on my mind from the other, and I was simultaneously overwhelmed by the insight that I had “wasted” half of my 20’s being miserable. My 20’s! The decade that’s supposed to be the best – when you have the most fun, when you look your best, when you have all the doors open – and I had just wasted half of it dragging myself around at the bottom of a dark hole. (Note: the 20’s are 100% overrated – we’re all equally confused but trying hard to pretend the opposite.) What this sadness resulted in for me, however, was a desire to invite life back into my… well, life. And since then, making the most out of every moment – saying yes to ice cream, choosing company instead of self-destructive loneliness, stopping to look at something pretty instead of rushing past it, allowing my body to rest, letting myself enjoy what is – has been a core motto for me. Not wasting time dwelling on things beyond my control or things that don’t matter in the end, but instead living. Living life to its fullest and taking control of my life. So amidst all of these fears I’ve struggled with, I realized I’ve gotten carried away. I’ve allowed for my mind and my days to get absorbed by what ifs and scenarios I can’t possibly control, and that’s no good.
So I’m trying my best to turn it around. I’ve told myself, with regards to climate change, that as long as I do all that I can on an individual level to combat global warming, I can’t place that massive burden of guilt on myself alone. That’s not sustainable for my own mental health, nor is it of any constructive value for the cause itself. And global warming doesn’t get less real regardless of how much I’m scared of it, and my energy is better invested in trying to make change than sitting on the couch, paralyzed from fear, awaiting the big collapse (again, the news – it’s easy to get tricked into thinking and feeling that it’s all going to fall apart literally tomorrow). So I am. I’m doing all that I can, and I try to lead by example. We have redesigned our whole lives and live as much in tune with this planet as we possibly can. We’ve jumped on all the trains in order to reduce our carbon footprint. But maybe there’s no perfect environmentalist. It’s very human nature of us to immediately chase after the idea of becoming the spotless eco-hero. And just as quickly, we start judging others. We judge and shame and forget all of what this is really about, because we just found another race to win and another way to make ourselves feel better. Let’s not fall into that trap. There are many things that can be (and need to be) changed and done better, and we’re a whole lot of people that have the means to get to business, but I think it’s for the better if no lines are drawn in the sand. If you make wise, informed decisions – invite others to learn and follow your lead. In the long run, that’s where it’s at. Not yelling at a stranger online for not being vegan just yet, or for using regular shampoo, or for hopping on a plane. At least not until you know the full story – because those exist too. The full stories, that is. We don’t know if someone’s mother is dying on the other side of the planet. Or if someone else has health issues, preventing them from cutting out meat from their diet. Taking charge of your own life is the one and only sustainable option. Because as my middle school teacher once said: if everyone just makes sure their own mouth is closed, then the classroom will, in fact, be completely quiet.
And last but not least, on this subject, I simply can’t allow for my fears to remove all the joy from the rest of my life. Because then, what in the world is there to live for anyway? I think the more precious we find our lives, the more urgent it’ll feel to protect them. I think we – as in human kind – need to stop for a moment. Take a deep breath. Appreciate all the wonderful things we have around us. And then take action. Take control. Become a doer, set things in motion, be a fore-fronter. Change is scary, but I much prefer the change I’m in charge of myself than the change happening to me, beyond my means of control. Don’t you? The world as we know it might be slipping out of our hands, but I’m a firm believer that it’s not too late just yet. Eyes are being opened and awareness is spreading, and together I think we’ll be able to make sure there is a planet left for our future children and grandchildren to enjoy. We’re doing our best here, Mike and I, and as long as I can look myself in the mirror and know that that’s the case, I can let my fears stay in the background. They sidetrack, immobilize and confuse me otherwise, and that’s sure no good when there’s a whole planet earth to save on our hands.
That was climate change. When it comes to my sudden onset of hypochondria, I’m trying to apply the same method. Whatever might or might not happen to my physical health is (more or less) beyond my control. Thus, I’m letting go. I’m letting go of the fearful scenarios I’ve been playing on repeat in my head, because all they do is preventing me from actually living the one life I’ve been given. I’m letting go of all the panic that’s been filling up my chest, because all it does is making it hard for me to breathe. I’m letting go of all the convictions that life simply won’t be good to me, because all they do is making me scared. It’s not easy, but it does work. Every day, I remind myself that life is so valuable. That I can’t allow irrational thoughts and fears remove the joys my life holds. Will I look back, many years from now, and think “I’m so glad I worried so much back then”? Probably not. It might sound as if I’m simplifying matters, making it seem so easy to change a negative thinking pattern, but for me, this has been more about finding my way back to something I’ve been practicing for years than figuring things out for the very first time. And I’m glad I did, even though I’m not quite back to grand form just yet. It’ll come though. I’m sure of it.
There are other things that scare me too. I mentioned making phone calls earlier – this is so true, and has been since I was a little girl. I still get overheated and start sweating when on the phone with someone I don’t quite know, or someone seemingly with power and influence. I get nervous in all types of social contexts, unless the social context involves just Mike or someone from my immediate family. I blush, I feel stressed, I think I sound stupid and forced.
I fear not being good enough. I fear not living up to expectations. I fear Mike leaving me one day. I fear misunderstanding instructions, saying the wrong thing, coming across as pretentious and stuck up. I fear others’ opinions about our choice of life and their thoughts on what we post to social media. I fear not being able to run as fast or far as I think I could. I fear my own disappointment with myself. I fear my friends thinking of me as a loser and as a weirdo.
I fear getting and being pregnant. I fear giving birth (oh dear god, so much). I fear becoming a mother, or rather the inability to become one – what if I don’t feel the overwhelming love towards my future children other mothers tell me about? What if I can’t love them sufficiently and scar them for the rest of their lives? I fear not being able to love my body if it will forever look different after carrying children. I fear Mike thinking the same even though he promises me that would never happen.
I fear I’m going to fail at vegetable farming this year. I fear all of our seedlings will die because I did something wrong when I started them this year. I fear the dirt has gone bad and we’ll need to spend precious money on buying new. I fear the weather in May will be terrible so Mike’s parents won’t like our home and where we live. I fear running injuries before they’ve even happened, I fear hitting the wall during a race, I fear not looking cool next to all the other runners.
But there was also a day when I feared love. I feared the idea of never ever meeting someone who would love me and hold me and appreciate me for who I am, complete with flaws and vampire teeth and an eagerness to always do too much in too little time. I feared being close, being vulnerable, giving myself to someone else. I feared trusting, making decisions with someone else, committing to another person. I feared being betrayed, lied to, left alone and with no explanations. I feared wanting someone more than they would want me. Reaching for a hand that wouldn’t want to be there anymore. Yet, I fell in love. And it’s been the most wondrous journey of my life.
Fear can be so debilitating, holding us back from pursuing our dreams, living life to its fullest and reaching our ultimate potential. I allowed for it to control my life entirely for years and years. But what kind of life do we give ourselves if we spend every day worrying about the what ifs? Mine didn’t even feel worth living, in my early 20’s. And as sad as that might sound, I’m eternally grateful for it all now. Because when fear sweeps in and knocks me over – similar to what’s been happening to me over the past few months – I can think back and tell myself I never, ever want to allow it to restrict my life that much ever again. Some would say ignoring your fears and focusing on something else is the way to go, but I disagree. I do my best to acknowledge them. Embrace them, even, and face them. And then I try to let go, peacefully.
When we face our fears, the reward is one million times sweeter tasting than when things “just happen”. I called my bank the other day, and our internet provider the day after that, and I felt like a (sweaty) million bucks afterwards. What makes me feel like on top of the world will most likely not make you feel the same way, but I’m all for trying to respect and honor everyone’s individual set of challenges and cheer them on as they combat them one by one. If we can all just join in and admit we all sit on a giant pile of fears and allow for others to know we don’t have it all figured out, it would be a whole lot easier to feel a little better in this achievement focused world.
I fear you all will roll your eyes reading this post. But here’s to posting it anyway, and letting go of fears that limit our lives. If anyone would like to share or vent any similar (or not) thoughts, know that I’m just an email away – and the comment section is all yours too, of course. Thank you for hanging in there, all the way down to here.