I am privileged enough to say that I only recently discovered that I have never experienced true fear until this week. Now that I think about it, all the things I’ve been afraid of, really, have been anxieties.
Anxiety is an unsettling, uncomfortable feeling that, for me, lives somewhere around my midriff and presses into my lungs and stomach when I think about something that triggers it. Things like bad grades and spiders and calories. These things make me feel anxious because my brain is amazing at coming up with unrealistic scenarios that make them seem so much worse than they actually are. Bad grades -> failure -> letting down everyone -> getting isolated -> not good enough to be a person. Spiders -> I will fall asleep with my mouth open and it will jump down my esophagus and wiggle around inside my throat. Calories -> nobody will love me if I’m a heifer.
We have tons of anxieties: small ones, big ones, silly ones, monumental ones that shape our lives. Some people get anxious about traffic and other people get anxious if they don’t count the steps when they walk to work.
But fear is different.
Fear is real.Fear stares you in the eye and gloats at you
Fear stares you in the eye and gloats at you in the moment. It’s right there and it’s looking at you. And you can’t explain it. You can’t rationalize it. You can’t make it go away just by diminishing its value because it’s bigger than you. In that moment, when you’re truly afraid of something, you are incapable of human functioning as you know it.
I came face to face with fear when I went skiing. I was anxious about it before, because I never learned how to do it, and I’ve heard awful stories about people getting injured, yadda yadda. Strangely enough, the thought of getting trapped in an avalanche never seemed anxiety-inducing. Maybe it’d even be nice, to be all alone in the white (welcome to Mari’s healthy thought process). I managed to swallow all that luggage down and force myself into lessons back home, in Kyiv. It was scary, but more in the way that made me feel like something bad could happen. I got through it.
But then, on a real mountain in the French Alps, came fear.
It was gradual. At first, I was anxious and preoccupied, but I coped. A couple of runs, a couple of exercises, even going as far as shooting off without any consideration for my speed. It was fine.
Then came the blue run and the icy snow and the cloudy, all-greyish sky that made it so much more difficult to see. Then came the increase in people on the mountain whizzing by and constantly drawing my scattered attention towards them.
I cannot describe the feeling of being truly afraid because at that moment, I was numb. I had to bite my lip to remind myself of what was happening, that I was stuck in the middle of the mountain, poles in hand, probably looking like a lunatic. My heart lodged itself in my throat and my eyes spurted tears like the waterfalls we’d passed over on the ski lift. My fingers shook. But I was frozen.
I was completely still.
A small, rational part of my mind kept telling me that I had to move someday. I had to make an effort. I had to get out of there, anyway, because that was the only way to end this.
But I just. Couldn’t. Move.
Being paralyzed by your own mind is indescribable. From a purely psychological perspective, it’s fascinating, and now that I think about it, it sounds like a fantastic subject for study.
I wasn’t fascinated when I was there, frozen. Figuratively and literally. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t feel the cold or the weight of the skis or the way the boots clamped around my calves unnaturally.
All I knew was that for the first time in my life, I was genuinely, truly, afraid.
I don’t know how I made myself move. To this moment, several hours later, I don’t know. The rational part of my mind beat against the cage of my skull like a crazed bird, screeching at me that this wasn’t the right way to go.
And somehow, somehow, it got through. I moved.
I sobbed as I went down, thankful that the ski mask and the cold that had already painted my skin red camouflaged by crying face. Relief came when we were once again on the lift, and I cried again because I felt so damn humiliated.
I felt inadequate and somehow insufficient because I had been afraid of something like that. I’m pretty sure that it was my anxiety defense mechanism trying to kick in and rationalize my behavior.
Now, though, hours later, I’m still processing it; but I think I want to conclude that fear is nothing to be ashamed of.
Fear is a human function. We are naturally afraid of things that are dangerous to us as a species. I guess my sense of self-preservation covers a certain range of winter activities.
Do I enjoy skiing now? At this moment, I enjoy it being over.
Will I ever enjoy it?
But one thing I know for sure: genuine fear really does put all of our small anxieties into rather harsh perspective.
Just food for thought.