The Undue Glory of Fearlessness

Dear Drea,

I am your Fear, and this is what I want to tell you. You should feel me because I come from a place deep within. I am an old and ancient feeling that allowed your ancestors’ ancestors to run from that large animal, to build a fire when it got dark, to migrate to more fruitful land, to create pointy things with which to protect themselves and their family…simply, to survive. You need me. Without me, you won’t recognize danger or be able to dodge harm.

I reside in your subconscious and I am always present. I can be the first thing you feel in the morning and the last thing you feel at night. I can pop up in the middle of the day as well. You cannot get rid of me, no matter how hard you try. I am part of every decision you make, and will influence the major milestones in your life. I step in especially when you are tired or angry or sad or lonely or when you don’t take care of yourself spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Most recently, I played a very big part of your cancer journey — diagnosis, surgery, chemo, recurrence scares.

There is much of me in other people, and I know you feel that and tend to absorb it as well. You call upon me when you think of things like being alone, being abandoned, being sick, and even death. I am part of you, like it or not.

Sincerely,

Fear

Think about when you were little. The first time you saw a dog barking on the street or waves crashing on the ocean. What was the first feeling you felt? Was it fear? Perhaps it was something more innocent and childlike — wonderment? curiosity? I was trained to not be afraid. I was raised by my Grandmother, who was a large personality with unwavering confidence and a big, boasting voice. Among the many lessons she imparted to me very early on is to not be scared of anything or anyone (well, maybe just her), and to work hard, dream big, and do good. These were crucial values that have dictated my life throughout the years, and basically formed the adult I am now.

I’d like to think of myself as relatively balanced and self-aware, but also very empathetic and intuitive. I was often described as “fearless” because even as a kid, I was never scared of performing in public or being in the spotlight. I wasn’t afraid of blood or needles or hospitals, as I acted as Grandma’s personal nurse when she got sick. I was in charge of changing her bedpan, cleaning her wounds, and injecting her with insulin. As a grown up, I graduated college, found my own jobs, got promoted on my own merit, moved out into my own apartment at twenty five, often traveled to different countries alone, relying on only myself mentally and financially. I found my partner at twenty six, got married, moved across the country away from friends and family, and supported us throughout medical school and residency years. I was capable. I was strong. I was independent. Fearless. This was my identity.

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When I got diagnosed with cancer, I felt a myriad of emotions — chief among them was fear. I lost Grandma just three months before diagnosis and so I didn’t have that matriarchal rock that had an answer to any and all of life’s riddles. I longed so much to be held and comforted, to be told that everything will be ok. I was looking for Grandma’s wisdom and unwavering faith, just like I had when I was younger. Unfortunately, I had to navigate this without her, relying only on the training she gave me and life lessons I’d picked up along the way.

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It’s strange, getting cancer. People all of a sudden don’t know what to say and when they do, they tend to quote Bible passages or abstract notions in the hopes of making you feel better.  “So do not fear, for God is with you.” “Things happen for a reason.” “Just think positive.” And of course, the classic, “Be strong and don’t be afraid.” This is probably why I felt so much guilt whenever I felt scared, which was a lot of the time. I put so much pressure on myself to stay positive, have faith, and not be afraid. I painted a picture for myself as this super zen, positive cancer patient doting a rosary and brave face. Except this wasn’t me. I cried a lot. I mourned the promise of a long and healthy life. I was scared shitless when I was told I had to do chemo. I was wrapped in anxiety when I had to do my first bone scan to check if cancer spread to my bones. I found out about young women not surviving the disease and I obsessed on how that would be my fate as well. I felt fear — a lot of it. And when I did, I’d beat myself up trying to convince myself that I was handling things all wrong. That I had to soldier up, be tough, stop crying, be brave. This in turn, made me feel inadequate and weak. It broke me. For as much as I thought I knew what my identity was, I no longer did. I was confused and bruised and tired. I was falling apart.

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It was then when I came across a book titled When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. The short description spoke to me and two Prime days later, I had the book in my hands. Reading this book, it was my first glimpse into a different way of handling fear. It wasn’t to be pushed away or militantly ignored as non-existent. Rather, there was something interesting about the notion of befriending fear. To acknowledge it as there, and by doing so, allows us to move forward, and conveniently enough, builds resilience and strength:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

Perhaps fear was not a problem after all. All the feelings I had were not only normal, but necessary. Necessary in that when I allowed myself to explore it, I was able to understand myself better. Why am I so afraid of being left alone? Am I even truly alone? Don’t I still have so much life to live? How will I choose to live it? This allowed me a new perspective from which I could spring forth new mindset. Allow myself to feel, but don’t let it dictate. Stop judging myself, hell I already had enough to deal with. And the sweetest sentiment of them all:

Bravery is not the absence of fear, rather the ability to live amidst it.

Over the course of the past year, I have seen the so many different flavors of fear: fear of missing out, fear of not being enough, fear of failing, fear of not knowing what to do, fear of not knowing what to say, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of disappointing, fear of being judged, fear of not being able to provide, fear of rejection, fear of ruining relationships, fear of starting over, fear of not knowing where to start. And with these, there is also: fear of getting what we want, fear of moving up, fear of succeeding, fear of being destined for bigger things, fear of loving, fear of being loved, fear of putting yourself out there, fear of dreaming, fear of believing.

Whatever the fear is, I wonder what would happen if we no longer ignored it, rather accept the feeling and ask ourselves how do we continue to live amidst it? How do we continue to love and give and be good people amidst it? For me, the fear of cancer returning is a real thing. It’s probably the biggest and most consuming thing I’ve ever held space for. And yet, I can’t help but be proud of how I’ve handled this part of my life. Yes, it was messy and crazy emotional, but I managed to string along opportunities to enrich my life, if the fear was truly that I didn’t have much left of it.

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I went home to California and spent quality time with friends and family. I made a bunch of new friends in New York from Larry’s co-residents, their spouses, women from Meetup groups, women I met from the yoga retreat, people from our apartment building, and of course other young breast cancer survivors. I became more active in church and even joined the lector and faith formation ministries. To combat loneliness of working from home, I found a way to work at various locations around the city. I am taking care of myself physically by doing what I enjoy like dance, barre, pilates, kickboxing and yoga, which in turn keeps me motivated and joint pain-free. I do supplemental holistic healing via acupuncture, reiki, sound baths, and massage. I meditate and journal, making sure I am able to purge any toxic thoughts or points of rumination. I am wanderlusting — already having traveled to San Diego and SF Bay Area for family, Madrid and Barcelona to celebrate our fifth year wedding anniversary, multiple trips to Indianapolis for work, and of course my beloved Aruba for the life-changing yoga retreat. I’ve also been somewhat of a resource and support for a friend who just recently got diagnosed. I am more open, less judgmental, content with less, and living more.

In short, I am not letting my bout with cancer and the fears that come with it dictate my life.

I know scary thoughts will pop up and sometimes linger, but the point is that the life I live is based on love and light and being a happy, healthy, whole, good person. This is my new identity.

Dear Fear,

Thank you for your letter. This is what I want to tell you. You’ve done your job. You are very good at sensing danger when it is near and you have been amply suspicious when I found the lump in my left breast. You sat with me in that chemo chair and laid next to me as I recovered from surgery. Hell, you were emphatically present while I was being inserted into that tube for my bone scans. You kept me company, all the time — but not in a good way.

Now that I’ve found my footing, I do thank you but I must hold space for other feelings now: happiness, optimism, creativity. I know I cannot get rid of you, so you are welcome to have a seat at the table and give your opinion, but know that decisions will never be made because of you, and my life will never be dictated by you. You’ve been an old and trusty friend, but I know how to better take care of myself, and it’s time for you to take a backseat now.

Sincerely,

Drea

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