The fear had a definite beginning. I knew there had been a time when I wasn’t afraid of the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge snapping. I knew there was a time when I wasn’t afraid to eat. I knew there was a time when I wasn’t afraid to go to sleep at night because I didn’t know if I would ever wake up again. I just couldn’t piece it together that those times had all been before I’d had a miscarriage, before my body had decided to reject the life growing inside of it.
One of the things that my doctor said to me right after was There was nothing wrong with the baby, she was perfectly healthy. I think what my doctor hoped to impart was that there was nothing I could have done to prevent the miscarriage, that it wasn’t my fault, that it had been out of my control. As it turned out, this was the worst possible message for me. If I couldn’t control what was going on inside my own body, and if I couldn’t control what was going to happen to my body from some unknown, outside place, then what could I control?
I could control my escape.
I started forming exit plans from the moment I entered a new space. I became careful. I had never before in my life been a person who would be described as “careful.” But look where that had gotten me.
I concealed most of my fears pretty well. Nobody noticed that there was something wrong with me until I stopped eating. Even then, it took awhile. And still, nobody really said anything directly. It was only later, after I’d gained some weight back that I heard Oh, you look so much better now! We were so worried about you.
It started one night at a friend’s house. She had made salmon steaks for dinner and everyone else was eating them and I was dissecting the flesh for each small, translucent bone and realizing that my fork was too insensate an object for the job, so I started to use my fingers to massage out the bones and finally I looked down at my plate and saw a mutilated orangey-pink mess and I was disgusted at my oily fingers and could feel each scrap of meat that had gotten stuck beneath my fingernails and placed my napkin onto the plate to cover the crime scene and excused myself to the bathroom where I sat on the toilet and cried silently, swearing that, of all things, I would not let myself die from choking on a fucking salmon pin bone. Why couldn’t they have just paid the extra two dollars per pound and gotten the fillets? Why didn’t anyone else care about these things?
It continued from there. I worried that my scrambled eggs contained pieces of razor-sharp eggshells that would slice my throat to ribbons. I wouldn’t get ice in my drinks because maybe something had broken near the ice and a shard of glass had gotten mixed in and was just sitting there—waiting, glistening, clear—ready to cut me open. I could already taste the blood in my mouth.
I was afraid of driving over bridges and driving through tunnels. I sat in the passenger seat and looked out the window as my husband steered through the Battery Tunnel and I would note when we had reached the halfway point between Brooklyn and Manhattan so that if I had to get out and run, I would know which exit was closer to the surface. I tried not to panic. I tried to be rational about it.
I was always trying to make sense of my fears, in order to make them go away. But the more sense I made of them, the more I realized that they were the only things that made sense. My fears were based around the idea that I was going to die, and, well, I was going to die. Nothing was failsafe. There were always flaws.
I stared out at the road unfurling in front of us like a tape measure. Inside the tunnel there were no windows and no true sense of perspective. Inside the tunnel, I felt the weight of manufactured vertigo. I tried to guess how much longer it would be until we were up and out. But I couldn’t tell if I was going up or if I was going down. I closed my eyes.
I smoked a lot of cigarettes. My right index and middle fingernails turned yellow. I started painting my nails. I’d do it late at night when I couldn’t sleep for fear that there was a carbon monoxide leak in whatever apartment I was staying. Any sign that I was growing sleepy, any yawn or droop of my eyelids, was a sign that there was a leak and that if I didn’t stay alert, I was never going to wake up again. So I would open a window and sit by it and paint my yellowed nails and smoke some more.
At the time, my husband was traveling a lot for work and when I would see him and tell him that I was worried that I might be crazy, he would make me some soup and I would drink the broth and leave the solid parts and I would think about telling him that the fact that I was drinking canned food, food which may have been contaminated by botulism, meant that I really loved and trusted him. But of course I didn’t tell him that. I would just sit there and feel my throat stiffen up and feel how my body seemed both paralyzed and completely alive and I would wonder if those were the symptoms of botulism poisoning.
My body felt numb. It made sense. Numbness follows pain.
I would try to feel things.
Sometimes I would lie under the weight of my husband and try and feel things. But I couldn’t feel what I was supposed to feel, so I would try feeling things that I wasn’t. I would see if I could feel my hair growing, I would try to be so sensitive that I could feel each hair growing out of my head. I’d try to count them in my mind.
I started to force myself into awareness. I made myself admit that the escape I had been heading for was no escape at all. The escape I was heading for was exactly what I had convinced myself I was running from.
It wasn’t enough to change me though. I think back on it and I wonder if I would have kept fading, wonder if the knobby bones that had become so prominent on my hips and my shoulders and along my spine would have just continued to protrude out of my skin until I shattered from within.
What changed in the end, what gave me a new beginning, was that I found myself pregnant again. Even then it was a slow change. But it helped that, suddenly, my body needed to rest. Instead of thinking how I could run out the door, I would settle into my bed. And I became hungry all the time. So I ate and ate. I stayed away from salmon steaks, but went back to having drinks with ice. I would let each piece melt on my tongue and feel it disappear, I’d let it sit cold and numbing in my mouth until it was gone.
That kind of fear has never come back. I’ve wondered if it would. Other bad things, terrible things, losses that have broken me in exactly the same ways as I was broken before, have come along. But the fear has stayed away.
I can sit on the beach now with my children, and when my older son asks me if I was ever afraid of the ocean, I can tell him that, yes, I was. And that I will always, basically, be afraid of the ocean.
But you love it! my younger son will say.
And he’ll be right.
I’ll tell him Yes, I know. It’s crazy, isn’t it?
And, not for the first time in the last ten years, I’ll think about the struggle I went through, the fight with my fear. The fight to hold on to something that was already gone, the fight to control something that I never had power over to begin with. I’ll think about being in a tunnel and not knowing which way is up and which way is down and how that is terrifying but also liberating because it is just the way things are. And how sometimes when I feel like I am descending, I am doing no such thing. I am rising. I am moving forward, inch-by-inch, and there is no need to run because the exit has always been there, waiting. There is nothing and everything to fear. There is just nothing and everything. And even if I was once afraid of everything, of what it meant, I now know that it is better than having nothing. Everything is better than nothing.