When I was young, all I wanted to do was drive a quad bike. My grandparents had the most wonderful farm — 900 acres of freedom, wild open skies and green fields we flew across on quad bikes, chasing the next muster, the next adventure.
My seat on the quad was behind my gran, or my uncle, sharing the bench with my brother or a mucky, muddy dog or three. But I knew that one day I would be deemed old enough, sure enough, capable enough to learn to drive myself.
I think I was fourteen when that day came. Gran showed me how to shift gears and take the handle bars like I owned them. Like I was in charge. I felt powerful, though I was moving at such low speed. I felt grown up and capable and brilliant. Over the next two weeks I became confident enough to drive alone, to drive up hills, to drive with my own dog on the seat behind me. I found the strength to zoom across the fields, under my own power. I flew. And there was no greater feeling.
Marcus and I spent most of July and the start of August in Costa Rica. We were there for language school – to learn enough Spanish to try and get by for the rest of our travels, as we journeyed further south. We stayed in a town called Guiones for a month, surfing, gymming, eating acai bowls and making new friends through our homestay and our classes.
When one of these friends suggested that we book a group ATV – or quad bike – tour, I was excited. This is something I had loved as a kid and a teen – my greatest joy, and such a triumph. I was nervous, but I’m almost always nervous, and I was sure that this was something I could do.
I was wrong.
As soon as I saw the line of ATVs I realised that the nervousness I was feeling was actually full-blown panic. But I climbed on board and I started driving. It wasn’t so bad, except that the strength I remembered, from those days on the farm, seemed to be gone. When I hit a pothole, the bike jerked from beneath me and I couldn’t seem to right my direction properly. The others in the group were driving quickly and I started to drift behind, afraid to shift gears, afraid to loose control. Just completely afraid.
And then, we arrived at a narrow swing bridge, which we were casually told we had to cross. I kept saying “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” but not really loud enough for anyone to hear me. I was beckoned forward. I bunny hopped my way over. I smiled for a photo. I smiled, but I put my sunglasses on for the photo so they wouldn’t see me crying.
I put my sunglasses on for the photo so they wouldn’t see me crying.
I was so afraid. And once we had crossed the bridge, and then driven down a steep hill, I lost it. My hands began to shake, and then my arms, and then my whole body. I started to sob and quiver, so scared of what I was doing and so, so afraid of everyone watching.
I felt like I had betrayed myself, like I was slowing the group down, like I was a fraud, like I wasn’t a grown-up anymore, like I was a failure. I also thought that if I kept driving the ATV, I would probably die. It felt so real that I could barely speak.
This is what fear is like for me. Or, more accurately, this is anxiety. Hello, my old friend. Welcome back.
I’ve been afraid for a long time. It manifests itself in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes I can’t make a phone call. Often, I can’t make a decision. If I am in a group, and someone asks my opinion on matters like where we should eat or what movie we should see, I find it really hard to say what I want. I say sorry a lot.
I present as someone who is confident, outgoing and strong. And I am all of those things. But I’m also anxious. I’ve been anxious most of my life – the product, I think, of growing up in a home where fights were normal and resolutions were tenuous.
I had my first panic attack when I was fifteen. I was in a movie theatre for my school’s film club, surrounded by about a hundred other teenagers. I realised I had left a bag of poetry books at my writing group, which was held at another school. I remember realising, and then I don’t remember anything until an ambulance arrived.
I wasn’t that worried about the books, of course. My mum had cancer, and I was exhausted. Things were bad at home. Nothing in the world seemed right but when I started to breathe, more shallow and more rapid that ever before, it seemed like the fear I felt was real. Like there was something to be afraid of.
Nothing in the world seemed right but when I started to breathe, more shallow and more rapid that ever before, it seemed like the fear I felt was real. Like there was something to be afraid of.
I don’t panic all that much anymore. But when I do, it’s still almost a relief. I start to hyperventilate and the only thing I can focus on is the roaring gasp of my sucking breath, and the speed. The extraordinary speed at which my body is moving away from itself. It feels horrible, but it also feels like I am turning my insides out. It feels real. I need, sometimes, to know that the fear is real, even if the cause is not.
Sometimes the panic is more subtle, almost sneaky. The day before the ATV incident, I had a surf lesson with my friends from language school. I had being feeling funny about the lesson all morning, nervous in that same way. I kept telling myself it could be overcome. When I got out into the water I wanted to cry. I’m not afraid of surfing. I’m not afraid of water. But I was anxious, and I didn’t want to be there. But there was nothing I knew how to say, so I continued with the lesson.
When this happens, I have to recover. This means lying in bed, sometimes for a long time, generally alone. I watch T.V. I’m not interested in. I don’t write, I don’t think, I don’t talk. I just need nothing, for awhile. Then I can be okay again.
Probably jumping on an ATV the following day was a bad idea. But it’s so hard to know if I’m overreacting (I almost always am; it shouldn’t matter) and I don’t want to miss out on life because I need to pull a duvet over my head. It’s a hard balance. Sometimes it’s impossible.
How do I tell them that I’m very very scared of everything, but also nothing in particular? How do I say that I’ve been worrying for hours about something I said three years ago, that I should have said differently?
And then, there’s the fact that it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes people ask me if I’m okay, when I’m in an anxious state. I don’t really let people see it often, but sometimes people are more observant than I give them credit for, and sometimes I can’t hold it beneath my skin. How do I tell them that I’m very very scared of everything, but also nothing in particular? How do I say that I’ve been worrying for hours about something I said three years ago, that I should have said differently? How do I say that it rained last night, so I’m worried that when I walk I will slip, and slipping makes me anxious, so I’m anxious about the idea of being anxious about slipping? How do I tell them that today, when people laugh, I will be certain they are laughing at me?
Sometimes I say I’m having a bad day. I always say it’ll be better tomorrow.
I read a lot of posts and books and stories about people who ‘feel the fear, and do it anyway.’ So often fear is seen as an enemy, and something to overcome. Some people say that fear isn’t real and that it’s all in the mind – as if that somehow makes it less real.
Fear is real. We fear for a reason. The way I understand anxiety, it just takes the bodily processes that try to protect us, and twists them, deploying fear and panic – or fight or flight – when there’s no real need.
When I told one of my Spanish school friends how I was feeling, she said it seemed like I hated to loose control. She only meant the best, but when I thought about it I realised this wasn’t true. As soon as I climbed onto my husband’s ATV and held onto him, I was fine again. I was happy and having fun. I liked that everything was out of my hands, and that I was free of the responsibility of having to save my own life, and having to appear capable in front of others. It’s the same with surfing, I think — the fear isn’t that I can’t control the process, but that I have to. No one can ride a surfboard for me. It’s something only I can do. And it scares me.
Another friend, however, told me that in class, when we had to speak out loud in Spanish, she felt the same way. She said her hands shook, her heart raced and most of the time, she wanted to cry. She seems like a fearless woman, who snowboards and shreds ATV trails, who is wildly confident and effervescent. But she, too, has fears she couldn’t control, and could wrestle with, but not overcome.
And when she told me that, it was like the sun came up.
In that moment, in the depths of my fear, it hadn’t occurred to me that I had my own real strengths, that not everyone shared. I wasn’t the best student in the class, but I was the most fearless. I would speak without worrying about mistakes. I love to MC weddings and dance (badly) in front of crowds, to speak in public and to be on stage. There is so much that I am afraid of, but I also have my own power.
I realised that there are things that I can do. And there are things I find very, very hard. I can be both people: capable and incapable. Fearless and fearful.
And I can forgive myself.
For so long I thought of forgiveness as an external act. But it’s also something we need to offer to ourselves, especially in times of pain. I forgive myself for panicking. I forgive myself for failing my expectations. I forgive myself for losing (maybe temporarily) a skill I thought I had: I once could drive a quad bike. I think I will be able to again, in the right environment, in the right circumstances. I forgive myself for being a person who needs a little more time, a little more care, a little more understanding than some others, in some situations.
I forgive myself for being anxious. I became the person I needed to be when I was in pain. I developed techniques that helped me stay alive in times of trauma. As I grew, I lost some things and gained others. And some remained the same. The anxiety remained, though I am not in pain anymore. The anxiety remained even though I don’t need it to save my life. It’s okay to be this person. I am okay as I am. I am enough.
And I forgive myself for being anxious. I became the person I needed to be when I was in pain. I developed techniques that helped me stay alive in times of trauma. As I grew, I lost some things and gained others. And some remained the same. The anxiety remained, though I am not in pain anymore. The anxiety remained even though I don’t need it to save my life. It’s okay to be this person. I am okay as I am. I am enough.
It has taken me so, so long to recognise this. But I’m here now.
And this is why I have grown tired of the rhetoric of overcoming fear. What if we just allowed ourselves to feel it? I don’t want to push myself to become a brilliant surfer or gutsy ATV-driver. I want to allow my bad days to coexist with the good, and try again when I am ready. I want to acknowledge my fear as a fundamental part of myself, and let it help to guide me in my decision making.
This is why I have grown tired of the rhetoric of overcoming fear. What if we just allowed ourselves to feel it?
Knowing your fear, I think, is different to allowing it to control you. It’s more like allowing it to walk beside you.
I will say that my anxiety has lessened over the years. When I was about 26 I finally found a doctor who saw it for what it was (the first time I saw a doctor for recurring panic attacks, as a teen, he told me I didn’t know how to breathe. Needless to say, he was a terrible doctor). The good doctor told me that she took a tablet for her anxiety every day, and it made the world of difference. I started taking medication too, and the world flipped back to how it had been years ago, when I felt free. When I could breath, regardless of technique.
I don’t take medication anymore. There are times when I think maybe I should, but a combination of exercise, true love and my dog back home have worked for me in the last few years. But there are still moments. There are days. Sometimes, there are weeks.
I think my anxiety will always be there. It’s a part of me that, conversely, actually makes me brave. It’s a kind of bravery I don’t hear that much about – a gentle kind, that doesn’t require a fight, but instead a sort of surrender.
I feel fear. I know fear. I walk with it, and I live my life, and I keep exploring.