Fear and Loathing in Massachusetts

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For Day 10 of the Migraine & Headache Awareness Blogging Challenge, we were asked to view the above video and respond to its content.

I found the video and its speaker very engaging. Perhaps this is because my therapist is forever telling me that fear can teach us very valuable things about ourselves, life, and our perceptions of both. I wasn’t a particularly fearful child. I enjoyed roller coasters and Ferris wheels and thunderstorms. I was often pulled inside by an adult as I gazed in awe at the green-shaded sky that Midwesterners know inevitably precedes tornadoes. I didn’t much fear the dark or monsters or animals. Somehow, when I turned 13, a switch was flipped and I became incredibly anxious.

Diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and panic attacks, I began to fear things that made no sense to me or other people. That was one of the cruelest things about OCD: the sufferer was aware of the ridiculousness of their fears but seemingly powerless over them. I didn’t have the oft-publicized handwashing or excessively clean OCD. I had the kind that made me believe that, if I picked the wrong fork, my dad’s plane would crash or that, if I didn’t turn the light switch on the lamp 11 times, a loved one would get in a car crash. These were not the kind of fears that taught me much at all but rather made learning of any kind very difficult.

Of course, I also worried about realistic things but I wrote the story of those fears and several sequels before I even knew if the fear would come true. Case in point: I feared I’d fail a biology test. A common fear among students. But I kept on fearing: I’d fail the test. The teacher would get angry. My parents would yell. I’d be grounded. I’d miss a big party while grounded. The boy I liked would like another girl who was at the party, who was not grounded, who was smart. I’d fall behind and fail the class and have to re-take it. I’d end up repeating my grade and not graduating with my class and my peers and friends and I’d get a late start on life and…and…and…

These kinds of thoughts would all take place at the first mention of the test. Not the night before the test. Not the night after the test. I concocted story after story of the destruction of my life with little attention to the idea that something might go right. Better to prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised by less than the worst, that was my motto.

When my chronic migraines began, I gave shockingly little thought to the story. And this is where actuality surpassed my wildest fears. I was used to things never turning out as bad as I had imagined and here I was, all of a sudden, being blindsided by a reality worse than my fears. I was so angry. I had worked so hard to prepare myself for the worst so that I would NEVER BE TAKEN OFF-GUARD. I was furious and my visceral mind vowed to never let that happen again.

I identify with those men on the ship. I fear theoretical cannibals and storms so much that I take the longer, likely more pessimistic and difficult route. I avoided acupuncture and Botox treatments for an extraordinarily long time because I was terrified of needles. It turns out that those were two of the treatments that had the most effect on my chronic migraines. I skirted around the idea of filing for disability in and after college because I was ashamed to think of myself (and have others think of me) as disabled. I could’ve had help with classes and professors. I could’ve been saving money and not constantly worrying about paying bills or losing my job. There are so many things I avoided because of fear. I fear I’ll never be rid of my chronic migraines. I fear I’ll pass them on to my children. I fear friends and loved ones will get sick of my illness and my fear and abandon me. I have written tragic endings to stories that are nowhere near finished yet. Some haven’t even begun.

I recently came across a quote that really spoke to me and caused me to look at my fears a little differently. Anthony Robbins said “Let fear be a counselor and not a jailer.” Fear had been my jailer for so long. What could I learn from fear if I saw it as a counselor helping me instead of a jailer holding me hostage? All of a sudden, I had agency over my fears. Once fear was no longer a jailer, I had power over it. That’s not to say I don’t still have fears or anxieties but I am learning ways to push through them.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was being introduced to Mindfulness. Mindfulness, simply put, is “paying attention in the present moment on purpose and without judgement” (Jon Kabat-Zinn.) The idea is to notice your thoughts, label them, and let them pass, like clouds in the sky or leaves on a river. That all sounds very New Agey and over-simplified when I write it but it’s POWERFUL stuff. Let’s revisit middle school me and my fear about my biology test. Had I known about Mindfulness then, I would’ve thought “I’m going to fail the test. I’m feeling anxious about the test” and then returned my thoughts to the present moment, paying attention to my breathing or the feeling of my feet on the floor or the wind on my face. I might think to myself “I have not taken the test yet. I do not know how I will do.” Being comfortable with uncertainty is a huge part of Mindfulness, as is acceptance. By rooting myself in the present moment, I could tune into my body’s response to the fear and calm myself down, likely improving the outcome of the test in the process. I’d also have been kinder to myself. Instead of thoughts like “There you go again, worrying. You’re so stupid. You’re never going to pass this test”, I’d allow myself to feel my feelings without hooking into them or squelching them. Instead of capturing my feelings or violently shoving them away, I could have just allowed my feelings to be and when we allow our feelings just to be, that is when they are our greatest teacher.

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