Constantly living your life in fear keeps you from truly living.
Today while perusing the sale rack at the “spa store” inside the hotel where I’m staying to teach for 10 days in Palm Springs, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who was recently engaged. As I let glossy price tags slip between my fingers, she talked about wanting to get a tattoo that read: There are no shoes. Over half-price Trina Turk sundresses, we chatted about post traumatic stress disorder, and the ways in which a person who has experienced trauma is constantly waiting for the next tragedy to occur, the next shoe to drop. It’s addictive, agitating, and totally normal.
It’s also a form of self-punishment. If you don’t trust happiness, then you can’t experience it or enjoy it. “I’m just afraid it will disappear,” my friend said about being happy, this new state of mind and body. We agreed that it’s hard to trust in the goodness of the world when you’ve experienced brutality, uncertainty, or loss, and allowed yourself to really feel the precariousness of life rather than push it aside or file it away in a dusty compartment to be examined at a later date. I’m just afraid. We agreed that it’s uncool to be afraid in this culture; we’re supposed to be superwomen, supermoms, super partners, and super good at everything. My friend happens to be an exceptional poet, writer, and person, and yet she, like me, always feels as though she’s falling short.
The day before this encounter, I had driven from the airport to the hotel in a blaze of tears, the palm trees lining Highway 111 a blur of green and brown. I was thinking about my son, about his illness, about my own body, its own mortal life, about all the people I loved and the possibilities of losing them. It was a tunnel with no destination point, a wishing well with no soft earth to catch an earnestly tossed coin. Shoes falling all around; I imagined my son dying in the next six months, my parents dying; then I would get cancer, then my boyfriend would die, then all my friends would be wiped out by some freak virus. I was flooded with fear. It was not an unfamiliar feeling.
I was a fearful child who grew into a fearful adult. I was afraid to fly, afraid to offend, afraid to be abandoned—I moved through the world believing that everyone was angry with me or about to be. The counselor I saw when I was 6 years old, when I would not let my mother leave the house for fear that she would die, told me I was a perfectionist. When my parents drove to Taos for an anniversary trip when I was 10, I heard about “convicts” escaping from a New Mexico prison and was convinced my parents would be captured and killed, dropped down into the plot of a Flannery O’Connor story.
Fear is a classic self-protective mechanism; if you can head off the disaster or catastrophe, if you can get your pain all in one dose, then the brain tells itself that the heart can’t be broken. Although I have little memory of losing my foot at 4 years old, I have many memories of being in the hospital and watching my body change with each subsequent operation. My knee could bend before it was fused, and then it could not, which changed the way I walked. I collected scars like coins, like stamps, although nobody could see them. I examined them in private—the split skin eventually shrunk and faded to white as if it had aged and gone gray. And I was ashamed of looking different, and shame is a powerful motivator for fear; it is, in fact, the match, the kindling, the flame.
As I tried on designer sundresses (I waltzed out with two), I remembered working at Victoria’s Secret as a bra fitter, and how there wasn’t a single time I walked into a dressing room with my smile and my measuring tape and didn’t hear a woman say, “I’m sorry I’m so disgusting,” or “My body is horrifying,” or “Sorry you have to see this.” I thought about my friend, about her happiness, the way she feels it in her body, the way I will remember the feel of my son’s hand in mine, the way I used to feel as a child when I took my leg off at night and curled up with a book, which was the only time I felt unafraid; oddly, during those moments when I was most physically vulnerable. And I felt suddenly fierce, and weirdly happy, and proud, and a myriad of other emotions that had seemed distant and nonexistent less than 24 hours before as I barreled down a sunny highway weeping and being honked at by impatient southern California drivers.
I thought I wanted to write about how I wished I’d lived my childhood with less fear. Having written this I would say the opposite: If I hadn’t experienced fear, I never would have had that moment standing barefoot in front of a huge mirror in a resort hotel dressing room, rocketed by fearlessness. It wasn’t an aggressive emotion, but instead a feeling of lightness, a burst of hope.
There is trauma coming for me, for all of us eventually; that’s the truth. But it is also true that people survive it, and live through it, and find themselves standing in a store talking about happiness, and how it’s landed again, after all this time, and how precious it is, and how there are no shoes, truly, just moments, just this one life, this time, this one body.
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.