While I was traveling last week, I read the book Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave
. I'd picked it up because I'm always fascinated by anything to do with anxiety, and who doesn't want to be brave? It sounded like it would be right up my alley.
And it was, although not in quite the way I'd imagined. Each chapter tackles a different common fear – open water, driving, and death for example – and the author not only interviews lots of people about that fear and getting over it, she goes out and tries to conquer it herself. It's a great book for anyone who feels like anxiety is making their world smaller and smaller (which certainly resonates with me).
What I didn't expect to resonate, however, was the chapter that talked about swimming. I love to swim, and I don't have any fear of being in a pool or getting my face wet, so I thought that chapter would be the equivalent of tourism for me – looking in on a fear I don't share.
And yet . . . it turns out I am
afraid of swimming. Not of being in the pool and doing the actual work of getting from one end to the other – but rather of being in the locker room. I don't swim these days, and it's not because I scorn it. It's because the idea of going into an unfamiliar locker room pushes a score of buttons. I don't want to get naked; I don't want to see other people naked; I don't want to have to figure out the locker situation, or the showers. So I did some thinking – where does that come from?
And clear as day I thought about being in secondary school, and all the sports and swimming we did between age 12 and 14. Teenagers are cruel, we all know that. And I was on the losing end of that equation – I bet the girls who teased me were as nervous about their bodies as I was about mine, but I didn't know it then. I just remember hating
getting naked around them, and having them make fun of my breasts, or my body hair, or how I looked with wet hair.
Swimming was its own private awfulness. I swam, completely unselfconsciously, for a long while after my body changed, but then someone pointed and laughed and I realized I had hair sticking out of my swimsuit and no one else did. I tried to tuck it all away, but that's a losing battle, and no one I knew, adult or otherwise, ever talked to me about shaving. (I'm not saying I should
have shaved, but it would have been nice to know it was an option.) I went through a good couple of years of being deep conscious of my body hair and thinking something was wrong with me because I appeared to have so much while other girls didn't.
That feeling has stuck with me, beyond the point of being able to make choices about my body. But I hadn't realized how much
it had stuck with me until I read this book – how much that experience was preventing me from doing something I really like, that could keep me fit and get me moving.
I have to do something about this. I have to figure out how to get back in the pool, and perhaps a local friend can help and go with me. But wow, what a revelation that I wasn't seeking!
There's also a chapter about driving, and I have a special fear of driving after dark. Eight years ago a deer ran into my car on the interstate, and I have done everything in my power since then to avoid driving at night. On the one hand that seems sort of rational, right? You can't see deer very well once it's dark; it did a lot of damage to me and the car; I could have ended up in a worse wreck than I did; I could have hurt my passenger; I should lower my risk. And yet . . . if I think about how many times I drive my car as opposed to how many times a deer has hit it, it's not rational at all.
One of the women in the book who was relearning to drive after an accident told her instructor the story of her wreck during the first lesson. The instructor turned to her and said, "That's just the story you're telling yourself so that you don't have to drive." She didn't say it meanly; she wasn't trying to mock her. She was simply pointing out that repeating the story was a defense mechanism, a way of not trying. And I was thunderstruck. How many stories do we all have that are about excusing ourselves of trying?
I read that chapter on a plane, knowing I'd be driving in the dark after I landed in a place I didn't know, in a car I didn't know, in snow I didn't feel ready to deal with. And so I had to change my story. I catalogued all the things I was doing to be responsible and in control – I bought water before I left; I drove slower than I usually would; I reminded myself that a deer had only ever hit me once. And despite some dodgy conditions (more than one white-out spot) I got to my destination safely. It felt pretty nerve-wrecking to do it, but as the author says, doing things that make us feel uncomfortable is part of life. Or it should be – otherwise we're letting life contract.
I've now developed a curious, reflexive habit of asking myself if I'm afraid of something as I go about my day. Do I hang back from certain opportunities because of something I'm scared might happen? Do I have more stories like that one about the locker room ready to be unearthed? Where else can I expand my life, rather than let it become smaller? And one of the places I think I have to studiously expand things is in the realm of fun. I've given up watching most TV; I rarely go to the movies; I've stopped producing fanfic. And I realized, poking at that, that I'm afraid of feeling things
. I get the multiple ways that has come about in my life, and how me and feelings are a long work in progress, but it was startling to me how much I choose not to feel on a daily basis by rejecting things that used to bring me joy.
So this is my new plan: to seek out joy; to keep asking myself what I'm afraid of; to interrogate those fears so that they don't take on the mantle of truth. And I'm going to swim again, and drive myself places after dark. It's not a new year, but those are my resolutions.