The last time I felt invincible, I came from doing fifty laps in the pool to prepare for a swim match. I remember beating my coach’s stopwatch. Thirty minutes later, I sat in my bedroom, smelling like chlorine, my hair sopping wet, my shoulders hot like coals. A current of endorphins sweeping through my body. I felt like I could do anything. That was twenty years ago. Time passed. I stopped swimming. I stopped dancing. I stopped doing and feeling a lot of things. I just, stopped.
I don’t remember when things changed. I can only point to certain life events, each with their own varying levels of stress. They were not in any way extraordinary or particularly unique. The things that happened to me happen to everyone. But one day I woke up, and was this person I did not recognize. I was no longer this happy, funny, invincible girl. Life happened, and I was a casualty.
Yes there’s been joy and contentment. I come from a loving family, I had a magical childhood, my teenage years were carefree, I married a wonderful man, and we have two beautiful children. Happy days buoyed me. But I could not hold on to the HAPPY strong enough, or long enough. The UNHAPPY always seemed stronger. And it gave birth to fear. My black dog.
I don’t know what sort of fear. Just a general fear. A fear of life, if there ever was a thing. Life and everything that came with it. When my fears became real, they were crippling, wrenching. And in the aftermath it would often decide to stay, lurking in the corner. Waiting for another chance to bite.
When my kids were toddlers. they were plagued with a slew of stomach bugs and bouts with the flu, so often, I don’t remember much of anything else that year. For about seven months, it was a blur of late night ER trips, sleeping at the foot of cold hospital beds, wiping vomit off the floor, and waiting for fevers, and myself, to break. I watched my son, as he breathed rapidly in his sleep, and I dreaded that spike of a mysterious fever that was imminent. In the half light of my room the black dog hissed, “He’s really sick. I don’t think he’s going to make it.” But of course he did. And when he did I collapsed into my bed for days, and tried to summon a relief that would not come, because the fear persisted in a way that still haunts me. It hissed, “Your daughter is next.”
Becoming a mother made me vastly more fearful. The world was suddenly a scarier place. I was afraid to leave my kids in school. I was afraid of strangers, field trips, food poisoning, and mosquitoes. Afraid of bugs and fevers. Of freak accidents that I read about on the internet. But it wasn’t only about the kids.
I was afraid of driving alone and getting lost. Of meetings in high-rise buildings. Of elevators. Of earthquakes and typhoons. Of becoming a victim of a crime. Of deadlines and errands. Of my parents falling ill. Of any sort of crisis. Of terrorism. Of my husband’s business trips. Of trips in general. Of failure. And of change. Finally and insidiously, the fear found its place in my everyday life.
It’s true, some of these things are genuinely frightening. But instead of navigating them with common sense, perspective and even courage, I let the fear win. This is the world, this is our reality. This is life and it’s not always rosy or even safe. So what are you going to do, right? I’ll tell you what I did. I lost my ability to cope. It took me forever to recover from any crisis. And even when it wasn’t a crisis, it was still hard. Because fear complicates everything.
Road trips: What if someone throws up in the car? What if a tire blows out?
Vacations: What if the kids get bored? What if I don’t get to sleep?
Meetings: What if I’m late? What if they don’t like me?
Doctor’s visits: What if they find something serious?
Children’s parties: What if my food gives the kids food poisoning?
Watching a movie: What if there’s a fire and we can’t get out?
Simple tasks became overdrawn, stress tests tormented by what ifs. After the big earthquake and tsunami in Japan there was a lot of talk about the big one in Manila. Naturally, I agonized about it for weeks. How we would run out of our building. What I would do if I got trapped in an elevator. What if my husband got trapped in his car in his office basement? What if I couldn’t reach the children? Over skype I told my brother in law, “I’m tired of being afraid,” in such an emotionless way that completely disguised what was really a plea.
I. Am. Tired. Of. Being. Afraid.
Some days I would snap at myself for being such a wimp. I couldn’t understand how billions of people could live normally and happily, seemingly void of any form of anxiety, and I wasn’t one of them. Was there some part of my brain that had switched? Am I living in some kind of Matrix? This wasn’t me.
Even creative projects, like DIYs and short films, my great joys, were no longer worth the trouble. What if I sucked and failed, I didn’t want to deal with that. The creative process sometimes involves failure. But forget it. I didn’t want to feel any of that.
Finally, I thought the solution was to just NOT DO anything that required any amount of courage or risk. I would take this route, I told of myself, just so the torment would stop. If it meant no more suffering, I wanted to surrender to a diminished life. Except that the prospect filled me with a profound sadness. I was killing the person I could be. Then one day, I killed my car’s batteries.
It happened in the driveway of my daughter’s pre-school. I left too many things on while the engine was off. The car wouldn’t start. I was in my pajamas, had no money, and my phone was dead. Panic mode. This is going to be a disaster. Until some well-meaning people offered to jumpstart the batteries just like that. I didn’t even have to step out of the car. My kids were in the backseat the whole time. I drove out to head home, almost in the verge of tears, then my daughter said, “What happened mommy?”
“Oh. The batteries died,” I said. “I think we need to change it. Thank God those nice people helped us….Anyway!” I turned on the radio. “What song is this?” Then we carried on like nothing happened. Then it hit me. My kids were 4 and 5 then. Old enough to have opinions, to retain more information, to learn from my reactions. MY REACTIONS. I handled that battery fail pretty well. What about everything else?
I started to think back, nervously. How many times did I lose it in front of my kids? How many times did I act scared, or irritated because I was scared. Panicky for no reason? Hysterical? Do they remember any of those? Will they remember me as a fun-less, vulnerable, spineless coward? Will they become that way too? That filled me with grief. And resolve. I was going to stop being so scared. I was going to stop being such a worrier. To stop letting fear dictate my life. I was going to be my better self.
My kids are now 7 and 8. For the past couple of years I have been carefully watching how I react in the face of difficulty and crisis both big and small. My kids are always watching. I always knew this of course. But I didn’t reckon it would be quite the task. I can tell you now that people who sincerely try to better themselves for the sake of their children are attempting something heroic.
Once a fire broke out so close to our apartment some of the fumes started to fill our living room. My daughter witnessed this frantic woman who quickly unravelled before her eyes. Arms flailing and screaming in the driveway. Taking her cue, my daughter threw up right there in our living room. That woman was not me.
I calmly grabbed some stuff. Told my kids that we would clean up later, that we would be back in our house. That it would not burn down. That we should just leave because of the smoke. Walk, don’t run.
Later that day, after dinner, we ate some goopy key lime pie and laughed about the vomiting. Laughed! Not at my daughter, but with her. We had gone through a crisis but we were now laughing about it. “Linny,” I told her later before tucking her in. “I know that was scary but we learn not to panic, because when we do, we can’t think. What did mommy do?” She smiled shyly and said, “Not puke.”
Oh, I’m not suddenly jumping off cliffs or letting my kids pet alligators. I’m not suddenly fearless or cavalier about anything and I am never complacent. But I am learning to let go of the things that I cannot control. Sometimes I do my “nervous dance” in front of my kids. It’s my little amateur tap dance and it always makes them laugh. Sometimes I do it even when they’re not watching, and it makes me laugh. Laughter helps a lot, and exercise. I swim again! I long to do it more. And I dance till my body sweats out all the cares of this world. I don’t feel invincible. But who is?
When I’m worried about something I don’t pretend that I’m not. I don’t hide it when I’m worried, when I’m sad, or when I’m disappointed. I don’t hide my tears when tears are called for. But I show my kids that I pick myself up and carry on. I hope it teaches them resilience. When something scares me I’ll do it anyway. I hope it teaches them courage.
I trust in the kindness of people, like those strangers who helped me with my car. And I will always believe that the world is filled with people like that. Quiet heroes who will help slay your secret demons.
The black dog is still here. I told it, you can stay. But I am your master. Sorry if I forget to feed you. I’m no longer abundant with fear. If you want to leave, there’s the door.
My children’s existence drove me to look at my own like nothing else has. I mother them selflessly, I try anyway, and by some wondrous quirk in God’s universe they return the favor by compelling me towards my better self. What they’ve taught me is that, it isn’t so much my better self as it is my old self. Only better. And they’ve lead me home to it.
Looking at photos of their toddler years my son once asked me, “Mommy, is this when I was always sick?”
“Yes,” I said. “You and your sister.”
“But not so much now because I’m stronger?”
“Yes,” I told him. “Yes you are.”
And so am I.
*Illustration by Ina Amor Mejia, inspired by the art of Monument Valley.