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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Fear

January 2020

Adrenalin surges. Heart pounds louder, faster. Face reddens. Hands tremor. Breaths become more rapid. Thoughts of past fears leap to the foreground despite efforts to crush them. My near-death experience lies hidden for thirty years, the fear too great to let it surface. I trundle into other fears, pile them one atop another to force myself to crack under their weight. It doesn’t work. Paul, the elevator man, assaults me. Johnny tries to rape me; he does. Men assault me in my dreams. Strange men of a certain mien terrify me as I walk down a city street. Must I live my life in fear? Must you? 

My father understood better than anyone else, better than I, when and why I was afraid. He comforted me as my mother watched from her Island of Oblivion. Then one Friday we all kissed good-bye after breakfast and he never came home again. I held his hand in the hospital that night, saw his arms turn cyanotic and knew I had added, renewed really, one more fear and there was no one else to guide me. Except me. 

 I raved I screamed I cried for two more decades until one day I said Enough of this. I’m tired of carrying all these albatrosses in a sack slung across my back. I opened a drawer and hauled out my brush, my comb, my paper and pencil, all my ideas, my mirror, and scissors to cut the bag to release the dead albatrosses. I turned the mirror to the wall and wrote all the wonderful things about me I could think. I wrote things other people had said about me—intelligent, beautiful, talented, great teacher, well balanced—I wrote them anyway, even though I didn’t believe them. I gave up the yes, but, if you knew the real me…. I gave that up the day my mother said in response to my compliment “This old dress! I’ve had it for years.” (Yes, and I’ve liked that dress all those years.) I began to live without the fear of assault, without the fear of my own death. 

 My face still reddens, my pulse increases, and my hands shake a little when I think about if I were a soldier in a small unit trying to clear a street of IEDs or moving up an alley to confront an enemy around the next corner. These are physical responses the military teaches people to blunt before combat. Thoughts must be clear before action. Scrub those fears and urges from your brain. Otherwise, it gets too messy in there and you don’t think straight. Grab that brain brush—it looks a lot like a toothbrush only the handle is shorter and narrower and the bristles soft and minute. Why didn’t someone give me such a brain brush when I was five? Why didn’t someone teach me as I lay like Colin in The Secret Garden that I would be fine? Why didn’t someone tell me to slap a man’s face if he touched my breast uninvited? Untaught those skills, I learned fear. 

 Inner behaviors, or the urge to act in response to one of them, have 25 to 47.5 reasons, depending on the person and situation. I know that’s an odd range, but that’s what at least a half a dozen people have said—“There are 35 reasons I’m leaving this job and town.” “There are 47.5 reasons why I stay in this abusive relationship.” “There are 33 Gates of Wisdom to reach God.” I wrote the reasons why I stayed with the research of human behavior and there were 25. Today, knowing I have epilepsy (see my November 2019 blog post in Flashbacks or Personal Thoughts), I realize there are 26 reasons for my behaviors. 

 One day as I walked from the convention center to the hotel with a veteran colleague, we passed a trash bin. I didn’t even notice it. He did, only by now he had merely a verbal acknowledgement and the backstory of it. He said how any trash container had once made him fearful, a leftover from trash piles in Iraq—the ones that too often hid an IED. After coming home, he generalized trash piles in a war zone to trash containers stateside. Subsequent therapy had taught him not to fear those at home. 

At a different conference thirty years ago, I met a lovely man, small in stature, giant in ideas and research. Joseph Wolpe was a psychiatrist turned behaviorist who had developed a way to desensitize people from their fears whether fear of spiders or other things such as trash cans, frogs, or someone walking up behind a person unexpectedly. Wolpe was in his eighties and had both expansive personality and intelligence. When I told him the work I was doing, it seemed he bounced up and down he was so excited. I’m sure he didn’t bounce, but he definitely rewarded me with his excitement.

What prompted me to begin to study thoughts, feelings, and urges? One day in 1969, I counted the times my partner insulted me or complimented me. I was sure the insults would be much higher than the compliments. Was I wrong! He gave me about 20 compliments for every putdown, and this was in 45 minutes. Sadly, that’s a lot of compliments I had probably ignored in the previous few years. I also began to count different thoughts and feelings in various settings. When I taught graduate school at a couple of universities in Oregon and Kansas I assigned my students to count some project on their thoughts or feelings in addition to student learning and their own learning, one assignment I gave was to count some inner behavior—a behavior that the person had inside. It was almost always women who chose to count positives about themselves—probably twenty-five women for every one man. 

 As well as thoughts and feelings, there is also the inner behavior of urges, but I didn’t have a good handle on that fifty years ago. However, I think fear and urges are closely related. Not only do we have sexual urges and urges for food or cigarettes, we also have urges to flee or avoid that are related to a fearful object or situation.

For me to begin to look at fear took our recent wars. I saw how some young people in our community and country came home. I saw how some veterans reacted. For me, fear mainly occurred in cities. I now live in the woods of Alaska. I recognize a bear or a moose if I see one. I do not recognize a potential mugger or abuser walking down a city street or in an elevator. He may wear a suit and tie or casual clothes and look like any other man.

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