Most of my life has been defined by my fears, despite my best intentions. Yet, when I sit here, trying to type out what I want to express about it, I find myself at a loss for words. There are a few quotes I thought of including in this. Perhaps starting with the words of someone wiser than myself is a good way to start.
That someone is, of course, The Doctor.
“Let me tell you about “scared”. Your heart is beating so hard; I can feel it through your hands. There is so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel! Right now, you could run faster, and you could fight harder; you could jump higher than ever in your life, and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time! What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! It’s your superpower! There is danger in this room and guess what, it’s you! Do you feel it?” – The Doctor, in Doctor Who, ‘Listen’
I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of fear the last few days, since I discovered that my son’s anxiety included other symptoms I hadn’t known about previously. I found myself turning to Doctor Who, not just for comfort as usual (though reaching for much of that as well), but out of curiosity, and a desire to learn and better understand the nuances of fear.
One of my bigger complaints about the most recent couple of seasons of the show has been that it has been getting scarier, and is thus losing much of its family friendly nature. Luckily, my kiddo has been kind of aging along with the show’s growing maturity level, but even then, he can only watch roughly half of the episodes in any given season. While I found it frustrating as a parent that the show was touching on so many primal and dark fears (depriving me of the pleasure of sharing many episodes with my son), lately I am finding myself grateful for that exact quality of episode, because it is helping me better analyze those primal fears.
I have always been unable to watch scary/suspenseful movies and television shows. I have chalked this up to many different causes over the years, but it has held true even as the believed reasons have changed. When I was a child, I thought I was just “chicken”, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t handle media that other kids my age digested without fear. Into my teens, I described it as an inability to “disconnect” myself from the media; I immerse deeply into whatever I watch, without intent or the capacity to stop it, and because it feels so real to me, I naturally avoid the scarier end of the spectrum. Eventually, I realized that much of my fear and immersion stems from a combination of dissociation (the inability to disconnect is like the flip side of derealization: the unreal feels real.) and the fact that I have a hyperactive parasympathetic nervous system, which causes me to be a few steps closer to fight-or-flight than most people are at a base line.
To try to put this in perspective: I slept with the lights on for a month after seeing Signs, I had to get tipsy to make it through both Secret Window and I Am Legend, and I literally fled the room about a half hour into The Strangers. I don’t even attempt watching straight up horror movies. While I have a huge passion for suspense and thriller novels (Dean Koontz for the win!), something about the visual and auditory stimulation in film style media makes me unable to convince my nervous system that it isn’t real, even as my conscious mind is completely aware that it is not real and not actually happening to me. Playing Fallout 3 (one of the few video games I’ve ever enjoyed) for more than an hour will leave me shaking and sweating, with adrenaline pumping through my veins; each virtual gun battle leaves my body feeling as if I am genuinely fighting for my life.
When I first was introduced to Doctor Who, the week after my Dad passed away, it was a source of great comfort to me. That comfort was so profound that I will love the show forever; it gave me hope when I had none.
There were, of course, some scary episodes in each season from the beginning (A word to the wise: don’t let your kids watch Silence in the Library if you ever want them to sleep again). There were even a few episodes that were scary enough to trigger my fight-or-flight reflex, which I have worked hard to learn to keep at bay. But even in the scariest episodes, the Doctor himself brought so much hope and beauty and optimism into it that I found myself being able to handle things that normally would have sent me running for the nearest exit.
So naturally, where else would I go in this time of crisis, as I try to find a way to guide my son through fear and anxiety?
The current show-runner and head writer for Doctor Who is Steven Moffat, and he is also the guest-writer responsible for some of the scariest (and best) episodes of Doctor Who from the Russell T. Davies era of the show (The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, Blink, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, etc). He created two recurring villain alien races (The Silence and The Weeping Angels) that are both brilliant in terms of playing on very deep seated, primal fears. From a character/story creation standpoint, they are fascinating, compelling, and terrifying foes for The Doctor to face. Steven Moffat has quite a knack for coming up with such psychologically terrifying stories.
I have watched one particular episode repeatedly over the last few days, called Listen (Season 8 Episode 4, for anyone who is interested). Be warned, the night is dark and full of spoilers.
‘Listen’ begins with the Doctor, alone in his Tardis, theorizing (apparently to himself) about why we speak out loud sometimes when we know we are alone. His theory? We speak aloud because we know, deep down, that we really aren’t alone at all. Evolution perfects survival skills, such as hunting and defense, so why is there no creature that has perfected the art of hiding? Perhaps there are, because if there were a creature whose primary drive was to stay hidden from view, and evolution had perfected that skill, how would you even know? The only way you would know would be when, for seemingly no reason at all, you choose to speak aloud when you are alone. The episode goes on to explore the concept of why everyone is afraid of what’s underneath the bed or lurking in the closet at night, why everyone has experienced that feeling of the hair standing up on the back of their neck, and the occasional feeling that someone is watching them, even when all logic says otherwise.
The quote I began this entry with is pulled from that episode, as the Doctor speaks to a young boy who is afraid of the very real creature that is in the room with them. I love the quote and I wish (yet again) that some of these episodes weren’t so scary, so I could share them with my kiddo already.
‘Listen’ is the epitome of an episode that he cannot watch because it would scare him out of his wits, and that is why I have been watching it so intently, over and over, as I try to figure out how to proceed. The concept it addresses is, at its core, the same concept that is frightening my son: a feeling of being watched, a creeping paranoia that there is someone or something out to get him, out of sight, just past the edge of his vision.
Now, I want to make a clear delineation here that a fear like this, especially in kids, is not necessarily indicative of mental illness at all. There is a reason that we enjoy such creations in our books and films: they touch on fears that we can all relate to in some way, fears that are primal or foundational enough that we all have a touchstone to them. But I know for a fact that, in my son’s case, it is either a distinct part of his mental illness, or it is a natural childhood fear that is being exacerbated by his existing anxiety issues, which has led to a nervous tic where he flits his eyes from side to side, just for a moment, sporadically, in a compulsive rather than intentional manner. Now that I know of his paranoia (a stronger word than I would prefer, but the closest-to-accurate word I have) about being watched, the formation of the nervous tic makes much more sense: he is checking his periphery, subconsciously making sure that there is nothing or no one there.
When he told me about the specific fear, and we pieced together it’s connection with his nervous tic, I could watch, in real time, the tic become less frequent. The effect was almost immediate. Yes, he is still doing it, but the frequency began to slow as soon as we made the connection. Because we’d already had his eyes checked by a doctor and they found nothing wrong with either his eyes themselves or his vision, the fear that had led to the nervous tic began to spin faster, turning into fear of the tic itself and fear of being afflicted with something unknown. Simply knowing that there was a name for what was happening to him seemed to provide a lot of comfort, much the same way that labeling his anxiety for what it was seemed to reduce his fear of it.
My son asked me once, a year or two ago, why people (himself included) were afraid of the dark. While it would have been easier, I’m sure, to say something along the lines of “It’s just a fear that everyone has as a child.”, that would have been an injustice to him and to the complexity of the question. While we talked about some of the practical information that can help assuage the fear (like how dark isn’t actually a tangible thing itself, it is merely the absence of light), the most important point that I kept coming back to was that, at the end of the day, the dark is merely a representation of the unknown. We fear what we do not know and understand, and being afraid of the dark is one of the simplest, most universally experienced fears within the human condition because all people, children and adults alike, are afraid of the unknown.
Our individual fears are as unique as our individual identities, but they usually can be boiled down to simple, primal drives and fears that are common throughout the entirety of the human race. What’s in the dark? What’s under the bed? Imagination is a powerful thing, and can provide an endless supply of terrifying answers to these questions.
I will always view imagination as a positive force, both in my life and in the universe as a whole. As someone who believes in a Creator, imagination turns into more than just a positive force; it becomes a necessary component in the recipe for reality, and therefore any positive or negative connotation is either non-existent or irrelevant in the face of necessity. The God that I see and believe in is a passionate, creative Artist, pouring out love and mercy into every stroke of His paintbrush. The God I follow is not merely an imaginative being; He is imagination personified. The reality I inhabit is His imagination made tangible. History is an interwoven rug: each life, each thread, is simultaneously vital to the integrity of the whole, and yet completely ignorant of the part that it plays in the overall tapestry. My God is the Seamstress, the Architect, the Composer, the Lover, the Analyst, and the Redeemer.
My point about imagination’s neutrality-via-necessity is this: the God Whose artistry I love so dearly, and Whom I struggle against so willfully, is also the God Whose imagination created this lovely deep sea fish.
Imagination. Such a double edged sword, isn’t it? Because without imagination, we would also be deprived of beauty like this:
And without imagination, we would also be spared the knowledge that there is a soul-eating monstrosity of a demon fish on our planet who may or may not have ambitions to take over the world.
The needle sharp point at the end of that double edged sword? Imagination created that beauty. Imagination created that deep sea nightmare. And Imagination created the miniature movie in my mind about an army of Angler Fish taking over the world, while also inspiring every single person who looks at Starry Night to take something utterly unique away from it that is different than what any other person could have ever seen: a static painting that looks different through each and every set of eyes.
Imagination and Creation are fundamentally one and the same. The Imagination is the impetus, the idea, and the Creation is the act of building that idea and urge into something real.
A friend said to me recently that there is a fine line between an overactive imagination and mental illness. As I’ve thought about it in the intervening days, I keep finding new insight there each time I revisit it. My life has basically been one long example of that fact. And now I am the mother to a precious boy who is precariously straddling that fine line.
I know all too well the feeling of my imagination running away with me, taking me to places inside myself that I didn’t know existed, and sometimes would have preferred to continue being blissfully unaware of.
But I also know that same power of imagination (and the beautiful and the abominable that can spring from it) is a necessity, a gift, and the special ingredient that gives us the potential to make ourselves more today than we were yesterday.
We wouldn’t have paintings like Starry Night if we lacked the imagination to wonder what could be lurking under the bed (most likely, an Angler Fish). Fear is a natural response to many of the things we imagine, but is fear really so unbearable that it is worth losing the beauty that imagination also brings into the world?
There is a powerful conflict between the warrior and the mother within my mind when I try to answer that question. Being a mother is about protection, and the desire to spare my child from fear and pain is woven into my very being, both a biological and a moral imperative that cannot be ignored. Being a warrior, in my personal definition, is defined by courage and defiance in the face of risk and peril, a willingness to fight for good, even when waging that war means having to wade through the evil and the darkness in order to eventually reach the light. Continuing to fight even through the darkest of hours is the core of my identity, the principle I am the most proud of, and the beacon of the best of who I am and who I can be.
Which is what brings me here. A mother: the immovable object. A warrior: the unstoppable force.
In my own life, I chose the warrior path. I decided to suffer the pains of this life with all the grace I can muster, building my entire life philosophy around the idea that pain is a necessary and even beneficial part of life. I chose that my role in this grand production of gods, devils, humanity, space, time, work, sleep, family, bus tickets, love letters and taxes; my purpose, is to be the woman who never stops getting back up. Hit after hit, no matter how many times I’ve been knocked to my knees, staggering to my feet and telling life that she hits like a bitch is my part to play. And I play my part well.
Being a mother is different than any other role or purpose or principle. It runs beneath the rest, a constant undercurrent, the pull to nurture, protect, and guide your child. And the choice of how he approaches living his life, the decision between the warrior mentality and the mindset of those who try to avoid the risk of pain and fear that fighting back incurs, should not be mine to make. It is my job to guide him, but just because the warrior path was the right choice for me doesn’t mean it is the right choice for him. So how can I know how to lead? Which path am I to guide him down, knowing that a person’s life philosophy should be an invention of their own, not simply a regurgitation of someone else’s beliefs?
These are rhetorical questions: the answers will come in time, and the asking of the question is often more influential than the receipt of the answer anyway.
The fear is in the coin toss. My fear is fundamentally the same as my sons. Fear of an unknown and unguaranteed outcome. At the end of the day, all fear is really just a fear of the dark.
I will leave you with a quote from FDR’s inaugural address, containing one of the most well loved and commonly known pearls of wisdom regarding fear. I hope it helps you as it helps me, particularly in its expanded form.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
So, it is time to fight for advancement. Good thing I chose play the warrior.