Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Tips of the Trees

Over the last six months or so, I've been focused on moving past some of my biggest fears: making mistakes, surrendering control, and not allowing the judgements of others to rule my daily life. In these areas, I have made enormous progress, and while I still stumble from time to time, I have solidified my changes enough to believe that the worst is behind me. I know I can move on from here and be more conscious of what is actually happening, as opposed to blindly and slavishly living with no awareness of the bondage I was once in to these fears.

Progress in these areas is a beautiful thing, but I've noticed that fear creates a vacuum. Where one thing has lost its grip on me, others have rushed in to take its place: death, aging, and losing my mental health. I would list fear of flying here, as this has been on my mind more than usual with our November flight to Mexico creeping closer on the calendar, but somehow I understand on a base level that my fear of flying is tied up in these other fears, for if I am prepared to die at any time, then going on a plane should not terrify me, but yet it does.

Over the last few months, I've been grateful to my pastor at church for speaking about death. Telling myself, "Whether you are alive or dead, you are in God's hands" helps me most of the time with this big fear, but when I match it up with getting on an airplane, it seems to go up a notch. In the dead of night, when I feel nervous about flying, I try to be honest with myself about where the fear is coming from.

I think we must feel our way through these fears, and do our best to tie it back to the right source in order to get some distance from it. When fear attacks me, I feel it as nervousness, with physical symptoms like sweaty palms, a tightness in my stomach, and a tendency to breathe shallowly and struggle against panic.

Breathing deeply helps, but I am no longer tempted to distract myself like I used to. When I use distractions, it simply delays the fear and I want it to stop revisiting me. I don't want to drown it out or push it away, because it needs to be stared down and experienced before I can begin to deal with it. I need to get above it, or it becomes a situation where I can't see the forest for the trees.

This happened the other night with my fear of flying. I couldn't sleep, and I tried to visualize getting on the plane with my husband and my kids, and flying for four and a half hours to Mexico. Imagining the palm trees and the water and the imminent relaxation doesn't help. Visualizing a smooth, non-turbulent flight doesn't help either, because you never know when turbulence might hit and I want to learn to stay calm and not panic no matter what may occur.

Logically I can tell myself that planes don't go down because of turbulence, and that whether I am alive or dead, I am in God's hands, but I'm trying to get to the root of my fear. For the first time, I let my mind nose ahead, and go where it wanted, and I realized with a shock that I am actually afraid of the inside of my own mind. I am worried that I will panic, and begin to lose my grip on reality, and not have anywhere to go to hide because I am stuck on an airplane.

For some of you, that may sound ludicrous, and I can fully admit that it is. But my dad was mentally ill, and the seeds of that illness can be passed from parent to child, and I fear that those roots are living inside of me. Worrying about this on a daily basis is the same as panicking that I will get cancer or rabies or Alzheimer's, and I try to have faith that God will look after me, and only manage what comes and not prepare for what might never come.

Going on a plane is not the same as daily life, at least in my mind. It's a small and confined space that somehow mimics the inside of my own head, and I don't want to panic and lose control of myself. Just typing it here helps me to rise above it enough to see the tips of the trees, and it gives me enough to hold onto so the fear can loosen its steel grip on me.

Our lives are complicated, with one fear and experience tied into another, each stemming from something which we often have no conscious awareness of. I'm learning to stop controlling my life so carefully and loosen the reins so my imagination can go where it wants to and tell me what I need to know to get better and stronger. Fearing my own limitations won't get me anywhere, but recognizing where the fear comes from and why it has taken hold gives me a chance to look at each problem, tree by tree, with just a little more objectivity than I had before.

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