Some time ago, I sat across from my professor and talked about different types of fear. He was very interested in how I, as a member of the military, processed fear in a deployed environment. Like most of the things my professors asked me, I hadn’t thought about my fear before. But I want to try to think about it now, and what I’ve concluded is: There isn’t much that scares me anymore.
I used to play around with fear. If there was a group going to the haunted houses for Halloween, I was there. Game of flashlight tag in a cemetery? Let’s do it. Scary movie marathon? Can’t wait. Death-defying roller coaster drop? Let’s go again. The charge of electrons that sparked in my brain when it came to being scared was something I sought after as much as I could, in very safe and predictable ways. In all those situations, the thing that I allowed to scare me was controlled. I was secure in the knowledge that the roller coaster would wind its way back to the start, and I would soon find myself safe on the loading platform again. I knew the scary movie wasn’t real, and the folks in the cemetery were not the same as those from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, waiting to break through their dirt-packed resting places and snatch at my ankles (That video was terrifying when I was a kid!). Those safe experiences brought a younger type of fear. It was flimsy and tin-foil thin, and it could be broken through anytime I wanted simply by reminding myself that it wasn’t real.
During my deployments, there were times when I was nervous about being harmed; times when I was grateful for the weight of my small bowie-knife bouncing against the outside of my leg as I walked through a darkened compound alone under watchful eyes; times when I was grateful for my M-4 grasped firmly in my semi-steady hands and the ammunition snuggled inside her; and times when I was happy for the heaviness of the helmet and Kevlar vest weighing me down as our aircraft flew low over enemies with high vantage points. There were several moments when I thought violence towards me was a real possibility and life, as I knew it, could be changed forever, but those fears were never allowed to fully materialize. They were simply breath-catching minutes that passed with little more than a racing heart, brief body shakes, and a mental sense of relief that something I couldn’t fully fathom hadn’t come to pass. That fear was the type of fear that I wouldn’t allow myself to linger in because what would be the point? Nothing happened. I wasn’t shot or raped by the Saudi guard at the checkpoint who was angry to see a woman alone, driving a car, and pointed his weapon at me while yelling for some explanation I could not provide. I didn’t have to fire my weapon at the young men greedily watching us walk across the bridge towards a village of Al Qaeda sympathizers. My limbs weren’t blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as our SUV bounced along the streets of Kabul days after an attack on an American convoy. No good could come of being traumatized by the possibility of terror. It was all around me when I was deployed, and I would not be able to function in other ways if I was overcome by possibilities rather than realities.
For me, the possible deployment atrocities where more shallow moments when compared to the fears-come-to-life I had already lived through. I wrapped those realized fears over my shoulders, tattered shreds hanging down my back, slipping over my chest and down my arms, enshrouding my body and everything in it like an invisible, bullet-riddled bed sheet. As far as I knew, I had already been through the worst sort of trauma, and it had numbed me to everything to follow behind it. When I was married, I had a fear that he would find someone else. And then he did. And after the divorce, there were the fears about him moving on, falling in love, re-marrying, and my children getting a stepmother whom they loved. All those things came to pass. These fears weren’t the same controlled fears of my youth, and they weren’t the distant fears of being killed in a foreign land. They were the fears of actuality. They really happened to me, emptying me of all the things that had filled me since I was a little girl. During those immediate months after the divorce, I was often like a wild animal, unable to control my thoughts or emotions. I would writhe in pain, sometimes physically rolling around the floor of my bedroom after my children were asleep, grabbing at my chest, begging for release, begging for my breathing to stop and for my heart to quit its insufferable beating. My fear was embodied within me. I could touch it, and stare it down in the mirror. I wrestled with it, and it kicked my ass. But with each new terror that came true, the struggle began to subside. I stopped fighting the fear and began to recognize it as a foreshadowing of strength to come. The fears happened, and I had to experience them fully, undiluted and unchecked by any protection. And the happenings made me braver and more certain that I was being held by something so much stronger than me because the fear didn’t kill me.
I didn’t die of a broken heart, just as I didn’t die from an IED. I didn’t die at the hands of my enemies, either home or abroad. Instead, the sun came up every morning and switched places with the moon every night. The trash kept getting picked up from the curb, and the mail kept getting delivered. My kids kept calling me mom, and the dog continued to need food and water. So, when one of my friends off-handedly remarked that I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, I guess he was right. I may have a moment of panic, but I soon come around to the certainty that things will be better than fine. I am not afraid of things (most things) because I live in the reality that something much bigger, much greater, much more powerful than me and my capabilities keeps things going. I can take a deep, sometimes ragged, breath and step into the street in Kabul or sit down to a cup of coffee with my sons’ stepmom, because I have met the type of fear that I thought would destroy me and lived to tell the tale. Things kept going. Things keep going. I am one of the lucky ones.