“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”
~ Pema Chodron
“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.” From The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World by Pema Chodron
Truth is I’d rather run. Board a plane. Take a hike. Read a book. Listen to Brahms or Marvin Gaye or Aretha. Jump out of my skin. Escape.
I have a certain expertise at running: I’m an escape artist. Houdini and me: we have got our act down! I have run from things scary, painful, disorienting or just unfamiliar.
I learned to be an escape artist as a child. When violence threatened at 12 Orchard Drive, I climbed a tree. I climbed a hilltop. I hid invisible (I prayed) behind a formal chair in my mother’s (un-lived-in living room). Later on, I hid in so many extracurricular activities, chose universities far away, accepted jobs that kept me from tigers.
I became adept at recalling only fully-lighted moments from my childhood while turning my back on dark memories where tigers lurked.
Those tigers are smart cookies. They took up residence inside my heart so I would never be without them. Even in what appears to others as a safe place, I feel the tigers prowling. My heart beats a fast and breath-taking tattoo.
Now to be fair, I also can summon up courage. Not every day. Not in every situation. Not when I’m feeling low in confidence or energy or both. But, yes. I have faced my tigers and even at times befriended them. Those tigers can be my best teachers if I’m confident. As Eleanor Roosevelt reminds me: “We must do the thing we fear the most. We must face down the fear.” You know how lovely it feels to face a fear and reclaim your serenity? That’s one sweet reward.
So what’s frightening me like an out-of-control, plummeting jet? Heart surgery. I have chosen to undergo a minimum of three hours of heart ablation surgery on October 30 at University of Massachusetts Hospital in Worcester, MA. I have chosen this path. Why do I walk into the mouths of hungry tigers?
Three different courses of medication haven’t cured my overworking heart which beats samba or rumba or salsa or the jerk, but almost never, the steady foxtrot. In August, a four-legged octopus, heart monitor with gooey sensors in gooey weather, clung to me like my BFF. “The disease is increasing” reported the monitor.
But I knew that. I knew I could stride for one minute and not be able to catch my breath in the next. Swimming in clear New England lakes? Brilliant until I couldn’t breathe mid-stroke. And keynoting? I fell off the stage in Austin, TX, in a dearth of oxygen. Fortunately, I remembered an old lesson: roll. So I rolled, stood up and kept going (while participants smilingly shook bottles of Aleve if I needed them). This low-to-no oxygen state is not the way I want to live, given I have a choice.
So, having gotten the test results, while waiting for my busy cardiologist, Dr. Dionyssius Robotis, to join me in the consultation room, I looked out the window over the treetops, breathed in and exhaled this decision: quality of life wins. Fear loses. “Set me up for surgery,” I said without question.
The man cares: He’s a surgeon with a concerned heart who looks in my eyes and insists: “Call me anytime, dee-ah”. He rearranged his schedule so I could get in soon and between my travels. I felt resolved. Decisions made are more assuring to me than decisions pending.
That was then: August. Sunny August. Raspberry-picking August. Easy as Sunday morning August.
This is chill-in-the air October. October is “under the knife” month. October is “what on earth was I thinking? What if I chicken out?” month. Maybe you know how this goes: a decision that sounded good gets scary as the change (aka loss, threat, unseen territory) comes closer? Tigers in autumn grow hungrier.
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”: How is it that this fear I am feeling is a slow albeit leaky boat to the truth? Maybe truth isn’t as noble as I believe it to be. Denial: now I know denial like I know how to run. Denial has often been my drug of choice as I step toward the precipice.
What’s scaring the blazes out of me? OK, I’ll say it. Think of me what you will. PTSD can terrorize me. From ongoing childhood trauma, including sexual abuse, any unwanted touching, especially an invasion of my body causes (what feels like) unbearable flashbacks. Flashbacks so terrifying and shaming, I’d almost rather die.
Only while confident, can I acknowledge PTSD as my most rigorous professor.
What’s really frightening me? OK, I’ll say it. I’ll humiliate myself by getting so scared I’ll run barefooted and banshee screaming out of the hospital in my (decidedly un-chic) johnnie. What’s really frightening me? I’ll lose it and go crazy like my mom, who (bless her) was afflicted with mental illness and whom I saw lose it too many times. What’s really frightening me: I’m not sure I have enough trust to surrender to the unknown.
What’s really frightening me is Fear’s tiger-y cousin, Anticipatory Anxiety, the storm before the calm. I have scared myself before root canals, cataract surgery, the Bar Exam, flying for 14 hours over the Pacific, leaping from a zip-line platform in Tikal, Guatemala, climbing up the heathered hillside of the Mare’s Tail waterfall in the Scottish Borders.
Stepping back, I was able to find my way to the other side in each of these (once) scary events and come out triumphant (albeit exhausted, but smiling) on the other side. The only fear I was not able to face was the climb up the mountainside in Scotland. A crisply elegant hike up the purple path was exhilarating until I looked down. Down. Way down. I froze. Tigers below. Tigers above. Tigers within. I forced my frozen body to descend one step at a time while looking only at my feet, not down the precipice.
Which of these dynamics will be in my heart on October 30 as I await the opening of the surgery room doors? Will I find courage and trust? Will I lose myself in fear?
I want to believe I will face my fear, stare it down, be strong in my vulnerability, by asking for and accepting every ounce of help that is offered:
- Anesthesiologist? I need medication as much to counter the PTSD as I do to relax and let the machines do my breathing.
- Cardiologist? Be your best self.
- Surgery team: I need your expertise.
- Hospital staff: I need soothing, comfort and kindheartedness. Inside me a terrified little girl needs to know she is cared for and safe. Hold my hand.
My friend Steve will accompany me on pre-surgery day; he’ll listen for what I may miss. My friend, Marina, will move in with me to bring chicken soup, pho, laughter, chamber music, Turner Classic Movies, and a steady supply of novels and hugs. My son, Nick, will ride the doctors insisting: “You do right by my Mom!”
And my dear friends and family are and will be praying for me. So many kind-hearted people want me to have a second chance. Can I be as kind to me as they are?
Hey, I’ll pray for me. I’ll pray to reach for the sweetest of strawberries. Tigers above and tigers below, with neon yellow eyes, take a rest. Tigers within, stick out your paw and pull in your claws. I’m going to look you in the eye and not run. I’ll share the strawberries.
And here’s something new. I want to choose faith over white-knuckle will-power. I want to acknowledge “my” fear, claim it as a predictable physiological, not out-of-control insane, response to a real threat.
May I befriend you, my tigers? How gloriously relieving to imagine you by my side as we stride (or even unsteadily tiptoe) shoulder to shoulder into the operating room.