Tigers Above; Tigers Below—A Guest Post from Holly Elissa Bruno

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”

~ Pema Chodron

specialguestblogger“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.

Another tiger from my travels

Another tiger from my travels

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.

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18 Responses to Tigers Above; Tigers Below—A Guest Post from Holly Elissa Bruno

  1. Jo-Ann Spence says:

    Holly, this is a eye-opening blog! What a way to look at fear. What a way to hope for the future. Eleanor Roosevelt is a great role model to focus on- the things she has done and faced in her life! Standing in line at the hospital waiting to get admitted for my knee surgery, I was talking to others also waiting in line. It was the general feeling that we would all go home if we could, volunteer at the hospital – anything but go forward. Some people said, “Oh, no, I can’t wait to get it over with. Take me now! I don’t want to wait for this bureaucratic stuff.” Maybe that is fear also – nipping at their feet saying , “Hurry or all will be worse.” I just kept saying to myself, “All will be better.” When it was my husband, however, I could barely sleep before hand and even after we know all was well, I woke up in a cold sweat. I knew I was going to be worse without someone to talk to. I woke up my son and he talked me down from the ceiling. All was well with my husband. By the miracles of modern medicine, he is great now! I have faith that you will find that miracle also. But, if you need to , call a friend!! There are those who can be the strawberries for you- who can help get you through the rough patches. Thinking of you, Jo-Ann

  2. Soammy Feliciano-Hurst says:

    You changed my life one Friday afternoon in Columbus Ohio at a OAYC conference many years ago. I was going through a horrible time in my life; homeless, divorced, nasty custody battles and religious parents that told me that if I divorced I could never re-married again. I had a whole zoo; tiger, lions and bears!!! I have since re-married have 2 beautiful daughters and a husband that adores me. I am battling breast cancer. Not a day goes by that I am not thinking about it. Everyday I face I tell myself that nothing in life is worth having if it comes easy. You have to fight to be well. Please know that you have made an impact on many people. You WILL continue to be an inspiration to many more people. Stop in the name of love, before you break my heart… think it all over…. Remember?

  3. Linda Hurst says:

    Holly, Thank you for facing and sharing your truth. There may be tigers above and tigers below but I wonder if there is also a tiger inside that will be a source of courage, confidence, keen awareness, and swift recovery for you. I am imagining you as the “Lady who walks with tigers” in my prayers. Linda

  4. Janet Gonzalez-Mena says:

    Dear Holly Elissa, I’m remembering our lunch in Napa when I first heard of this tiger threatening you! I’ll be thinking of you October 30!
    Sending you a virtual warm, loving hug,

  5. Marion Cowee says:

    Hi Holly,
    Do you remember the Life of Pi? Where the boy has to share his life on a precarious boat in the ocean with a tiger? Very much fits your thoughts on fear and courage and all things we must do to live with the tiger. Sending positive thoughts your way. Marion from California

  6. Holly,
    What a beautiful, scary, authentic sharing of your life. You’ll be in my prayers!
    Love, Kim

  7. Thank you Marion, Janet, Linda, Soammy, and Jo for inspiring and reminding me that, no matter what, I have a choice. In this moment I choose to believe all is well and all will be well.
    And yes, Soammy, I’ll remind Fear to “Stop in the name of Love”, while I remind myself that Fear and Faith cannot inhabit the same space. May your health improve steadily. You have two very lucky daughters.

  8. Beverlyn Cain says:

    I just read your blog. Okay I believe that you have executed a wonderful way to get through this. Yes,just by talking it all out. Do you know how much stress is released when you just talk it out. I can relate to what you are going through regarding surgery as I have had many myself. The last major surgery was the hysterectomy. Although I was hanging on to my uterus with all my might, and surely the doctor was mistaken. and what would I do without it. I knew it had to come out. I also talked it out with myself. My doctor was sick of me talking it out with him. I was still talking when I was wheeled into the surgical unit. This talk it out was in the form of questioning the anesthesiologists credentials, his GPA, where he went to school. How long had he practiced? and etc. When my doctor arrived. My question to him was “Did you just complete surgery on another patient? So you may be too tired to operate right? He calmly explained that he had plenty of energy to complete my surgery as scheduled. Then I was sitting up verbally directly him on how to proceed. “Be sure that you make the incision right on the same area as the previous one. It should be straight. “I better not end up with keloid type scar”To shut me up, they quickly put me out. I am retelling all of this because you are absolutely correct, not only the tigers come out but other hidden animals come to the forefront when you did not know they were there. Meaning we react to the unknown with honest trepidation and it is okay.

  9. Dr. Beverlyn, your insights help greatly. I can picture you doing and saying things exactly as you reported them. And wondrously, you got through to the other side. As will I. Talking out the fear is a way to dissipate the fear. I can feel my sense of humor returning. I’ll ask for a tiger johnnie.

  10. After a 45 minute conversation with UMass hospital schedulers, I/we are clear on each step of the pre-surgery meeting/testing requirements set for Monday morning, 10/19.
    Was a bit of a three-ringer, corralling each of the disparate segments (echocardiogram, CT scan, anesthesiology meeting, blood draw) into an understandable schedule: tigers were rolling on their backs and licking my face.
    Friendly Tigers.
    Sleepy tigers.
    Not starving tigers.
    Soft tigers.
    Loving me some tigers today. And appreciating each one of you folk who are responding.
    Thank you.

  11. Ann Ditty says:

    I just saw on Facebook you had written this blog … so I just read it tonight. I will be praying for you … praying, praying, praying … as you brave the realities of all that you must face, finding the power to manage the waves of fear ahead as you are crossing the bridge to your renewed life ahead. Love you girl!

  12. Beverlyn Cain says:


    Remember “Tony the Tiger”? the tiger from Frosted flakes commercial? “YOURRRRRR GRRRRRREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Michelle M. says:

    Wow – thank you – I had no idea Holly Elissa. I will pray for you over this coming weekend – a lot.

    What a creative and powerful imagery you provide to help us see through your eyes (and heart) what you are going through.

    And awwwaa – how tough on you — to deal with this fear and these unknowns. Despite the stats and procedural-ness of it all…. I’m praying for your comfort and encouraging your inner-strength to prevail providing you your everyday ability to maintain calm – you do it better than anyone I know – seriously

    I had to laugh out loud – imagining your fan base as tigers – that’s funny! I’m sure those consults you’ve done where people didn’t want to hear it, face it, do the work needed to collaborate/respect/etc — yup I know THOSE tigers well.

    But seriously, I would venture to say, we, your fans, are not tigers … we’re strawberries representing all the rich relationships – hopefully, you will keep yourself busy contemplating all of the people’s stories you’ve heard and experienced – the growth and empathy you’ve provided to so many people … and this should steer you away from all those tiger-y cousins!

    I’ll definitely be a strawberry in your pocket DURING this surgery, SO, if you need me before, during, or after surgery – just call on me 🙂

  14. Beverly Granger says:

    Having faced open heart surgery three years ago, I can truly relate to your fears and concerns. I coped by having tunnel vision, only allowing myself to realize that the surgery was the means to an end-better health-and I just had to have faith in the doctors and get through it. I am involved with Women Heart:The National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease, and have had the opportunity to speak with many other women who have undergone ablation. They all say that their quality of life has improved so much after the procedure. One of the women is now running marathons with a smile on her face. There are many resources available at women heart.org that might be helpful for you, and you can find a support group there if you want or need one. Keep your eye on the prize-improved well being, take a deep breath, and when you wake up from surgery know that you have been blessed with a chance to live a long and healthy life. Good luck!

  15. M. Virginia Epps says:

    I do not know Beverly Granger, but I think the flavor of her comment is a winner, i.e., what’s next and where are the resources to guide and support you through restoration and extension of your life. You will see the other side and enjoy getting inside the tigers’ heads and negotiating a peaceful decision to embrace vegetarianism. 😉

  16. Pingback: We point to our heart | Redleaf Press Blog

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