For years I have called it my “vitaphobia,” fear of life (not vitamins). I have gone through life with inexplicable terror, hamstrung by the need to bolt to safety in many situations– professional, personal.
Like many of us I have sought answers, delving into myself and trying to teach myself to feel safe in the world, outside the caves I routinely make, the lairs of my bedrooms in my various apartments where I darken the room and retreat for part of every day, in addition to curling up there at night.
It is easy to be brave on a blog, I think– to speak one’s mind, to develop online associations, connections and friendships. These are terrific and help one feel less alone.
But when it comes right down to it, over the years despite my efforts to break out of my fears once and for all to fully inhabit the world, I’m still scared. I’m scared to be close because it means making myself vulnerable. When I don’t feel safe I want to bolt. I also know quite a bit about betrayal in the wake of becoming vulnerable, and how it makes you want to retaliate. As a priest once said to me: “I have been crucified and I can also crucify.”
People who are confident within themselves and inherently secure don’t understand this. They don’t understand what in the world goes on with someone who seems open and trusting and who then either pushes people away or runs away.
All too ironically, I hurt myself in a fall from a horse and I cannot run physically now. As Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth, “They have tied me to a stake and I cannot fly.” Fate seems to have conspired to force me out of hiding to face these things.
My daily life is difficult. I am stranded between the present and the past, because the past is familiar. They say that an alcoholic, which I am, moves into a rut and furnishes it. That would be me in many respects.
When I was a child I learned to adventure in my imagination. In my imagination I was brave and I could do anything. I rode Pegasus to the moon. In reality, when I took riding lessons I was afraid to canter my horse. I remember my mother coming to see me ride and looking at me contemptuously. It distressed her that she had a frightened little girl but I know that I became fearful because of a number of things she had a part in.
It would be years before the old gelding I felt safe on one day broke into a gentle canter and I discovered I could sit the canter and be just fine. In time I would race a little mare down the tracks, flying along at Mach 10.
I can’t possibly encapsulate everything that happened in one blog post and I’ve certainly come at these issues from a number of angles since starting this blog and putting up so many personal essays. But for me it’s important to make a record of understandings and epiphanies as I have them and to share them. I can’t be the only one suffering in these ways.
After a number of bad experiences with allegedly helpful and trained people, I’m about to try to open up to someone again and let her in. I don’t want to do this, but I need to. Here I am at 61, living like someone in a bunker, coming out once a day to drive a familiar path to sit in the dusk with a familiar person– because I feel safe. And this is what lives within me, tiny and mammalian:
Moving on takes guts, and trust and faith in oneself as much as anything external. At the moment, I am extremely thankful that I can set myself free in my imagination, and that I am able to write of a time when I did overcome my fears to take a jet to Europe, wander with two laid back friends who did not need an itinerary and weren’t afraid, and meet someone whose tenderness convinced me that it was safe to take a train ride all alone down the coast of Italy so that we could be together.
When I work on my memoir or write on this blog, listening to opera, I am fully in the moment and I don’t feel scared. So it is that art comforts me, and the thought that if I spread my wings long ago, I can do it again and again, figuratively and literally.
I’ve been curious about the origins of my vulnerability and what other people have to say. There isn’t much time left for me to overcome my vitaphobia. Maybe I won’t just because of the physical logistics for me now of relocating myself.
But I dream of taking to the skies and to the road. I would love to buy a little RV and join other expats in Mexico, or in the little Italian town where, unbelievably, I wrote to Mozart on the jukebox in a cafe thirty-seven years ago.
Today I found a fabulous post at the Mental Health Sanctuary site. I don’t know who this guy is, but I’m sure glad he isn’t writing in psych-speak. I agree with everything he says and it is immensely comforting to feel that someone out there understands these dynamics well enough to articulate them and to offer a solution. He gives hope to people like me.
I’ve come a long way since I was afraid to go five feet from my front door, and later, from a wheelchair. But there’s a whole gorgeous, exciting world out there, and fascinating people in it to get to know and be close to.
Enjoy the following words and the photo of the beautiful Scylla– at the toe of the boot of Italy.
“Why Fear of Flying?
by Captain Tom Bunn, M.S.W., C.S.W.
I’m a licensed therapist (MSW, CSW, LCSW) and an airline pilot, and work with people with fear of flying. I’m also in the Post Graduate Program at The Masterson Institute. Fear of flying, I’m sure, is strongly connected with personality disorder.
Vulnerability to fear of flying can stem from a lack of something we call “self-soothing,” either because it did not fully develop between one and three, or because of later trauma. Between 1 and 3, the child starts to explore the world. When mishaps occur, the child rushes back to mom for soothing. If mom is consistently available to provide soothing, followed by encouragement to try again, both get built into the child’s memory. Finally, the child can soothe himself or herself by recalling and imagining mom’s actions. You can see toddlers “practicing” this by soothing their dolls.
In time, self-soothing becomes automatic and operates unconsciously to ward off anxiety. Things that might upset us get neutralized by the self-soothing so that many potential worries never even come to mind. If self-soothing is in short supply, one can be flooded with things to worry about.
Two things can go wrong: 1) good self-soothing was not built in; or 2) a good supply was built in but traumatic later events damaged it.
Good self-soothing is transportable and genuinely owned by the individual. Some moms supply loads of self-soothing but only through a psychological umbilical cord. When one ventures from home, the cord — like a rubber band– gets stretched and threatens to break, resulting in panic. Some families teach children that home is safe and the world outside is dangerous.
Even a good original supply of self-soothing can be damaged by trauma. The death of someone special can damage self-soothing in a general way so that anxiety can arise about virtually everything. Or, a bad flight or being mugged can damage self-soothing in a more limited way so that one avoids flying in similar conditions or certain street situations.
If self-soothing is not transportable, problems arise when going out into the world on our own. Leaving home separates us from our source soothing.
Anxiety comes in the teens and twenties as we venture from home. We handle the anxiety by maintaining the option — if panic threatens — to turn around and head toward home. Just knowing we have the option can prevent panic and anxiety. Anything that blocks this option is a threat. Fear of flying presents a dual problem. It blocks our option to — if anxiety arises — head home; the pilot is not going to respond if we change our mind. But it is worse than that. We are throwing away control horizontally and vertically. We are leaving home base horizontally and “mother earth” vertically.
THE ONSET OF FEAR OF FLYING
Flying sometimes becomes a problem approaching marriage. When in love, we experience tender feelings, feelings we first had as a tiny, vulnerable child.
Falling in love can lead a person to feel what was associated with these feelings the first time: tiny and vulnerable. Flying is difficult when one feels tiny and vulnerable. We are taking off into a new and unknown phase of your life. Home — like “home base” playing “hide and seek” — may be the place we feel most secure. The farther we venture from home, the more the anxiety. Why? It takes more time to get back home where we feel secure. If home base goes out of sight, there can be panic. Why? Even if we turn around to return, we can’t see home getting closer. On an airplane, our legs are useless for getting back home. We are “out of control” of an ability to find “home base.” Getting married can feel “out of control” because it means giving another person major control over what happens. Also, we leave the security of home base. So, the “home base” and “losing control” issues are similar for getting married and for flying. Understanding this may help, but talking with a professional can help more.
Fear of flying often begins when one becomes a parent for the first time. You are responsible for a life other than your own. It may help to know that you and your child are safer on an airliner than sleeping at home at night. Though it may not feel that safe, you are actually much more protected in flight than on the ground. So, in terms of safety, you are doing your child and yourself a favor to fly rather than stay on the ground. In other cases, fear of flying starts connected with increased stress or connected with the death of someone we know or love.
We all have had situations where we trusted and were let down. It matters WHEN trust was betrayed. If it happened between 18 and 36 months, it causes normal development to stop or to be sidetracked. Then, we are left with the result of this development being altered or arrested for the remainder of our lives. And, because it happened so early, memories of it are not well-formed enough to be useful in therapy. There are things therapists can do, though. We can find an area where you are confident and strong and attach that confidence and security and strength to flying (or other fears). This is a very specialized therapy, but very effective for flying.”