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Posts Tagged ‘fear’

  1. I Mean You No Harm

    May 21, 2017 by Diane

    I sat alone on a bench in the park having lunch on one of those days when the sky beams blue, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie, when I heard this:

    “I mean you no harm. I just want to eat my lunch.”

    And a young black man in a green parka sat on the bench next to me.

    A green parka.

    On a hot day.

    I mean you no harm.

    My brain, the lizard part, sort of bolted upright. The lizard part is the deep, dark center of all that gray matter in your head, and when it bolts upright, it sends chemicals zinging through the body. Adrenaline. Cortisol. The stuff that gets the heart pumped and the feet doing a getaway jig beneath the body. It’s the part of the brain that makes you venture out of the cave at dawn and hunt for food in Safeway.

    The lizard brain quickly scoped out the situation.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if harm is exactly what they intend to do. Like the dentist who says, This won’t hurt a bit, and then pulls your lip back and jams a needle into the soft part of your gum.

    I mean you no harm.

    Years ago, in another park, on another bench, on another lunch hour, another black man sat next to me. “Some people stole my stuff. I’m gonna blow them away with an Uzi,” he said, and I believed him. His face was full of angry scars. The nearby businessmen in their suits got up and walked away. The women with their carriages put away their snacks and hurried off. Even the policemen who patrolled the park on horseback had disappeared. I was left alone with an angry black man, and my empty Calistoga bottle. I curled my fingers around it to use as a club.

    Across from that park sat a historic courthouse. The story goes, on a November night in 1933, a crowd of over 6,000 enraged people stormed the courthouse, dragged out two men who had murdered the son of a department store owner, and lynched them. The tree still stood. I was sitting underneath it. That park radiated bad vibes.

    Had my lizard brain been awake at the time, I would have followed the mass migration out. Instead, I tried to talk the angry man out of his plan.

    “You’d be as bad as them,” I said. “Worse. Have you filed a report? Contacted the police?”

    “They won’t do nuthin.”

    We discussed the situation. Something I said reached him. Maybe it was just the fact someone took the time to listen. Park benches seem to invite people to unload on strangers. Free therapy. But I needed to get back to work. When I got up, he got up. When I headed off, he headed off beside me. “We’ve got to stick together,” he said. “We’re alike, you and me.”

    I stopped and squared off,  all 5 feet 4 inches, in front of him.

    “You’re not going to follow me,” I said. Free therapy was one thing, a man with an undisclosed mission was another.

    He backed off, hands raised. His version of  I mean you no harm.

    I didn’t know what the man in the green parka on a hot afternoon meant by his statement, but I felt unsettled, remembering the other park, the other man. I tried to play it cool. Nibbled a little faster on my cookie. From the corner of my eye I saw him reach into a brown paper sack. He started to pull something out. The lizard brain yelled: duck and cover! I scarfed down the cookie.

    The man unwrapped a sandwich.

    The lizard brain settled down.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if they’re afraid the other person is going to do them harm. Like when you come upon a strange dog that may or may not be rabid, but just to be safe, you offer the flat of your palm for him to sniff.

    I mean you no harm.  

    Reassure him, my emotional brain told me. This is the second layer, the one that makes you drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket and then cluck the bell-ringer under the chin. It urged me to tell this man he can sit wherever he darn well pleases. Don’t make this about a lone white woman sitting next to a lone black man. Did Rosa Parks say “I mean you no harm” when she sat her tired self down on the bus?

    My rational brain, the outer cortex, told me to leave the man alone. He just wants to eat his sandwich in peace.

    All of this happened in a flash. Sandwich. Rosa Parks. Peace. The time it took to crumple my cookie wrapper. I got up, ready to head back to work, and so he wouldn’t think I was leaving because I felt threatened, I said, “Enjoy your lunch.”

    He sighed. “I’ll try,” he said.

    There it was. The veiled inquiry: is this therapy bench open for business? Or was it something else? A desire to connect with another human?

    I wanted to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, prefaced by: I mean you no harm.

    But office hours were over.


  2. Afraid of Commitment? Join the Challenge!

    July 17, 2016 by Diane

    Yikes! Commitment.

    Yikes! Commitment.

    I have commitment issues.

    My wise friend pointed this out over lunch at the sushi place. I was forking my way through a super vegetable roll while rattling on about blogging.

    “I’ll blog when I have something to say, and not because the powers-that-be suggest that I blog to attract followers or build a writer’s platform,” I said. “I’ll blog just for the hell of it and okay, maybe I’m taking the middle road, but I don’t know if this whole blogging thing is what I want to do anymore.”

    And my friend, carefully placing a slice of pickled ginger on her salmon roll with her chopsticks, said, “What I see is, you start a project and then skid to a stop. You have a problem with commitment.”

    I allowed myself to take that in. I resisted the urge to fold my arms, gaze at the corner of the ceiling with a thoughtful frown, and zone out on the live poker-playing event on the overhead television.

    Instead, I agreed.

    I have a commitment phobia.

    From actress to dancer to writer, I reached a tipping point and then slammed on the brakes.

    I studied acting and dance, acted and danced on stage, taught others how to act and dance, and then chucked it all to write.

    I’ve written first drafts for four-and-a-half novels, and when I started to rewrite the first one, I hit the wall.

    Marriage? Forget it. Children? As long as they’re not mine. Vacations? It depends. How far, and for how long?

    I’ve been known to buy fifteen different kinds of shampoo because one smells nice and one is for curly hair and one is for dry hair and one is for fine hair, and…well, you get the point.

    Sleep? Too boring. What if I’m missing something important? What if there’s something else I should be doing?

    What if I choose the wrong guy, the wrong project, the wrong whatever?

    Driving home that day after sushi, I was sitting at a stoplight, and I thought about gravity. I thought:

    We’re spinning in space. Right now.

    I thought about how the Earth is tilted on its axis and we’re spinning ever so slowly in a vast universe.

    What if gravity decided to stop doing its job? What if it decided it didn’t want to commit to pulling everything toward it, and wanted more space?

    There would be consequences, that’s what. We’d all spin into infinite darkness and vaporize. I had a tingle of discomfort in my spine, thinking about that. I had to go home and lie down and ponder.

    And I’ve concluded that it’s a good thing, commitment. I’m grateful to gravity for its commitment to hold us to its breast.

    That’s a step in the right direction. Being grateful.

    My boss, I’m fairly certain, is grateful that I show up for work and get my job done. My muse is grateful that I allow her to play in the first draft. But my editor is knocking at the door, wanting to clear the clutter, and he’s mighty pissed that I’m lying on the bed gazing at the ceiling.

    The fact is, I can’t even commit to avoiding commitment.

    After all, I commit to watching America’s Got Talent every Tuesday night. I commit to reading an entire book, buying groceries, cleaning the shower and showing up for work.

    But something creative…that’s when the problem kicks in.

    So, here’s the deal.

    I’m going to commit to rewriting my novel. And blog about it so I’m held accountable. It might take six months, it might take a year. But I’m going to face this thing head-on, and when the fear rises, I’ll use my mindfulness training, my cognitive behavior therapy, my humor to overcome it. And I’ll let you, dearest reader, in on what transpires, in case you have commitment issues as well.

    It won’t be easy. I see roadblocks ahead: fear of failure, anxiety about feeling boxed in, agitation about all the effort involved.

    Doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way to work through those blocks, or scoot around them, or I’ll kick those suckers down. For better or worse I’m going to rewrite my novel.

    Do you want to join me in this challenge? Do you want to be my commitment phobia-busting buddy? Let me know in the comments. What will you commit to doing?


  3. The Anxiety Monster Feeds on Second Fear

    September 7, 2015 by Diane

    Retro and Vintage Frightened and Scared Girl Screaming

    In Hope and Help for your Nerves, Dr. Claire Weekes describes first fear and second fear.

    First fear is our reaction to a trigger, flooding the body with adrenaline. That white-hot flame of panic spreads from our middle to our chest, up the spine, down the arms and legs, to the tips of our toes. It signals the fight-or-flight response.

    Second fear is caused by the thoughts we tell ourselves, adding more adrenaline to the mix; thoughts that start with “what if” and “oh my goodness!” They feed our anxiety, leading to “nervous illness.”

    The good news is that adrenaline is short-lived. We can nip our anxiety symptoms in the bud if we take deep breaths, face the fear, tell ourselves this too will pass, and don’t add second fear to first.

    I was answering the phone on the tenth floor of a law firm, my first afternoon on the job as a temporary receptionist for Kelly Girl Services (back in the day), when Mother Nature decided to give the high-rise a good firm shake. The massive jolt and rolling waves dislodged the lawyers from their offices, and they scrambled for the hallway.

    “Earthquake! RUN!” One of them yelled in passing.

    I stood up, told the person on the phone that we were having an earthquake, then ditched the receiver and lurched down the hall, cramming myself into the elevator along with everyone else. The building was swaying from side to side like some out-of-control carnival ride, and our flight instincts sent us straight into an upright coffin for twelve. Clearly, we were not thinking clearly.

    First fear.

    Someone pushed the button. The doors whizzed shut. The elevator stayed put. We were trapped. A woman dropped to her knees and screamed, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” and sobbed hysterically.

    Second fear.

    The monster had arrived. It was ready to consume us all.

    One of the lawyers punched the buttons like a crazy person and tried to pry the doors open. I clenched my jaw, my bowels, my toes, refusing to be hijacked by my rising panic, told myself, “I’m not going to die in an elevator with a bunch of strangers,” and hung onto that belief until the doors, miraculously, slid open.

    We stumbled out, pushed our way to the stairwell, pounded down the steps—bam bam bam bam bam—nine flights to the lobby, spilled out onto the sidewalk, wobbled around in circles, stunned, until we found our land legs, and then scattered in all directions.

    The earthquake lasted three and a half minutes.

    The shaking hung around in my nerves a lot longer.

    I never went back to that job. It would be years before I went back into that building.

    Walt, a friend of mine who wore loafers without socks, who had sultry eyes and wore white shirts open at the throat, loved earthquakes. He would flatten himself to the ground, pressing every inch of himself to the earth so he could feel the undulations. He would ride that puppy like a bucking bronco. I don’t know how he managed it. I think it was his way of thumbing his nose at fear.

    Not all of our fears are as big as earthquakes. They can be as small as a premature heartbeat.

    First fear tells us to jump out of the way of an oncoming car, or run from a spider. It reminds us to “duck and cover” when the earth shakes, or punch those elevator buttons to open the door. Sometimes it gets confused, and tells us we’re having a heart attack when it’s really just panic.

    Second fear screams, “you’re going to die” when panic hits. It warns of the dangers outside our homes and keeps us trapped inside. It convinces us that we can’t handle first fear, so we’d better not try.

    The purpose of first fear is to keep us alive.

    The purpose of second fear is to keep us from living.

    Dr. Weekes advises this: watch the fear go up and down, ride it like a roller coaster. As long as you don’t prolong it by adding second fear to first, you’ll be reining it in within five minutes–the length of time it takes for adrenaline to fade–give or take.

    I try to remember that, whenever the monster starts to feed.