Friday, July 17, 2015

Anything But Fearless

Have you seen the movie, Inside Out, yet?

It is a terrific movie—genius, actually—about the way our emotions interact, and how each emotion is valid and necessary in its own role. More specifically, it is about a family of three—mother, father, and school-aged daughter—moving across country, and the daughter having what is tantamount to an emotional breakdown, as she tries to stay joyful when she is actually feeling anything but.

You can imagine how frightening this movie was for my husband and me, as we watched it on opening weekend, just days away from <<gulp>> moving our school-aged daughter across the country.** Fear, one of the five emotions highlighted in the film, along with Joy, Sadness, Disgust and Anger, was swimming all around me, and this acute potential scenario of pain and struggle was hard to swallow. Fear was popping up nightly in my vivid dreams, daily in my endless lists of "things to do/pack/think about/discuss," and physically in the tightness in my chest when I imagined our short-term future.

In the movie, of course, as voiced by Bill Hader, Fear is hilarious. Worry lists, anxious movements, and frenetic screams make his character a much-needed relief from the (sometimes dark) plot. Check him out:

Today, four days post-moving truck arrival, buried by boxes but starting to enjoy our new home, I can think about this movie with a little bit more perspective, and a lot less fear and anxiety. We made it to the other side, with a toe dipped in the water of our new normal, and we are all doing okay. We love Florida. It is a good choice. This transition is nowhere near over, and there will be many more moments of sadness, anxiety, grief, and frustration ahead, punctuating this honeymoon period with our new home. We have a lot of hope, though, because even in the stress of unpacking, living out of suitcases, and paying big bucks for home repairs, we have all been having a lot of fun.

For EJ, a good chunk of that fun has been a drama camp she has been attending this week, for which we will go and see her performance in a few hours. As I was driving on the (now familiar, previously foreign) route home from drop-off this morning, I started to think about how fearless our kid is. Aside from her anxiety about loud noises, for which we got some excellent professional help, I have always described her as fearless about everything: entering new situations, trying new things, being in front of people, etc. Even as I discussed her noise anxiety here on the blog, I called her fearless (topic sentence, third paragraph.)

It struck me this morning, however, how dangerous that description really is, or at least how dangerous the expectation of "always being fearless" could become if she internalizes that label, especially as she approaches adolescence. Thank you, Inside Out. 

Every significantly wonderful, life-changing, soul-expanding, perspective-enlarging experience I have had in my life has come with a healthy dose of fear. I have never been unafraid in those moments; sometimes, my fear has almost gotten the best of me. Had I believed that being fearless was key, I would likely have pushed away these experiences to rid myself of the feeling, and in return, I would have denied myself:

  1. Every single performing arts moment of my childhood through adulthood, through which I have learned how to play and to think, how to relate to emotions with empathy, how to express myself creatively, and in the process, how to make and maintain life-long friendships.
  2. My trip to France in high school at age sixteen—a trip in which our plane got turned around halfway across the ocean for suspicious reasons, and after a long lockdown at JFK, finally flew to Paris—a trip that ignited my love of France and helped me become dedicated to being a fluent French speaker.
  3. My college education, away from home, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, which shaped me in more ways than I can count.
  4. My junior year abroad in France, a year that I almost chickened-out of completely the night before our plane left, as I weighed my giant green suitcases over and over trying to make everything fit within the baggage weight restrictions, and obsessed over everything I would miss in Madison (e.g., friends, clubs, classes) if I left. I have said this before and I will say it again: aside from choosing the right person to marry, choosing to go abroad and live in Aix-en-Provence for a year was the single best decision I have ever made for myself, it was so profound in its impact on my life.
  5. My life in Washington, DC, packing my 1988 Honda Accord and driving out there after college, taking a job at a big firm, persevering as I struggled to assimilate to professional life, coping with missing family and friends, surviving on a $25K starting salary. Learning to love a place, build a life in that place, and create the family/friends/structure I needed to make any location truly a home, was the gift that DC gave me.
  6. Marrying my husband. Was I scared to get married? I didn't think I was, right until one week AFTER I got married and we were on our honeymoon. As I stared at a complimentary bottle of champagne for "Mr. and Mrs. Lusignan," all I could think was, "What have I done?" He sent me to spa and bought me flowers, I calmed down, and the rest is history. 
  7. Moving to Chicago for graduate school for Mike. Chicago was wonderful, and Chicago was hard. School took longer than we expected, and we had to take out student loans. Our fourth-story walk-up was difficult in the ice and snow. Nothing really turned out as we had planned, except that, in the end, he got his PhD. That said, moving to Chicago meant living closer to family, making an amazing network of friends in our neighborhood of Hyde Park as well as through my masters program at Northwestern University, living a truly urban (walkable) lifestyle for a season, and confirming that we DO NOT want to live in the Midwestern climate forever.
  8. Giving birth. I wasn't afraid to be a parent, and I wasn't afraid to go into labor, initially. When the labor took some frightening, exhausting turns, however, I was more afraid—actually, more physically terrified for my life, to be exact—than I had ever been, or have ever been since then. The lesson: the human body can (and will) withstand almost anything. Case in point, see item #9.
  9. Saving my life with a vertical-sleeve gastrectomy. Because this was elective, and because it was expensive, and because there was so much shame around how "I really should be able to be a healthy weight without surgery" rolling around in my head, the fear I had going into this surgery was immense. What if I were the one person in thousands who died on the table? What if I had complications that made it hard for me to ever eat again, or be nutritionally sound? What would happen to my family if this all became a tragedy? Getting ready to go to the hospital that morning and putting myself in the hands of the care team was overwhelmingly scary. I remember doing breathing exercises in the shower, then hearing my husband pick up a call from the hospital saying that I could come in early, and being so grateful that I wouldn't have to sit in that terror any longer. Now, at seven months out and 107 pounds lost, it all seems obvious that it was the right choice; I remember that fear, though.
  10. Moving to Florida. Taking a risk on a new life, trying to shape our future in a new way, and launching into a new community with the hope that we will make friends, find our place, and grow some roots.
Ten is such a nice number for a list, but I must add one more thing, one that encompasses everything: fear helps me ask for help. In every big moment listed above, as well as the million other moments of fear and anxiety I have felt throughout my lifetime, I had people in my life who helped me to face the fear, chose courage, and cope with the stress. These folks reminded me that if things didn't work out, I could always make a new choice. They patiently sat with me as I tried to answer the question, "What's the worst that could happen?" even as my responses became outlandish and hyperbolic, and lovingly tried to convince me that a) those probably wouldn't happen and b) even if they did, I could—and would—handle them. Fear has made me seek out new techniques from others—breathing, meditation, exercise—so that even when I am alone, I can be okay. At its best Fear keeps me safe, and connects me to others in a web of support. We all experience fear—there's no getting out of it—and we all need help feeling our way through it. Acknowledging fear doesn't mean you lack courage, it means that you may be at the precipice of making a courageous choice.

As the audience learns from the story of Inside Out, no good comes from an externally-imposed emotional expectation, even when it comes from a kind moment of praise or gratitude. Feeling what you feel, and knowing you can express your feelings honestly, is vital to sanity. I want my daughter to know that fear is normal, healthy, and not insurmountable. Being fearless, as much as that is praised as an attribute in today's world, especially for a young girl, is an unrealistic expectation. My hope for her is that she may embrace the feeling, breathe, ask for help, and make choices based not simply on that one emotion, but on the sum total of what she knows, with the support of those around her to buoy her up when the tide comes in. That is my hope for all of us.

**Our child was in no way traumatized by this movie. She thought it was funny, and would help her with her move. So far, so good.

(Special shout-out to the folks at #BlogHer15 today: attending the conference last year was one of the key steps in my choice to reclaim my life and have weight-loss surgery. It also connected me with terrific new friends. Hope to see you again next year!)