*This essay also appears in an anthology of twenty-six essays entitled My Brush With Death*
It used to be I didn’t know what fear was. I grew up here in the country, occasionally scaring myself out of bed with a boogieman nightmare but otherwise perfectly comfortable with sporadically locked doors and windows left wide open all night.
It was a nice way to grow up.
So when I feel afraid now, it really bothers me. It’s not frequent, and usually only if I’m alone at night, laying in bed and making the dreadful mistake of letting my imagination turn the normalcy of an old house creaking into the certainty of an intruder sneaking his way up the stairs.
When I tell my husband how scared I sometimes feel, he tells me that there are times that he’s frightened as well. “Yeah, but I never felt like this before,” I tell him. Friends of mine that are mothers confide that they also feel scared; it seems that becoming a parent brings out fatalistic visions in all of us. Yet still I think, “but I was never scared before. He did this to me.”
A few weeks after a stranger broke into my college apartment and stayed two hours raping and threatening me, I watched a scary movie for some reason. In it, a male attacker surprised his female victim in a public restroom. It resulted in me being terrified of public bathrooms. I went from knowing no fear to knowing absolute terror. I would find myself alone in a public bathroom and would hear a noise outside of the stall and then become instantly paralyzed in horror. More than once I had to muster up my dwindling courage just to leave the stall, more than once I cried near the sinks when I realized I was alone and safe.
I didn’t really tell any of my friends about that public bathroom fear, which is weird since I talked with them about every other aspect of my healing process. During it all I wondered how would I know when I was completely healed? Initially I thought it’d be when I could sleep alone without any drugs to knock me out. Once I mastered that I modified it to be, “it’ll be when I can be alone at night and not be terrified.” Finally I thought it’d be when I could make it through the day without thinking about it at all, which seemed thoroughly impossible, especially since people kept telling me it’d be the first thing I’d think about in the morning and the last thing I’d think about at night for the rest of my life.
Now I find myself on a monthly basis standing before the Shop Rite pharmacist who waits patiently while I try desperately to remember what year one of my children was born in so I can get their vitamin refill.
I have five children now. It takes me a minute, okay? Sometimes there’s some math involved. It’s never been my forte.
These kids. These, did I mention—five?--kids. They keep me inspired, entertained, engaged and . . . exhausted. They keep my brain too tired, too filled with birthdates, play dates and school project due dates to have room in there to spend time regularly thinking about something rather unpleasant that happened to me twenty years ago.
That fear I had of being in the bathroom alone? These kids guarantee that I never actually get to go to the bathroom by myself. Thanks, guys. And these days if I am alone with them at night and hear our old house creak; now I focus on them. I know that if there is an intruder, I won’t let him hurt my kids. My concerns for myself fly out the window as I find my courage (and the wooden baseball bat my husband keeps near the bed). Thinking of protecting them completely emboldens me and I know I would gladly put my life on the line to save theirs.
Because when the lives of my kids are even potentially put in danger, that adrenaline-fueled courage evicts any fear that might be sneaking in. It used to be that the single most terrifying moment in my existence was when my bedroom door slowly opened and a face I had never seen before peeked through. But fifteen years later I stood on my deck and watched my two-year-old and eight-year-old sons slide into our pond on an icy February day. Frantically I ran to the pond and willingly jumped in, never feeling an ounce of cold or fear. That moment of seeing them slide into the icy water definitively took over as the most frightening moment of my life.
Up until now I’ve tried hard to avoid those corny “Mom” expressions that are plastered on mugs and bumper stickers. But after writing this, I’m thinking of appropriating one for my own purposes: You can’t scare me. I have kids.