Fear Not

By Tracee Sioux

My brother recently wrote me a letter about how he remembered me saving his life. He was going down a pool slide in a float and it flipped over when he got to the bottom. It was the old kind with a harness on it and he couldn’t get out, he was trapped upside down. He said he remembers me being so little, maybe I was four or five, I don’t remember and he’s about 16 months younger than I. But he remembers me saving him and valiantly struggling to keep his head above water as I pulled him to shore.

It’s interesting to me that he remembers me in this scene. Of course he would, I was the one who rescued him.

What I remember though is my mother. I remember that my mother was too afraid to get in the water to save him herself. She yelled for me, a small child, to go get him because I knew how to swim and she did not. When I got older and had been to enough pools, it also struck me that the slides in swimming pools are usually placed in an area with about four or five feet of water. So, she wouldn’t even have been in water over her head. She wouldn’t have needed to know how to swim to save him – she would only have had to conquer her fear of water.

To her credit, she made sure that we were all competent in the water. Every one of us took swimming lessons and would spend lots of time at community pools getting lots of swimming practice. She would never go in, but she didn’t want us to adopt her fear of water. She knew the fear was dangerous. She wanted us to be confident in and around water. My dad would go in the pool with us and play games like throwing quarters to the bottom for us to retrieve in ever deeper water, bribing us to dive off the high dive, rewarding a certain number of laps or the winner of a race with an ice cream cone, and even teaching us how to save someone in trouble by pretending to drown and struggle as we dragged his giant body to the side. I’ve used that knowledge to rescue several weak swimmers when they have gone too deep in a wave pool or been tugged by an undercurrent.

My mother finally confronted her fear enough to jump off a diving board in her 40s, but she still struggles with it.

What I remember about that scene at the pool that day was her fear. I knew a rational person would have jumped in the pool and saved her child without a second thought, just as I had jumped in and rescued my brother without a second thought. I did not want that kind of fear to run my life. I became a little bit of a dare devil and would charge right through fear with a deep breath and a here we go attitude. I appear very confident with people, meeting new ones, engaging the shy ones, being the new girl in school or at a job, but really I’m charging though with an I’m doing it anyway bravado.

However, there was a long dark period in my life where fear took over my life. I witnessed the second plane hitting the World Trade Center towers on 9-11. I was actually in the subway under the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, though I didn’t know it until I got off two stops later on my way to work. I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter Ainsley. When I was struggling up the stairs from the subway a woman passed me and said, The World Trade Center is on fire. I knew it had to be terrorism. I could see a ball of flame coming from the first tower from the street where I stood. The reporter in me knew that I should document it, but I didn’t have my camera. I went into the Duane Reed on the corner and bought a disposable one. I came out of the store and began walking across the cross walk and turned to shoot my first picture at the exact moment when the second plane hit.

My mind could not wrap itself around what I had seen. I have a photo of the crowd watching with their hands over their mouths in utter shock. But, I couldn’t process the information in my brain. People around me kept saying it was an airplane, but I kept thinking surely they are wrong.

The mad genius of such evil hit me like fear I’ve never felt before. They choreographed the first plane so that the whole world would be watching when the second plane hit. It was beyond deliberate. It was a conscientious, choreographed, evil beyond anything I had ever guessed anyone would imagine or plan.

The rest of the day was so surreal that I had little fear. It seemed too unreal to fear it. My brain still couldn’t believe the magnitude. I, worried about being late for work, had gone to the photo lab and gotten my film developed. While there I used the phone to call my parents to tell them I was fine. I went about the business of being a reporter when I got to my office. People kept saying the towers fell, but there was no television and my brain couldn’t make any sense of that statement. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon when I went to deliver my photographs to a newsroom, that I saw the television footage of the horrific images of the towers tumbling to the ground and those horrified people running for their lives.

About a week later fear and anxiety started to take over my life. I argued with my husband about needing cash in the house in case we couldn’t get it out of our bank account. He would say absurd things like, nothing is going to happen, and I would think have you gone mad? Terrible things could happen! Why would their evil plan stop at the towers?

When I had my daughter, I had terrible postpartum depression. I honestly felt I had brought her into a world that was inherently unsafe. That I really had very limited ability to protect her. I felt anxiety nearly all of the time. In the back of my mind I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I would look at the “missing” posters that wallpapered the city and know that those people weren’t missing. They were dead. Gone.

Since I wasn’t coping with the anxiety, as soon as I stopped nursing, when Ainsley was about 14 months old, I started taking Xanex to calm my anxiety. I had always taken them to maintain control over my anxiety, but couldn’t wait to start taking them again. When one didn’t do it, they prescribed two, when two didn’t work they prescribed three and on and on. My dentist started giving me extra pain killers and I would take those to feel happy. When I got a little nervous about those I weaned off them slowly, but continued taking the Xanex. The more fear I had, the more I Xanex I took. I had forgotten how to push through the fear.

Finally, when I wanted to have another baby and was ready to give up the Xanex as my only coping skill, the doctors told me I couldn’t just quit. I was on a dose that, if I just stopped taking them, I would have dangerous seizures. I had to be in a hospital, rehab, with supervision and Phenobarbital to come off the drug.

I remember being in that hospital over Christmas, miserable like I’ve never been before, and crying out to a passing therapist in the hall tearfully and desperately pleading, “How will I live?” What I meant was, I had lost my ability to push through the very real anxiety I felt. Without the Xanex, how will I face all the things I found terrifying: going to work, talking to people, the evil in the world, everything I had been so afraid of.

It took a while to learn how to push through my anxiety and fear. It took even longer to work up my mojo and starting being a risk-taker again. It was a long and hard process, but I am now back to confronting my fears and telling them to step aside, because I’m doing it anyway.

Ainsley was only two at the time, so hopefully she’ll have absolutely no memory of me being totally controlled by my fear. My intention is to teach her that everyone is afraid a lot of the time and that’s okay. But, if we take a couple of deep breaths we can and should conquer that fear. Sometimes you are afraid the whole entire time you’re doing something, like going to your first day of Kindergarten. But, hopefully the second day isn’t so scary and the third day isn’t scary at all. With enough practice, I think, we learn not to let fear control our actions, we might feel the fear, but it is less intense and we can quell it or calm it and tell it to go away.

I think it’s a coping skill every parent should teach their kids.

Okay, you’re afraid. That’s normal. But, do we let the fear control us or do we control our fear?

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