Turn and Look.


It’s been an interesting week for me.

We’ve been working to keep a 91-year-old woman in her home- she really wants to stay there, and the only thing preventing that is an upstairs bedroom. She has refused to consider any kind of assisted living. I asked her why she was so resistant to any kind of change. After some prodding, she was finally able to tell me that her fear is that she’ll go into a nursing home and “just die”. Her other fear is that she’ll have to give up her dog, Oscar- really one of the great reasons for her continued quality of life. I said, “Well, you know, that’s not the only option.” She seemed surprised. I said, “What’s the problem here? You going up and down those steep stairs every day. How could you live here and not have to do that?” She said “I was so scared to bring it up- that I’d have to go to a home, that I couldn’t really think of another way I could look at it.”

Talking to some friends and professional people, her daughters and extended family, we came up with a plan. She could move her bedroom downstairs. She’ll lose a dining room- but she doesn’t really use it anyway. Looks like she’ll be able to get what she wants, and those of us who love her are assured that she’ll be in less danger of hurting herself on the steep stairs to the second floor of her home.

It’s been a great reminder for me.

Sometimes, when life starts becoming a little more difficult each day for no obvious or dramatic reason, it can be difficult to find the cause. There may be this gently slipping sense of satisfaction or a slowly degenerating feeling of self-worth, difficult to see as it happens, and only obvious after it becomes a problem. Even then, it can be very confusing.

The reminder I mentioned above is to ask myself “What am I afraid of?”

Living with a gnawing, nagging, nameless fear can be insidious and debilitating. The unconscious mind can form these scary thoughts based on a tiny piece of information, usually pulled out of any context of reality. Then, fed in silence with any combination of denial, low self-esteem and suspicion, this tiny thought grows into something louder and larger, slowly shutting down the ability to reason properly, to feel optimistic, capable, or even lovable.

We have a strange way of dealing with these thoughts. There seems to be a prohibition against speaking of them lest “they become real.” Many of us believe our voices give credence to any out of control thought- that speaking them out loud makes them stronger. I’ve seen it with patients and I’ve seen it in myself.

In fact, the opposite is true.

These debilitating fears grow in darkness and ignorance, they grow in denial and avoidance. I’ve often said that sometimes our fears are like the monster that we do not see chasing us in a dream. In the dream, the monster is loud, scary and makes the most ferocious and horrifying noises as it chases us- so terrifying that we are unable to turn around and look at it. But if this fear is a problem, we must. When I’ve helped others turn, look, and shine a light on the thing, the “monster” is often just a tiny little nobody with a very loud voice. Nothing to be scared of at all. Just a product of an imagination unhindered by reality. After taking a good long look, we often realize the  fear really is tiny after all, that the words it has yelled are untrue and not the great worry they pretended to be.

That was my reminder- to take some time and take a look at what I’m afraid of, see if they’re real, and live my life. Because the fear of a thing is often more debilitating than the thing itself.

When I first became sexually active, I was terrified of AIDS. The fear of the disease dominated my thoughts for years. My mind played out scenarios of death, of being alone, unsupported, estranged, chastised and shunned. It was a circus of fear. And that tiny fear of something real morphed into something not even I could imaginatively do justice. I went on antidepressants, postponed testing appointments, went to therapy, sought comfort in friends, but I still never mentioned to anyone how terrified I was.

Then I was diagnosed with HIV.

All the fears evaporated in the face of reality: of the gift of my life, my family, my friends, my dog and my doctor. All of those crazy fears. Gone. That monster on my back that lied to me for years and years was suddenly replaced with my own thoughts, renewed by the gifts of compassion I received from others and from myself. In a way I was forced to turn and look at the “monster”, but it worked just the same. He disappeared.

And I can honestly say, I have never felt that fear since.

Life is no picnic for someone with HIV- taking meds, finding insurance coverage to pay for them, negotiating relationships, making distinctions between privacy and secrecy, in many cases being unable to move out of the State of diagnosis for insurance and financial reasons. Many of us have fears of losing our health insurance (If we have it in the first place),losing our jobs if our employer finds out about our status. We fear making too much money in order to keep our eligibility for medication coverage- which is important- my meds cost $25,000.00 a year, almost as much as the salary of a therapist. We worry about social stigma, personal safety, health issues, and on and on and on.

There can be a lot of worries.

But, honestly, there is not the terror that lived with me day and night before the diagnosis. Now, for me, the worries do not begin to outnumber the blessings.  I learned my lesson, and now I take the time to turn and look at my fear.

That monster has no power here.