I have never truly known fear. Until today.
I have climbed mountains with slippery paths and few footholds. I have stared over the edges of cliffs and peered down their sheer rock faces. I have felt the power of sharks ramming into me in the open ocean. I have spoken in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people. I have traveled alone in places some consider risky for a woman on her own. I have jumped out of airplanes strapped to people I met only minutes before, trusting that the parachutes will work and they know what they’re doing. I’ve been within spitting distance of a violent hate crime — having just walked out of the same gay bar the victim did. I have consumed substances without knowing for sure just what they contained. I have ridden in cars with drivers who were nowhere close to sober. I have been robbed. The first time, I felt what I thought was fear. Now I know it wasn’t.
I’m staying on a tropical island right now and like so many islands in the world, there are dogs here. Most are not very well cared for. Some have owners, some are strays. My housemate has two wonderful rescue dogs whom I adore. Our neighbor has this dog:
Some days, he barks when I walk by. Others, he just glares. This morning, he watched me walk past. Then he ran straight to me. And bit me. No barking, no growling. Just a straight run at me and a chomp of his teeth on my ass. He let go and I walked away. My heart raced as I strolled around the corner and out of sight. But the bite didn’t so much as puncture my dress so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Given the construction workers nearby, I opted not to lift my skirt to check on the wound. Stupid. But that’s not the point of this story. If I die from rabies, then it is the point. I’m hoping it’s not.
Hours later, when I finally checked it, I realized it was far more serious than I thought. I have a high threshold for pain and have suffered far greater injuries than this. But I never got around to getting a rabies vaccine, so off to the clinic I went. I was calm about the whole thing, completely unphased by it. After I got the wound cleaned and the first round of rabies vaccines plus a tetanus booster, I met a friend for lunch and shoulder massages as we’d planned, albeit an hour late. We joked about the fact that I’d literally been bitten in the ass. As I walked home, I pondered which of my many transgressions I was paying for.
Our landlord had called the dog’s owner to inform him of the bite and the owner claimed he’d keep the dog inside their compound. I wasn’t worried about going home, I trusted that the dog wouldn’t be out. Stupid.
When I rounded the corner, my eyes locked immediately on his. My heart raced and I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any I’d experienced. His bark reverberated down the alley. He was running straight for me. I sprinted up the hill away from my house, terrified of going anywhere near him. Or my own home. My body shook. My breathing was out of control.
This dog wanted to kill me.
I fumbled for my phone. My fingers were so sweaty and my hands so shaky I could barely get the thing unlocked. Tears were streaming down my face and I didn’t know if I’d be able to speak. But I had to call my landlord. Ask him to call the dog’s owners to come get him. He said he would and expressed his concern. Told me that if the dog does it again, he’ll have to be put down.
AGAIN?! Another wave of fear flooded my system. I do NOT want that dog to bite me again. And who else would he bite? I’m the only one who comes by on foot; everyone else is on a scooter and can drive off faster than the dog can run. I thanked him and we hung up. And then, one of the dog’s owners came around the bend on her own way home. I waited a moment up the hill, long enough for her to park her scooter and bring the dog inside.
Slowly, I walked down and turned the corner. The barking this time was just as fierce and there he was again, running toward me. I bolted back uphill. I didn’t think it possible for my heart to beat any faster. It did.
“Degas!” She called for him and just as he turned the corner to come uphill at me, he stopped and turned to look at his owner. Then back at me. And he growled. I continued my retreat. “Degas!” She called again but it did no good. He was coming for me.
Time did not slow. Or speed up. I stood there, my heart in my throat, hoping that she would get him under control. And she did. I haven’t learned any Bahasa yet and she doesn’t speak much English. I pointed to the dog, mimed biting, and lifted my skirt to show her the bandage. Pointed back to the dog. “Sorry.” She said it twice.
I scurried home. And immediately burst out crying. It took hours for the shaking to stop. Every time I hear him bark my heart leaps back into my throat. I don’t know how I’m going to leave my house tomorrow morning.
For years, people have called me brave for quitting my job and taking off to travel; for speaking in front of crowds (which I’ve really only done once unless you count closing arguments to juries); for going the places I’ve gone and taking the risks I have. None of those things made me feel brave. They didn’t frighten me. Many excited me and some made me nervous for a moment. Others I’ve looked back on and scolded myself for, grateful that my luck has held out.
The corollary is that I haven’t been able to truly understand the fear that others speak of. I’ve tried to not judge, to be empathetic when sympathy was all I could manage, having not felt or understood true fear. But a part of me did judge. The part that genuinely had no idea what this feels like.
Today, that changed. Fear can be irrational. It’s powerful and overwhelming. It comes from something deep within us. Historically, it has kept us alive. It is more than trepidation or nervousness. Greater than anxiety or worry. It is physically consuming and emotionally draining. Those lesser emotions can be crippling. I know, I’ve been through them. But fear, genuine fear for one’s life? I don’t ever want to feel it again. And I will forever be empathetic to those who pass through its grip.
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Marbree Sullivan is a former attorney who’s been traveling full time since 2013. She’s passionate about diving, writing, and the transformative power of travel, no matter how short the trip or how far from home it takes you. Find more at ChasingtheUnknown.com.