I was still sniffling from the remains of a panic attack when I opened up an email from a reader that started with, “Newb freelance writer here, I just looked over your website and noticed you are living my dream! Congrats on living the dream!”
And I felt stomach-clenchingly guilty for feeling so scared of a life I was supposed to be enjoying. Then, of course, I felt idiotic for feeling guilty for feeling scared. And then angry at myself for feeling idiotic for feeling guilty for feeling scared.
(Please continue to write nice things to me.)
If you’ve been keeping up with my story, you know that I moved to Barcelona, Spain with my parents and my grandma after my grandpa passed away three years ago. Six months after moving to Spain, Nana was diagnosed with breast cancer and the whole purpose of this insane family migration endeavor became clear: the reduced rent, free healthcare, and close proximity of three adult caretakers (my parents and me) made breast cancer a (relative) breeze. We got through it as a family. Nana’s now in remission, my parents have retired, and I’ve followed my dream of becoming a freelance writer. That sounds like the end of a family indie movie, right? Very The Big Sick. Very Little Miss Sunshine. And sometimes it really is. I’ve certainly written it that way before. But angles look sharper when they’re coming at you head-on and I’ve been letting the fear angle knock me almost clean off my feet lately.
Fear runs in the family. Specifically, fear around how unsafe it is to be a woman in this world. More generally, fear of death.
When I was a kid in Tucson, AZ, Nana wouldn’t let me walk home after school because she was sure I had a pedophile target on my back. I had to wait in the Principal’s office until she could come to pick me up.
To be fair, a man did try to convince me to get into his pickup once, but I ran away as fast as I could, inherited trauma pumping through my veins. I’d heard enough stories from my mom and Nana to know exactly what was happening. Unfortunately, this instinct and education didn’t prevent me from being physically overpowered by a boyfriend in my early twenties.
When Nana was a little girl, she’d gotten into a stranger’s car after he’d asked her to show him where the local school was. When he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her, she somehow managed to shame him so heavily that he pulled over and let her out of the car. Her ultimate triumph over the situation didn’t do much to protect her from a lifetime of PTSD around it.
*Fucked-Up Note: Even though Nana was very clear that the man who exposed himself to her was white, the police tried to pin it on a black man, dragging him to her house and insisting that she identify him as her attacker. She refused. The true perpetrator turned out to be a well-known figure in the community who never faced charges.
When my mom was a preteen, she was walking to the store when a stranger grabbed her breasts, laughed, and kept walking. Embarrassed, she ducked into the store but didn’t tell anybody. On her walk home, he was still there waiting for her and he tried to get her into his car. She later recognized his face and car when she saw him on the news for a string of murders he’d committed with his cousin in Los Angeles. He was the infamous 1970’s serial killer, the Hillside Strangler. He was suspected, but never convicted, of the “alphabet murders” — three girls with alliterative names whom the perpetrator raped, strangled, and dumped in towns that started with the same letter as their name.
- Carmen Colon in Churchville
- Michelle Maenza in Macedon
- Wanda Walkowicz in Webster
My mom’s first and last names, at the time, started with M’s.
Fear is like a weed. If you let it keep growing, it overtakes the whole garden.
We’re not unique. I bet there are women reading this right now who’ve had similar experiences. Perhaps not to the serial killer degree, but still. My guess is that, like me, you’re a little sick of having to explain why you have every right to be afraid. Why you never, ever leave your drink unattended at a bar or talk to a man who comes up to you on the street. And when everyone from college students to movie producers to the President of the United States is getting away with sexual assault… well, then you’re in a gaslit echo-chamber. You shout your fear into the void and all that comes back is denial, mockery, more violence, and more graphic stories to add to the collection you know you shouldn’t be keeping so close to your heart.
Nana came of age and raised her children at a time long before the #metoo movement. She didn’t know that she had a “right” to be afraid. She wasn’t talking to other women about their stories. She simply knew her own trauma. And she knew that, if it could happen to her, it could happen to her kids and grandkids as well. The only person she could truly rely on to keep her and her family safe was her. And she made a promise that, even if it killed her, she would get all of us to the age of 18 without any significant traumas occurring.
This didn’t work, of course. And it ate away at her. Fear is like a weed. If you let it keep growing, it overtakes the whole garden. I’ve been afraid my whole life. Of going outside by myself. Of something happening to my family. Of embarrassing myself. Of putting myself out there. Of hurting or offending anybody.
From what I understand, excessive fear and anxiety are both genetic and a learned response, so the deck was kind of stacked against me from the start. Then trauma came along and added PTSD to the mix, a hormone imbalance stirred it all together, and BAM!
Deep. Debilitating. Depression.
In Barcelona, Spain, of all places.
Maybe it’s not about trusting the world.
The Day of the Panic Attack: It had started out as a really nice day. It was absolutely “the dream” — After a day of being totally in the writing flow, the sun was still shining and the birds were still chirping, so I’d stopped in a little tree-lined circular park called Plaça de Tetuan. I found a nice bench in the shade and got comfortable, then I began a meditation on Insight Timer.
The theme was Trust.
I’d been lulled into an open, peaceful state by the instructor’s calm voice, some deep breaths, the smell of the grass, and the sound of the parakeets in the tree above me. I closed my eyes and pictured myself, as instructed, on a ledge.
“We’re going to step off this ledge in a moment,” said the instructor. “With full faith that we’ll be ok, that we will be held, protected, and that what’s waiting for us is what we’ve been looking for all along.”
That’s when I felt someone sit down next to me.
I opened my eyes and saw a lanky guy with a 7-Up in hand, practically draping himself over my bench.
“Buenas,” he said, though I could barely hear him through my earbuds. I nodded in acknowledgment, then turned away and closed my eyes again. I figured it was pretty clear to him by now, as evidenced by my posture and my closed eyes, that I was in the middle of a meditation, so I assumed he’d leave me alone. An act of trust. Live and let live. Hopeful music swelled on the meditation track. “Are we ready to jump?”
The bench shifted again. The guy was closer now. I looked around and noticed that every other bench in the park was empty. There was no reason for him to be sitting next to me. He said something I couldn’t hear, so I took an earbud out.
“Perdón?” I asked politely.
“Como te llamas, chica?”
This was the second time in a week something like this had happened. Another guy had followed me all the way out of a different park and for several blocks after that, staring at my boobs, saying he’d marry me, asking if I knew how to cook his favorite types of foods, asking for my number. I’d been scared to upset him, scared to seem “rude”. He was very large and I’ve been physically overpowered by a man half his size. My inherited trauma and PTSD were sending my fight-or-flight response into overdrive. I tried to politely indicate that I wasn’t interested, but that didn’t work at all. He didn’t go away until I turned to him and said, shakily, “I don’t do this. I’m going now. Bye.”
Before he left, he insisted that I shake his hand.
I did it because he scared me, but I was angry with myself afterward. He’d gotten me to physically do something I didn’t want to do. He’d made me touch him and he’d gotten to touch me. It may have seemed like a completely innocent type of touch, but it had been a power move and I’d been disempowered.
You idiot, why’d you let him touch you? Why’d you let him follow you for so long? Why do you keep letting this shit happen to you? Why do you keep letting yourself get so scared? Why can’t you stop thinking about every single scary thing that’s ever happened to you or to the people you love? Why are you letting this ruin your whole day?
This time, here in Plaça Tetuan, I wasn’t going to indulge the guy. I immediately got up and walked away without a word and without looking back, gripping the straps of my backpack with white knuckles and praying he wasn’t following me. Honestly? It felt kinda rude to have just assumed this guy’s intentions, but I pushed that thought aside. I knew what he was up to. It wasn’t an assumption. And as the meditative voice still speaking in my ear gently urged me off the ledge and insisted, “You’re flying now!”, an angry tear fell from my cheek.
How the hell was I supposed to jump off the trust ledge and enjoy my life when this bullshit kept happening? When I couldn’t have ten minutes to myself in a public place to contemplate trust without my sense of personal safety being violated?
If being afraid is my right, I thought, I don’t fucking want it.
Later that night, after the panic attack, after the lovely note and the self-inflicted guilt trip for not appreciating all the things that were going well in my life, I told my mom what happened. To my surprise, she smiled.
(Perhaps I should mention that my mom doesn’t have the same fear problem as Nana and I do. We’ve tested her blood and discovered that she has an excess amount of dopamine in her system. I’m not kidding.)
“You walked away this time, though,” she said. “You didn’t let him touch you or follow you like the other guy. You weren’t nice.”
“I’m done being nice,” I growled.
“You trusted yourself. Maybe it’s not about trusting the world.”
Take pleasure, Señora!
Nana’s always trusted herself above all else, but I think sometimes she takes it too far. She calls this having common sense and being practical. I call it being overly cautious. Needless to say, she had many common-sense, practical questions for her doctor when she met him for a follow-up appointment after she’d had some time to fully heal from her radiation therapy.
The doctor had just finished telling her that her labs still looked wonderful, that the radiation treatment had been a complete success, and that she wouldn’t need to come back in again. My mom threw her hands in the air and gave a little “Woo!”.
But Nana wasn’t smiling.
“Excuse me, Doctor. How will I know if the cancer has come back?”
The doctor, a Catalonian man in his 60’s with a salt-and-pepper beard, leaned forward to consider her. He put his hands together in front of his face as if in prayer.
“With all due respect, Señora,” he said, “This is the wrong question.”
My mom and I were stunned. Nana may have been an incessant worrier, but she was our incessant worrier, and she deserved to be taken seriously by her doctor. This was a scenario we definitely had some family trauma around — a male doctor dismissing the concerns of his female patient. We opened our mouths to protest, but he continued.
“One hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in Spain was 45. The average has increased up and up since then. The average life expectancy for women in Spain today is 82. You, Señora, are 83. This means that, at this point, you’re living on borrowed time.”
“It’s not just you,” he said, quickly, as each of us felt our heart rates rising. “I am living on borrowed time myself. I became 65 and now I just sit here.”
He leaned back in his seat, which spun and creaked a little, and he crossed his arms.
“Just waiting to die, you see? What more can I do? I made my career. I had my children. I lived with purpose. And now I get to sit here and wait. …Finally!”
He crinkled his already smile-lined eyes and my mom and I laughed nervously despite ourselves.
“We have no idea what could happen to us at any moment. You could walk out of this hospital and be hit by an ambulance. You could get a heart attack in your sleep.” He stopped the list there but my brain played about a dozen other fatal possibilities, just for the fun of it.
“Señora, before we are born, we float in our mother’s bellies, completely unaware of what waits for us outside but completely content to let our needs be met. You are here in this stage again, are you not? You have your wonderful family to care for you.”
Nana looked over at me and my mom. I thought about how every woman is born with all of her egg cells. This means that, at one point, the three of us were one.
“When we are born, we see a bright light and we go toward that light without any concept of what lays beyond. This will occur again when you die. Everyone who has been back from death has said this. Death is the same as to be born. I do not fear it. What is there to fear?”
“Throughout our lives, did you know?” the doctor continued, meeting Nana’s unreadable gaze unflinchingly. “Our cells, every cell but your egg cells, they regenerate every 7 years. (How did he know I was thinking about the egg cells?) Every 7 years, we take completely new forms. That’s a lot of work for our bodies. And sometimes, the cells that are trying hard to regenerate are not able to do this correctly. This is cancer. And the older we are, the harder it is for our body’s cells to regenerate and cancer cells can grow where healthy cells should have grown. So you can become angry with your body for this failure or you can thank your body.”
He patted his slightly bulging belly lovingly.
“Gracias, body, for all that we have experienced together and all of the forms of me you have taken and all the ways you have transformed. You can rest now, body. In this next step, I won’t need you anymore.”
I smiled. The visual image he’d provided me — of stepping into the unknown without fear, of regeneration and rebirth, of finally being able to let go — won me over. Especially after the long ordeal we’d all just gone through.
I couldn’t tell how Nana felt at being talked to like this, but my personal opinion was that this man was lovely.
“I told you that I’m waiting to die,” he said, shaking his finger at no one in particular and in the direction of the sky. “But I do not wait with fear. This is a waste. I wait and I look around me, you see?” He animatedly looked all around him, admiring his office. “I use all of my senses. My eyes and my nose and my…” He struggled a bit with his English here, clapping his hand to the meat of his arm repeatedly. “Tocar.”
“Touch,” I offered.
“Yes, my touch. And food!” He patted his belly again. “Take pleasure, Señora! Eat our Mediterranean food. Taste every fruit. Indulge in gelato. This is how you must live the rest of your life. You absolutely cannot come back here to see me every week to test and see if the cancer has returned. This is not the way to wait to die. You have to live fully, do you see?”
Silence fell. My mom and I, transfixed, turned simultaneously towards Nana.
A smile broke across her face, finally. “Yes, I see. Thank you.”
I’d love to tell you that Nana is fear-free now, but she’s not. Fear is a desperately hard habit to break at any age, but if you’ve managed to get to 83 with full, religious faith in its ability to protect you and your family from harm, no five-minute speech could ever stop that moving train.
Anytime the good doctor is brought up, however, Nana’s eyes light up and she gushes, “Do you remember what he said to me? It was so beautiful, I almost wanted to cry. Katie, have you written about him yet? Did you write down what he said?”
I wrote down what he said the minute we left his office, but it’s taken me a while to get around to using it. I’ve been dealing with my own fear lately. It seems to be the central topic of my therapy appointments and I’ve been having some wild dreams on the subject.
I dreamt that Death, in the form of my great-grandma (Nana’s mom), was lovingly playing with my hair.
I don’t remember my great-grandma. All I know about her is that she had a debilitating stutter that started when her sister died of polio. But she was incredibly well-read. She could have long, clearly-spoken discussions with you about politics, literature, religion, and philosophy — as long as she felt safe enough.
In my dream, her fingers were so delicate and gentle that my scalp actually tingled. I knew it was Her, but my eyes were screwed shut in fear at the idea that Death was touching me. I said to myself, over and over again, “Please have a nice face. Please have a nice face. Please have a nice face,” and then I opened my eyes.
She didn’t have a nice face.
She was gray and rotten. Her eyes were both sunken and bulged at the same time. The skin of her cheeks was falling off in chunks and her neck was so thin, her head lulled dangerously.
I was so terrified, I got knocked off my feet. As I fell, I found myself saying to Her, despite my fear —
I must have really meant it too, because I woke up with tears in my eyes, having said the words out loud.
Remember this feeling.
I ended up writing a very thankful letter to the reader who wrote to me that I was living her dream.
She’d reminded me that I’m living my dream too. My eleven-year-old self would have been thrilled that I’m writing and traveling, that I’m using all my senses, saying “gracias” to my body, and facing my fears.
We get this warped idea, perhaps from the very stories that inspired us in the first place, that “living the dream” means an absence of fear and a sense of completion. It’s supposed to be the end of the book, but it’s not. We often don’t even recognize it when it happens because we’re so focused on an alternate, far scarier ending.
But even Death can be beautiful if you decide that she is. And in the meantime, we can try to pay closer attention to what there is to be grateful for. We can arm ourselves with a set of boundaries and some anxiety coping techniques and be gentle with ourselves when the world shows its harsh and scary side.
There’s a reason I call myself the “Initiate Abroad”. I remember this every so often, but it takes some effort to keep it in the forefront of my consciousness.
A few months ago, I made a new friend at a writing meetup. The first time we met, we were supposed to be writing silently, but she kept bursting into laughter at her own writing. I found myself in awe of this girl’s lighthearted attitude. I hoped it would rub off on me if I hung out with her enough, so I went to open mic nights and poetry slams with her and I watched all kinds of people step up and bare their souls in a way that made me feel vicariously brave. When Jenni herself performed, her joyful aura shone through in her poetry in a way that I hope she knows was deeply healing to everyone in the audience.
Luckily for you, there’s a video.
I’d like to end this particular story with her words because I couldn’t have said it better myself: Remember This Feeling.
If you like Jenni’s poetry, go follow her on IG @ Soulgoulash.