How to Kick Fear to the Curb and Take Your Life Back

Last summer, I saw a small snake curled up in the middle of my long, red dirt driveway that lead to our farm house nestled among rolling hills and towering poplar trees.

I brought my big one ton truck to an immediate halt and quickly backed out of the driveway without a moment’s hesitation. As I turned the truck around, I quickly locked the doors, just in case the hideous beast tried to crawl up my tire, open the truck door and chew my face off. I resolutely drove the thirty minutes back to town where I patiently sat in the local coffee shop, allowing the disgusting reptile ample time to slither from my driveway .

As you might have guessed, I am absolutely, completely and irrationally terrified of snakes.

I am not just terrified of snakes; I have a true phobia. Thinking back, I have come to the conclusion that two seemingly unrelated childhood events somehow fused in my subconscious mind to eventually become the basis of a totally irrational adult fear.

Would it surprise you to know that in part, my fear of snakes was derived from a poster I saw in a store when I was about four years old of Jaws coming out of the seat of a toilet? Let me tell you how my phobia of snakes and sitting on the toilet in the dark lead to my deep understanding of how fear can rule and even ruin our lives, but only if we give it the power to do so.

One hot summer day when I was about four or five years old, my mom and I went on a fun filled adventure to a local river in the Okanagan Valley with the rest of our family. Even in the shade it was blazing hot and I couldn’t wait to jump into the cool water as my mother zipped and clipped my lifejacket securely around my little body. I can still remember peaking excitedly over what seemed like a giant cliff as my aunt and uncles jumped into the slow moving river below. Satisfied that I was safe, my mother tossed me into the river and jumped in right after me. I giggled at the antics of my uncles as we floated down the river, laughing and splashing in the cool water. It was an idyllic afternoon and the perfect setting for a wonderful childhood memory.

Little did I know that a life altering event was about to take place.

When we eventually floated to a very shallow part of the river and the adults instructed me that we were getting out, I dutifully stood up and began to walk toward the shore. Likely it was the feeling of something brushing the skin of my leg that caused me to look down and see the large dead snake wrapped around one ankle.

Even thought that experience scared me, I don’t remember being terrified of snakes after that day. Looking back, I believe it took two more negative encounters with snakes before the fear really took up residence in my mind. The first one was probably that same summer. I was at the game farm with my big, fun family who love nothing more than to tease each other mercilessly. I was proudly sitting beside my mother on the hood of my grandpa’s big gold Lincoln as it ambled slowly through the park when we noticed people dispersing from around the snake pit in a hurried fashion.

The snake enclosure was basically a large round cement structure that was completely open at the top, allowing visitors to peer over the edge and view the reptiles below. Apparently, the rattle snakes had mounted a successful prison break and where at large in the park. I don’t remember being particularly concerned that there could be deadly snakes lurking under the park benches or hiding in the hotdog stand.

At least, I wasn’t afraid until my uncle playfully called out window to watch out for rattle snakes trying to crawl up the tires because they like to eat little girls.

ZINNNNNNG!

Neurons started firing in my child’s brain, connecting thoughts, ideas and pictures and suddenly an unconscious association was made between snakes being dangerous and their supernatural ability to crawl up tires. (I’m not really afraid that snakes can crawl up tires. I say it now because it is funny but this memory definitely played a big role in my fear).

The final chink in my inability to view snakes rationally was firmly mortared up several years later.

It was really all Darren Stevenson’s fault.

I was in grade two and it was recess time. Like most kids that age, I was having a great time running and playing with my classmates; until Darren Stevenson ruined it. He had a crush on me and in true 7 year old fashion, he tried to show his affection by terrorizing me; he caught a small snake and put it down the back of my jacket. I am sure the creature was only looking for way out when it wiggled into the arm of my coat.

ZINNNNNNNNG!

A full-on, true phobia was created in that instant as I screamed my head off while I frantically tried to disengage myself from my jacket. Just the thought of that little-girl-eating beast wiggling over my left arm –yes, I can remember which arm it was- gives me the willies and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to block out the terrifying memory.

Flash forward sixteen years. I am in university, working on a biology degree and my fear of snakes is growing every year. During my Vertebrate Biology course, I had to have someone tape pieces of paper over the pictures of the snakes so I could read the text around them. It was not long after that I started pulling the blankets back before I got into bed just to make sure a snake wasn’t curled up at the end of my bed, waiting to gnaw off my toes!

My self-induced pathology continued as jaws in the toilet from the poster I saw as a child, morphed into a snake in the toilet. I told myself that it was really ridiculous as I hovered over the toilet seat to pee but not even that acknowledgement could motivate me to change my ways.

Then one day while my husband was watching the TV series COPS, I happened to walk past the TV at the most inopportune moment. The segment was about a venomous snake that crawled up from the sewers of New York and came out an unsuspecting woman’s toilet.

“That can really happen?” I said in near hysteria.

My husband just shrugged, “Yeah, I guess so. Wouldn’t that just freak you out!”

“OH MY GOD!”

ZINNNNNNNG!!!

Now my fears were no longer irrational and totally unfounded. I had just been given verifiable proof that my fear that snakes could crawl out of toilets was real and true. This is pivotal to understanding fear so hold onto this thought while I describe my alarming decent into phobia madness.

It was no longer enough that I would check my bed once and get in. Now I would pull the blankets back, feel all around, pull them back up and minutes later, check again just in case a snake had made a nest at the bottom of my mattress in that short period of time. When my tiny bladder woke me up in the middle of the night, I now had to turn on the light so I could see that there wasn’t a snake in the bottom of the toilet before I would assume “the hover” position. And eventually, I had to watch the hole in the toilet the entire time in case a snake crawled out while I was in such a delicate and vulnerable position.

Luckily, as part of my requirements to graduate, I had to take some non-biology credits and I chose Psychology. During in one such class, my professor gave a lecture on how phobias are created and how to cover come them. He talked about how fear was survival mechanism implanted into caveman brains so when the bumbling oafs watched one of their cave mates get eaten by a Saber Tooth Tiger, they knew to be afraid; that fear kept them alive and ensured the survival of the species. The interesting thing about fear is that the more we avoid the thing we are afraid of, the worse our fear of that thing becomes. In psychology, this phenomenon is called reinforcement.

I listened intently as my professor described the two most common methods to overcome fear: one, simply force yourself to what you are terrified of or two, a radical and to my mind, horrifying practice called flooding. In simple terms, I’d be locked in a room full of snakes (think Indiana Jones) or someone would strap me to a chair and let snakes crawl all over me.

HELL NO!!!!

Just the mere thought of something that radical made my entire body shake uncontrollably and sweat like I’d just run the Boston Marathon in August!

And then he said something that was really interesting: Phobia’s really aren’t that big of a deal and they don’t generally require treatment, unless they are interfering with your life.

I had to admit to myself that in all honesty, my fear was becoming a bit of a problem. It’s not like it was inhibiting my ability to work or be a good mother or be at the top of my classes. To the outside world, I was a highly function woman. The term “Superwoman” had even been applied to me on more than one occasion, which was ironic considering that I obviously had my own Kryptonite; snakes.

To the outside world and to myself, I really was this strong, capable, superwoman who would put her nose to the grindstone and plow through any obstacle. However, at night Ms.Hyde would make her appearance as I began to rip my bed apart five or six times and nervously watch the bottom of the toilet for the slightest sign of a snake as I hovered delicately above. I didn’t like it that such contradictions existed within me.

It was time to make some changes.

There was absolutely no way that I was going subject myself to the flooding technique. My only other option was to force myself to do what I was afraid of. Armed with sheer determination that I would not be ruled by ridiculous fears, I got into bed that night without pulling the covers back to check for a snake and forced myself to slide my feet all the way to the bottom of the bed. You have no idea how hard that was for me to do! I was just as terrified as someone with a fear of heights, standing on a suspension bridge and peering one hundred feet below them at the nauseating abyss below.

I was sweating and terrified as my imagination ran wild. I tried to rationalize with myself as my mind screamed at me to get out of bed because at any second, I was going to feel something slither across my legs. I held onto my resolve as tightly as a cowboy on a raging bull in the qualifying round at the NFR. The ancient part of the brain I like to call the “lizard brain”, the part that was designed to keep humans alive, battled with my more evolved and logical brain.

It was a matter of willpower and mind over matter. I was stronger than this fear, I told myself. I stuck it out and fought with my Lizard Brain until I finally fell into an exhausted asleep. When my bladder woke me up a few hours later, I refused to turn on the light so I could check the toilet first. Once again, I was consumed by sheer terror but I refused to give in to my fear.

It took three agonizing days and I was exhausted by the end of it but I won! While I have not attempted to get over my fear of snakes in general, after those three days of battling my more irrational fears of snakes being in the bed and in the toilet, the fear completely disappeared and never came back. Ever.

While some of you may be thinking that my fear was ridiculous and there was no reason that it should have been so hard for me to get over it, fear is fear; it doesn’t matter if you are afraid of spiders or afraid of abandonment or afraid of heights or afraid of commitment. Fear can cause you to ruin your chance at a promotion, consume you with worries that don’t really exist, destroy opportunities or sabotage the best relationship of your life.

Fear isolates us from love and opportunities and prevents us from really living.

We can be so irrationally ruled by fear that we do truly ridiculous things. Sometimes we recognize that our behavior is not logical but we continue to act that way because it allows us to continue avoid our fear rather than face it. Other times we are too blinded by our fear to see the absurdity of our behavior.

The saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, couldn’t be more true.

Fear often has deep roots in our childhood and we bring it forward into our adult lives. Sometimes it stays true to its original form and other times it morphs into something very different making it hard to recognize. However, its purpose is the same; to protect us. That doesn’t mean that it’s rational or that it’s a good thing because it comes from a very primitive part of our brains.

Many of us have even had our deepest fears confirmed; maybe you had a childhood fear of abandonment as a child and years later, your spouse leaves you for someone else. Or maybe you were always picked last for the sports teams in elementary school and you are repeatedly passed over for a promotion as an adult.

Whether or not your fear has bee confirmed by your experiences or not, if there is one thing I know for certain about fear it’s that you can’t run from it because every time you do, it gets worse. Running away may make you feel safe in that moment but you are only reinforcing that fear.

So do what you are afraid of, recognize that your fear is irrational and to force yourself to stop running.

Then you can sit back and watch your life transform!

Grief: How to Survive It

I was up early the day my whole world changed forever.

My boyfriend was in a triathlon race 1000 kilometers away and I felt wretched that I hadn’t been able to be there to cheer him on when he crossed the finish line. I had just started a new job and wasn’t able to take the time off to go with him. I loved this man more than I had ever loved anyone in my entire life and it felt so wrong not to be there for him. After all, he had always stood so steadfast beside me every time I needed him.

I looked at my empty coffee cup, yawned and stretched. I woke up at 5am to wish him good luck as he prepared for race day, wanting to show my love and support in some small way. Yes, it was definitely time for another caffeine infusion. I padded sleepily in the direction of the kitchen and made a latte as quietly as possible, hoping not to wake my sleeping children.

It was mid August and the sun was already shining brightly in the brilliant blue Northern sky. I took my frothy cup of coffee outside and settled my favorite chair on the porch. The birds were chirping and the leaves were rustling high up in the poplar trees as I picked up my phone and opened the special website where I could enter his race number and check his progress.

Suddenly my phone rang interrupting the peace of the morning. I knew with that deep, ancient intuition that is completely unexplainable that it was bad news. I picked up my phone and walked to the end of the porch, the offending device still ringing loudly. My stomach was upside down and I was shaking slightly when I slid my finger across the screen and put the phone to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Jenny,” my mother was sobbing on the other end, barely able to get the words out.

“What happened? Please tell me what happened!” I begged her but I already knew.

“Grandma,” the single word crashed into me like train and sent my world spinning.

“Noooooooooo,” I fell to the ground. The pain ripping through my body was suffocating.

I don’t remember much but I remember lying on the wooden planks of the porch, sobbing and praying: Please God, don’t take my grandmother. I don’t know if I can get through life without her.

She was the sweetest of souls and I loved her like a mother. My father was killed when I was two and my grandparents had filled a void that would have been a very deep chasm without the warmth and security of their love.

I know that I had to make phone calls to other family members but the only call I remember making was to my boyfriend. He wasn’t quite done the race so I had to leave a voice mail. I felt terrible that he was going to be full of excitement and then he was going to hear my awful, sobbing, incoherent message. I desperately needed him; I needed the security of his arms and the solace of his tender love.

A few days later, my grief multiplied to a magnitude that was almost unquantifiable.

It was the night before my precious grandmother’s funeral. We were all travel weary and I was beyond emotionally exhausted having cried for the majority of the grueling fourteen hour drive from one end of the province to the other. I was tucking the girls into bed when I glanced over and saw my boyfriend’s ipad on the hotel nightstand between their single beds. He had filled it with games and activities just for my youngest daughter but lately, the ipad had remained strangely out of sight. Considering my emotional state, I’ll never understand how my stupid sixth sense kicked in again and started screaming at me to pick it up.

I hesitated, second guessing myself. Finally, I reached out a shaky hand and sat down on the end of my daughter’s bed with it on my lap. I was already so grief stricken that I could hardly muster more than outrage at what I found. He swore that night and to this day that he never cheated; but he still ran. He left me broken and wracked with sorrow on the eve of the day I was expected to stand beside my grandfather and support him as he laid to rest his soul mate of 65 years.

In the space of a week, I lost another person whom I had loved with all my heart. It wasn’t death that took him from me; I think the only term that would describe it is…….fear. I lost him to his fears.

He didn’t just leave me that night. He kept running. A week later, he ran away for the weekend with a woman he had just met the day before. He stayed with her for the better part of the year.

The grief that followed shook me to my very core.

I wanted to just quit life. I wanted to crawl into my bed and never emerge. I didn’t want to talk to anyone; it was simply too much effort to listen to their kind, understanding words. I lost an alarming amount of weight for my frame because the sight of food sickened me; food is for the living and I was barely living.  

I have been through some struggles that would have crushed the average person but this was by far the most difficult journey of my entire life. Every day I would cry on my hour drive to and from work. When I walked through the front door, I would paste a smile on my face for the sake of my girls. Once they were in bed, I cried myself to sleep.

I tried to read books about grief and abandonment but my mind wouldn’t stay focused. I tried to talk it out with friends but every word they said felt like another brick was being thrown my chest; their words only seemed to cause me more anxiety. I tried to mediate but I just cried the entire time. Everything about life seemed to be more of a struggle than it ever had before.

The one thing I didn’t do was to try to run from the grief or put it in a box, lock it down and shove it to the back of my mind. Somehow, I knew that I had to allow the process.

The only way to survive the unbearable grief was to allow it to wash over me.

I had to allow myself the luxury of grieving; but that doesn’t mean I quit life. It means if I needed to crawl into bed and cry, I did. If I was making dinner and I suddenly sat down on the kitchen floor for a good cry and dinner was late, I didn’t beat myself up about it. If I needed to dance or break plates or run until I fell down, I allowed myself to do it.

Very slowly I started to replace my grief with gratitude; gratitude for my amazing little family, my loyal friends, my horses, the peace and serenity of my farm. I fell in love all over again with the things that had always made my soul sing like riding, dancing and running. Eventually I was able to read the books and find my center again.

I gathered my little daughters close and immersed myself in their unfailing, innocent love. We learned how to be a family, just the three of us. Our house filled with laughter and fun again. We danced in the kitchen, laughed when we got stuck in snow banks and viewed every day as grand adventure.

But that doesn’t mean the grief was gone.

People often say that life is a journey, not a destination. I learned that it’s the same for grief.

You never really get over losing someone you love. The loss becomes a permanent fixture in your being, almost like foreign DNA injected into your chromosomes. You learn to cope with it; some days you cope better than others.

I never want to experience that kind of debilitating pain again.

However, I did come out of it with a new appreciation for life; now I cherish every person and every moment because I never know what life will bring in the next minute, day or month.

Now my mantra has become:

Love without fear.

Live a life that matters.

Focus on the good and release the negative. 

The Truth About Fear

It was Saturday morning and I was in the kitchen cleaning up after making the girls their favorite breakfast of waffles and fruit. From my vantage point by the sink, I had a clear view into my bedroom. My ten year old daughter was lying on my bed, playing on her iPod while the youngest watched TV. One of our favorite songs came on the radio and I glanced through the kitchen to see if they noticed.

Nope, both were still thoroughly engrossed in their chosen diversions.

Normally when that song comes on, both girls coming running to participate in a family dance off. I glanced over at them again but they still have not noticed; brains focused on the screens in front of them, unaware that they were about to miss out on one of their favorite things – trying to out-dance their mother.

Am I doing all I can to teach my children to see the small miracles around them? Deciding that I could definitely do more, an idea began to take shape in my mind.

“Girls,” I called from the kitchen. “Get dressed and brush your teeth, we are going on an adventure!” That got their attention, I laughed to myself as I suddenly heard little feet hit the hardwood and run in my direction.

“What are we doing?” Chelisa asked with excitement.

“I wuv adventwar mommy,” said Brooklynn as she clapped her little hands and jumped up and down.

“We are going to take pictures of a herd of mares with their foals and I am going to teach you a bit about how to study animal behavior.”

Both girls started squealing and jumping up and down, totally thrilled. I smiled at them, rather pleased with myself. I doubt they would have been much more excited if I had told them we were going to Disneyland.

Thirty minutes later my silver Xterra was heading down the highway to a 160 acre pasture about 15 kilometers from our little hobby farm.

It was not long before we parked, unloaded the camera and tripod, cautiously climbed over the barbed wire fence and began to slowly walk toward the herd of about 20 mares with their young foals.

“I can’t wait to pet the baby horses!” Brooklynn exclaimed excitedly.

“These horses aren’t like ours honey. They are basically wild so they are afraid of people. We have to move slowly and quietly or they will run away,” I cautioned in whisper as I took my youngest daughter by the hand in case her wild little ginger personality urged her headlong into a herd of horses.

IMG_5989 iscar We were no more than forty feet into the field when the mares put their noses to their babies bums and urged them forward into full gallop, taking them deeper into the pasture and away from us. Only a palomino mare and her foal stayed behind to observe us.

Suddenly, a magnificent sorrel colored horse appeared behind the pair, urging them to race toward the rest of the herd. Once safely on their way, the beautiful lone horse turned to face us, strong and sure, long mane whipping in the wind. The girls stared in silent awe as I snapped pictures madly, hoping to capture the beauty of what I saw in front of me. After sizing us up for a few moments and feeling no threat, the horse turned, red coat gleaming in the sun and raced to join the rest of the herd.

“What was that all about?” Chelisa asked. “Maybe that was the lead mare and she came to get the palomino and her baby when they didn’t follow the herd?”

“Write down all of your observations, questions and thoughts,” I advised her. “All the pieces will eventually come together.”

She slid her purple glasses onto her cute little nose, sat in the tall grass and bent her dark head toward her notebook. I could hear the scratching of her pencil as I snapped a few pictures and brushed my hair out of my face as the wind picked up, sending the long strands in every direction.IMG_6012 edit

One of my favorite horse trainers, Carolyn Resnick, spent an entire summer as a young girl observing and eventually gaining the acceptance of a herd of wild horses near her home. I looked over at my daughter and wondered if this could be a pivotal moment in her young life.

Once her notes were completed, we headed deeper into the pasture in quiet pursuit of the herd. Shortly after setting up again, something truly remarkable happened; a dark palomino mare, with a long twisted mane, intelligent eyes and a confidence of purpose, began to walk toward us, her foal at her side. I lifted my eye from my camera, blinked and stared at her. She was definitely a horse but something about her was strikingly reminiscent of an ancient Indian princess.IMG_5967jj

I was so taken with her that it took me a few minutes to realize that the rest of the mares and foals were falling into place behind her.

“She is the lead mare, Chelisa,” I pointed toward the Warrior Princess steadily walking toward us. I glanced over at my daughter and saw that she was nodding her head in agreement, mouth hanging open, just as mesmerized as I was.

Suddenly, huge the foaless sorrel horse galloped up from the back of the herd, crossed in front of them and continued toward us. With my camera focused on the magnificent beast in front of me and Chelisa busy taking notes, it was a few moments before Brooklynn’s excited chatter percolated through my consciousness.IMG_6001 jj

“Here come the baby horses! I’m going to pet them mommy!” I lifted my head and swiveled it quickly to the left. Warrior Princess had followed the big red horse and entire herd of forty horses were following her and they were all unbelievably close to us!

Realization came quickly.

“Holy cow girls, that‘s a stallion!” I stood up quickly, camera hanging forgotten in my hand. I have loved horses from the moment I was born but fear was pounding through my body as I realized that a stallion was dangerously close to us. My daughters and I were in a potentially very serious situation. I shoved the girls behind me with a sick feeling, knowing that we would never make it to the safety of the barbed wire fence.

Then something remarkable happened.

I got outside my fear and looked at the stallion, seeing what was really in front of me rather than what I assumed was. His stance was not aggressive; it was protective. The mares and foals were clustered behind him but they were obviously just curious.

As the stallion and I continued to stare at each other, an unspoken understanding passed between us: each of us would protect our families but neither of us had any intention of being the first to attack.

In terms of strength and power, the stallion obviously had the upper hand; yet he was offering us the opportunity to share the same space as his family in peace and harmony.

I slowly sank back into the grass, pulling the girls with me while the stallion turned back to his family, herded them to a more comfortable distance and began to graze.

“Wow! Did you see how close they were mom? If you hadn’t stood up, I think they might have come right up to us! I was a little scared when you said that big sorrel horse was stallion,” Chelisa’s words were almost tripping over each other in her excitement.

“Yes, yes I did see how close they were,” I say reaching over to take her soft little hand in mine as my heart began to slow to its normal pace. “You better get started with your notes honey. That was some incredible behavior we just witnessed.”

As Chelisa began to once again scratch furiously in her notebook, I picked up my camera and thought about all the remarkable things that had just happened.

This adventure had started out as a way to get my children to disconnect with electronics and reconnect with nature. I lowered my camera for a brief moment to look over at my sweet little girls sitting in the grass, gazing at the herd of horses in front of them. The scene in front of me couldn’t possibly be more perfect. Mission accomplished.IMG_5810 drama

I had learned a valuable lesson too.

I learned that fear can be lie. It’s not always real.

Sometimes past experiences and preconceived notions can lead us to believe there is danger when in fact, there is not. We have to be able to step outside of our fear and examine the situation for what it really is.

That can be easier said than done. Day to day life in this modern world does not often allow us the opportunity to be still and listen with a pureness that isn’t clouded by distractions or negativity.

In my moment of awareness, I was surrounded by nature. I felt that energetic connection when you vibrate on the same frequency as other living things. Everything else fell away, allowing for a moment of perfect clarity and understanding.

A quote I recently read rolled through my mind:

                                                If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence,

                                                      we would rise up, rooted like trees.

                                                                                 -Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I often fear for the future of mankind.

The more we lose touch with nature and fall deeper into slavery with our false, electronic communities and distractions, the more lost and fearful we become.

Letting go of fear and soothing our troubled spirits may not be as complicated as we make it. My extraordinary experience with the stallion leads me to believe that the answers we seek are inside of us; but they are being drowned out by the distractions we have created so we don’t have to be alone with ourselves.

This week I challenge you to get out into nature and disconnect from all of the meaningless electronic stuff. Listen to the wind rustling the leaves, the birds chirping, the bees buzzing and let earth’s intelligence send your soul a bit of wisdom.

 

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