Face What You Fear the Most

This is what we were asked to mull over and discuss:

It’s been said that one should face what they are most afraid of.
What do you think of this idea?
Although it is one of the hardest things to do, great people generally do just that.

Reading it now, it seems pretty straight forward, although no slam dunk because each of us sitting in the circle had a brain injury. As for me? The moment the first line was spoken, I got sucked into a cascade of emotions, memories, frustration—flooded.  Everything else was drowned out. What I heard was this:

What are you afraid of more than anything else?
Can you face your fear?

Brain injury makes me tired, and when I’m tired, I cry. It’s just the way it is. I must have been tired the day this happened, or else the topic hit me like a ton of bricks. So I cried.

The more I thought, the more muddled I got. The fear? I knew what it was but not how to put it into words or give voice to it. Is knowing the same as being aware? Is awareness facing what you’re afraid of? And if so, why hasn’t “knowing” gotten me past my fear?

What about you? Do you also know only too well what you’re most afraid of? If so, chances are you can’t put it into words either, or don’t really want to. Sometimes I think silence keeps the fear at bay, or speaking its name aloud is tempting fate.

But I’m getting sidetracked.
I’m asking because I suspect that what most people are most afraid of comes from within themselves. So the ability to see one’s deepest fears, much less face them, requires awareness and introspection. Well, in the aftermath of a brain injury one of the most common challenges is an organic unawareness—the inability to self-observe. It’s a conundrum. Because of that unawareness we may not be able to fathom a feeling that is so existential, one that is, perhaps, at the heart of our daily struggle: finding who we are. And as long as we can’t clearly see that fear (no matter how hard we try) we won’t be able to face it. At least until we’ve internalized the need and habituated introspection.

When I look back at that day and the idea offered up for discussion, it seems obvious that it is much more complex than I realized at the time— because of our brain injuries. Maybe that’s why it freaked me out; why it struck such a tender chord. I knew I had to consider it outside the circle, alone, in my own time. That’s why I took it home. That’s why I’m writing this.

Let’s return to the question, “what do you think of this idea?” My answer could have been, “It sounds good to me. It also sounds like one of the hardest things to do [I don’t see myself among the ‘greats’], but it’s probably the only thing to do.”

Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini,_self-portrait_c1623 cropped-bigAt the same time, I’m left wondering what “facing” what you’re most afraid of actually looks like, how it works, and the purpose it serves. In my mind it’s not fear that holds me back; I think I’m held back by what it is I fear. I’m afraid of… well, I can’t find the right words. Now what?

Based on a quick online search (note: I didn’t check my sources), and with my own 2 cents added, here’s some (greatly simplified) advice:

Be Mindful: Recognize that your fear is standing in your way. Think about what happens when it does, how you feel, and your response.

Take Charge: It’s your life. Manage stress with music, meditation, exercise, or massage. Breathe in a regular rhythm to calm your system. Do whatever helps you keep the boogyman at bay.

Habituation: When you face the fear you get stronger and it gets easier. Practice living with it and see for yourself—it’s not impossible. There’s no need to worry about when it may come, if you know you can deal with it when it does.

Affirmation: Positive self-talk, repeatedly said out loud and confident.  “My life is in my hands.” “I am stronger than my fear.”  “I am worthy.” “I am happy being alive and being me.”

Last, but not least, if all else fails, do what I do—

Cry: [out with the bad], and

Smile: [there’s research showing that even a forced smile can improve one’s mood and reduce stress!]. Fake it ’til you make it.

The intense gaze illuminating this piece is a detail from Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s self-portrait (c. 1623) via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain, {{PD-1923}}. The painting can be seen here


What I Remember

I remember

1957_Laurie age 3

Mom at the stove,
I’d come up behind her, arms around her waist, hugging her
(how old was I?). she was my pillar.

In quiet moments she would turn to me. Hold my face in her hands, look in my eyes, and say, her eyes sparkling,

“shayna punim”*

The measles. In my room in bed, under a sheet. Burning and aching sleeping waking then back to sleep. She sits by my side, bathes my neck my back in alcohol or something.
Gentle, cools my fever. Comfort.

Her total confidence in me – helping me believe in myself as she believed in me.
“You can do whatever you want to do”

Max and George in the glow of summer times (without us).
Just Nanny and Poppo – my mom and dad.
Love, a bond forged. Safe in the arms of second parents.

And I remember

Watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts. Her memory fading but reassured, engrossed.
FDR still vivid, remembered. Side by side we (all of us) watching again and again as if the first time.

A realization, loss, grief. “I can’t read!” “Who am I?” “What’s happening to me?” So I read poetry, A Child’s Garden of Versesjust as deep in the past she read to me.
Bed in Summer, My Shadow, Time to Rise:

A birdie with a yellow bill
Hopped upon the window sill,
Cocked his shining eye and said:
             [I pause, she chimes in]
“Ain’t you ‘shamed, you sleepyhead?”
             [Her face lights up. She remembers.]

IMG_1567 small
Later it is music: The Andrews Sisters, Pink Martini. Holding her hand I dance. On the couch she nods, hands sway, feels the beat.

shayna punim

Always forever beautiful. Graceful. Kind.


She laughed when Jamie laughed at Poppy.

“My darling girl,” she said twice, rests her hand on mine, brushed my face.

She always recognized us – Kim and me – when we entered the room. Gave us kisses, “I love you” Hands cradling my face, or resting her hand on mine or stroking my hair

Friends, family come to say hello (or goodbye). She welcomes them too with a smile.

When she woke, Melva was by her bed and said “hello.” Mom gazed back.
She said “hello,” put her arms out hands cupping Melva’s head. Melva kissed her.

I lay down curled around her with a kiss.
She put her arms around me in a light hug and stroked my back.

A dear friend wrote: “Wondering when she cupped my chin … stared at me, was it a purposeful gesture, or spontaneous movement. Doesn’t really matter. I was with her.”

Debrah: “Mom woke and said “I’m back.”
I leaned over her. “You don’t have to come back.”
She said, “I know”
Me: “You can say goodbye.”
She said, “I know”
Me: “Kim and I will be fine.”
She said, “I know”

I brush her cheek, kiss her hand, stroke her forehead.
“I’m here.” She said, “I know you are.”

Her eyes looking deep into mine. mine into hers.
Staying like that for ever, searching.

Mom looked at the picture next to her bed, puzzled. Pulling herself up. So weak but strong pointed and asked, “What’s that? Water?”

I knew. She was looking beyond here, now. Closer to what was awaiting. Getting ready.

I remember when I was little

I’d wrap my arms around her. Without words, she offered the strength I needed to find my way in the world. Here, now, as one day became the next, she was drifting away. No longer able to find her way in words, touch became her language – and she was fluent.

My last day with her 

A brief smile. I saw her eyes and she mine.
Raising her hand to my head, stroking my neck. I imagined her offering wordless love.
Still, gentle, her hand slid to the pillow, still stroking.
Did she think the pillow was my neck, or my neck the pillow?

Was she comforting me, or was she drawing strength for her journey?
I think both.

Mommy, I miss you already but will always feel your arms around me. 
I love you

shayna punim: beautiful face (Yiddish)
†Robert Louis Stevenson