I gave away my freedom.
And now, I’m determined to get it back.
An old friend once told me that fear was a necessary part of life. I disagreed. Still, he argued that fear could be a useful tool, a drive or something of the sort. At the time, I knew I didn’t share his views but I didn't really know the reason why. So, when he insisted and I couldn’t come up with a rebuttal I was thoroughly convinced about, I basically gave in and let it go.
Well, now I’ve come to realize that I definitely can’t agree. And now, I think I know why… You see, fear has always been a part of my life, there’s no question about it. At first it was the usual, little fears of everyday life that I remember were on my mind: getting lost in the park (which I actually remember happening once); falling off my bike; misbehaving and getting grounded; getting bad grades; or whatever kids normally worry about.
But then, as I grew older so did the fears. They grew and changed in every aspect imaginable. In size, realness, complexity, and even, recurrence. So much so, that each day it seemed, a new one popped up and then another one, and another one, and so on. But every day, I pushed and shoved every single one of them deeper and deeper into myself. Never taking a second look at what it was that was actually making me either nervous, anxious or outright afraid. Until one day, my fear-holding bucket inevitably overflowed and I experienced my very first (and hopefully last) panic attack.
Don’t get me wrong, I was never a visibly fearful person. Fear didn’t actually stop me from doing most of the things I had to or enjoyed doing. On the contrary. On the outside I was always careful of portraying my most believable fearless self. But in reality, on the inside I was just trying - quite desperately- to be as brave as I possibly could. Yes, some people often refer to fearless and brave as synonyms.
But in my opinion, there is one very important difference that I cannot overlook: fearless can be defined as “free of fear: without fear” whereas brave is often defined as “having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear or difficulty: having or showing courage”. Which to me and my over-stuffed brain, translates into a simple idea: being brave is what you are just before being fearless; fearless equals free.
And who wouldn’t want freedom, right? Well apparently, I didn’t. Or at the very least, I just wasn’t ready to confront myself enough to work and fight to actually achieve it. Over the years, I had -and have- systematically locked away so many feelings, thoughts, beliefs, ideas, opinions, memories, likes, dislikes -and so much more- inside myself that I had barely, yet quite successfully, convinced myself I was simply not feeling, thinking nor remembering whatever it was that felt threatening to me.
Never actually taking the time to really look at it, much less actually feel it or even try to understand it. And eventually, I became a freakin’ pro at it. To the point that I didn’t even have to really think about it. It became an automatic response: Hide-Deny-Rinse-Repeat. Secretly hoping it would all just magically go away. Yes, momentarily avoiding discomfort and maybe even confrontation but at the same time unknowingly reinforcing my self-made prison and prolonging the rule of fear.
But, did I really believe or did I actually expect it to all just magically go away? How? Was I really not aware of what I was doing? If I’m being completely honest… I absolutely was. At least for the past 10 years I have been aware that it wouldn’t -or at least I suspected it couldn’t- be a sustainable way of living. But I feared what would happen if I stopped my “emotional magician” ways. What would become of me? And I simply couldn’t bear the thought of being vulnerable or even worse, weak. So, there it was again. Fear.
Now, I am finally beginning to understand that whenever I hid, denied and locked away a fear-inducing piece of my life deep inside that forgotten -and heavily locked- corner of my mind, I was also ripping and hiding away a small part of myself with it. Until one day, I found I felt empty and completely numb. Like I had just locked away my entire self inside a very dark room with all my fears and then just thrown away the key.
And perhaps I had somehow managed to temporarily blindfold myself with the sheer willpower of not wanting to see. But ultimately, it still felt like I was trapped, surrounded and -still- haunted by all that which I was desperately trying to deny and hide or simply too afraid to confront.
All those questions that I had left unasked for fear of the answer; the feelings I was too afraid to feel because I was convinced I wasn’t allowed to feel them; the things I never asked or fought for because I believed I wasn’t worthy; the dreams and opportunities I never seized or even tried to reach for, for fear of not being good enough and proving someone right.
The interests and parts of me I never explored, for fear of being different and not belonging; the self-esteem issues I never addressed for fear of confronting what they stemmed from; the relationships I stayed in because I didn’t -or couldn’t- believe I deserved better, and the ones I sabotaged or simply walked away from, because I believed I didn’t deserve them.
The me-ness I never really shared simply for fear of being rejected; the old wounds and resentments that I never spoke of, for fear of hurting somebody else’s feelings; the sense of immense responsibility I carried for everything and everyone -except myself- around me that I just couldn’t let go of, for fear of what would happen to them; and finally… the guilt. So. Much. Guilt.
All of it. Sitting there, silently surrounding me, taunting me. Did I feel overwhelmed? Well, that’s an understatement. I had finally given up and given away my freedom, the freedom of simply being myself. And why? Because it was easier. It was simpler. It was more comfortable, convenient even. It felt like the safest way to get through and survive.
So, rather than face the avalanche of emotions, feelings and thoughts that was always building in my mind, I closed my eyes, shaked it off and just hoped for the best.
Then, it happened. I was out with family and friends riding a UTV as a passenger while driving deeper and deeper inside a mountain range when suddenly, something snapped inside my head. There was nothing particularly new about what I was doing. I was in a new and unfamiliar place, yes, but with people I knew and trusted; sitting right by my little sister, wearing a seatbelt and a helmet.
Still, I started to notice it was getting harder and harder to breathe. So, I grabbed on to the handlebars tighter and tighter. But my eyes kept shooting back over my right shoulder and down into the deep precipice that awaited just mere inches from the trail we were driving on and then -of course- my mind kept going into the darkest possible outcomes and “what ifs” were we to crash and fall into it.
My palms got sweatier and sweatier inside my gloves. My heart started racing heavily and I began to feel dizzy. It was getting harder and harder to see straight. My whole body started shaking and tingling as I desperately tried to hold on to whatever I could, as hard as I could. All the while the other 3 passengers riding along with me, unknowingly enjoying the fun drive.
That is, until my sister first noticed my desperate attempts of holding on to the handlebars like I was holding on to dear life and she held my hand in an effort to calm what, I can only assume, she thought were simple nerves about who was actually driving and my confidence in their driving skills. A gesture I deeply appreciated, but that sadly did not help.
Soon enough, it escalated to the point where I felt I was both suffocating and wanted to vomit, all at the same time. I could feel my heart beating inside my head. My entire face was tingling uncontrollably. So, as I started desperately yanking at my helmet trying to get it off my head she again noticed and immediately signaled the driver to stop. I got out of the UTV -no idea how- walked to the back and finally managed to take my helmet off just in time to basically explode into a crying, shaking, mumbling mess desperately gasping for air.
I do not know what my little sister thought was happening at that precise moment. But I do remember the look in her eyes. Fear. What was happening to her "fearless" big sister? What could possibly be wrong? She didn’t know. Neither did I.
I don’t know how long it took for me to settle down or even if I even actually did. But I do remember the second UTV doubled back when they realized we weren’t following behind them. Everyone tried their best to calm me down and since we were so deep inside the mountain range, also explained that I still had to ride in it in order to get to the next town where someone could pick me up and drive me back to the hotel. So, I had to go back into the UTV. Even when every fiber of my being was screaming at me not to.
I got in. Again, do not know how. The helmet and gloves stayed off. And then they drove me, as slowly as I was comfortable with, on to the next town. Once there, I got off and again proceeded to crumble into the same crying, shaking, and mumbling uncontrollable mess desperately gasping for air my sister had just seen. My mom, who’d been riding on the second UTV, hugged me and reassured me as best she could. But still, I cried unconsolably for, who knows how long.
I remember they gave me a Coke (us Mexicans use it as “remedy” for scares) hoping it would help settle me down, while we all waited until my new ride arrived to take me back to the hotel. My face was still tingling the whole way back. But eventually, it passed and I finally calmed down. So, I chucked it up to simple fear stemming from a previous accident. And since everyone agreed that that explained it away, I never talked about it and we all moved on. Or so I thought.
Today years after that very first panic attack, I can finally look back and clearly see that I had been needing a break from being brave for a while. More than that, I actually have needed it ever since that very day. Perhaps even longer and that was just my body’s way of letting me know. But I was too afraid to listen. Or was I maybe more afraid of what would happen if I actually did?
Whatever it was, I realize now that even when I was using all of those fears as some sort of fuel or drive -like my friend argued that day- using them as a sort of “I’ll show you” that helped me survive and in a way, become what I am today -something for which I am eternally grateful, I’m awesome- it also doubled as a metaphorical ball and chain. It held me back. It made me hide parts of myself that I have now discovered I LOVE. It even made me afraid of my own dreams. And I simply cannot let that happen. Not anymore.
So now, through a combination of circumstance and choice, I’ve thankfully been able to take a break from the overwhelming amount of external influence, and to focus on the internal, the personal; to free myself of that big ol' ball and chain. And through this -maybe brave(?)- pursuit of fearlessness of mine, I’ve tried to look at my fears through different perspectives, trying to rid myself of any and all my limiting beliefs.
I’ve also learned the importance of forgiveness and its direct -albeit not always clear- link to freedom and happiness; among many other things that I am still learning (and will continue to) about myself. But most importantly I have come to realize that the key to that self-made prison ruled by fear that I'd built inside my head, has ironically been inside me all along.
So, I say again. Brave is what you are just before being fearless; fearless equals free. And yeah, maybe I once gave up my freedom. But now, I’m determined on getting it back and I’m no longer afraid of confronting myself for it. I’m being unapologetically me. I am pursuing my fearlessness.