I was just drifting off when I heard the spoon in my ceramic mug move. Cereal is my bedtime snack of choice, and it’s best when eaten out of a ceramic mug. The mug was on my night stand, a few inches from my bed. My eyes popped open when I heard the small but distinct sound of metal on glass. Ebby was a dead weight at my feet. Dave had taken his snoring self out to the couch (as he does many nights to make peace with my fragile sleeping abilities and his tossing /snoring/shouting habits). So I knew it wasn't him trying to steal my phone charger.
I told myself I was dreaming and tried to go back to sleep.
As I started to doze off again, I heard something under the bed. I froze, and put my feet on Ebby to see if she was itching or something. I asked her if she heard it, but she was dead to the world. Guarding is not her strong point.
I lay motionless.
And heard an undeniable scratching.
I flew as if launched by a slingshot straight out from blankets and landed half way across the carpet. I lunged for the light switch and looked under the bed just in time to see a dark shadow flee beneath my night stand and confirm one of my worst nightmares.
My vulnerable face had just been inches from a rodent.
The bedroom, my place of solitude and escape, was suddenly a disgusting, violated, mouse-infested sty. The survival part of my brain that turns red with flashing "Danger! Danger!" Signs lit up like the fourth of July, and fear gripped me and shook me silly. It missed the memo that the threat was only 4 inches long and harmless. When panic overtakes a body, those primal psychological and physical responses do as they will with little to no heed given to rational or voluntary controls.
When my fleeing feet landed me wailing on Dave's sleeping body, my whole being shook like I'd just escaped the clutches of the Grim Reaper himself. I clenched Dave's hands so tight he flinched.
Fear is like pain, it shows up in all kinds of ways; nagging, sharp, paralyzing, and wildly out of control. And there’s a whole spectrum of intensity that makes it impossible to accurately compare one person’s exact feelings to another. I’m still figuring this out, how we can’t really make any claims on someone else’s pain or fear, because it is so individually unique.
Ironically, as much as I feel out of control fear over a few things like mice and puke, and carry with me a shadow of anxiety most days, I have found myself scoffing at others’ fears. “Seriously, how can it be scary to pet a little shark in the zoo pool?” “What is your problem? It’s just a nice little dog!” I re-heard some of my own words when I was cowering under Dave’s sleeping bag while he went to investigate.
“You know they can’t hurt you, Carrie,” he said. Getting hurt by them was the least of my concerns. When I said so, he asked what I was afraid of. I can’t explain. There is no rationale for this fear. No amount of persuasion can talk a person down.
I’m not here to wrap up the story with some simple fear solutions. I’m so often gripped by it, I hate it, and I wonder, especially after weeks like this, if there’s more I should be doing to combat it. I’m talking about it because saying things out loud is a pretty good way to find out you’re not as alone as you feel, which is a real throat punch to the shame voices.
If you’re one who feels the bone-aching fear hijack your person from time to time, maybe this will remind you that you aren’t alone, maybe something I say will help silence the shame you’re listening to. If you’re not one who’s a victim of hulk sized fear, I’m glad you made it this far and maybe this will help you in relating to one of your people who likely does experience it.
Here are some things I’ve concluded from this week: Acknowledging the frustration, both of the one gripped by fear and the one whose hand is being squeezed to death, is better than accusations. I’m frustrated because I feel a total loss of self-control; the shaking, the tears, the nausea, the absolute inability to function in the presence of these disgusting little creatures. A major looser status takes over my brain.
I certainly don’t feel better about myself when one darts by my feet and I bolt from the bathroom, slamming the door back and hitting my 3 year old’s head as I go, leaving her hysterical- not because she saw a mouse- but because her head and feelings are hurt by my carelessness. I think I would throw myself in front of a train for her? Run into a burning building for her? Place my head between a loaded gun and her? Yet something as minuscule as a mouse has me not only leaving her in the dust to fend for herself, but also giving her head a blow in the process. It sure as heck doesn’t make a strong case for fierce, protective Mama Bear.
I know a little about various psychological theories for addressing fear. But sometimes it seems like it’s good to ease up on the analyzing of where the fear originated, what might be wrong in my brain, and what treatment might free me, and spend time thinking about how to be honest and gentle, how to receive grace within these weak moments.
Like when Dave looked at me, shirt soaked in tears and snot, erupting in raw emotion like he’d never seen, and didn’t scoff or try to talk me out of my feelings, but rather said,
“I’ll sleep by you wherever you decide feels most safe”.
He didn’t complain when I gripped his arm with both hands until I fell asleep. He did, however, point out that I love animals of all sorts, and mice were just scared little animals. “They’re not animals, they’re Satan’s spawn!” I retorted. But I felt mad at my own inconsistency. I take pictures of neighborhood ground hogs and give them nicknames, for crying out loud. Last summer I brought a dying squirrel in the yard fresh water and a blanket.
There is no rationale.
One of my friends (who’s seen more than most of the hard and soft and slightly rotten pieces of my soul and yet keeps showing up), was over when I had the bathroom encounter and left Sami behind for mouse bait. She saw my wide-eyed gasping and when I said “I saw one”, she said “Where?” and started moving toward it before I’d even answered. She calmly searched the scene and led my sobbing baby down for me to comfort. After she heard the full details of my yellow-bellied behavior, said “You did good, now you go outside and cry or whatever you need to do.”
My littlest siblings came to help clear cupboards and set traps one night. Dave was going to be working until nearly midnight, and I knew I didn’t have the strength to handle bedtime and a dark evening alone.
I was frayed to the point that feeling my own hair fall on my shoulder was making jump and sweat.
When I got home, Landon and Kj had already checked all cupboards and bathrooms. They stepped in to help me get the girls tucked into bed. And when we went to the kitchen to clean up and heard shuffling in the snack cupboard, Kj moved towards it as I rapidly backed away. Landon, the sibling of mine most acquainted with feelings that get too big to handle, looked at me with tender-edged amusement and said,
"You can just go outside.” I didn’t need to be told twice. I took the dogs out and sat on the hood of my car, because I’m pretty sure even the grass was infested.
While I am thankful that thus far my girls haven’t seen my full-force hysteria, I’m not pretending I’m not scared. I do worry that they will inherit my fear issues, and I work hard to save my breakdowns for times they aren’t present, but I don’t think false pretenses will do them any favors. So when the moments are calm, I tell them about my fears, how it feels inside to be very, very afraid. I hope it gives them language and courage to express it when they feel its grip.
We talk about how we get to take turns being brave for each other since our fears are all different. They see my eyes darting around to every corner, how I walk with curled toes. Sami saw me hesitating at the bathroom where we’d had the utterly non-heroic incident the day before, and said “Mom, the mouses went away! I like to pet mice. And I like to pet cats and frogs and praying mantises. But not dead praying mantises.”
Everywhere I turn in motherhood, the message seems to be “bend your knees.” Bend low to receive their forgiveness time after time, kneel to their level and allow their hands to wipe my tears, admit my wild fears and receive their words of comfort and courage. It’s so upside down from what I’d imagined.
And Jesus says “mmmhhhmmm!”
Yesterday I wore my knee high riding boots all day. Faux leather can do a lot for cringing and curled toes. The girls were thoroughly impressed by my clipping around the kitchen while I cooked dinner. The boots gave me the boost of confidence needed to show up and feed and bathe and bed down the kids on my own again.
My friend told me this week about how her daughter, typically a carefree socializer, has suddenly been afraid to leave her side, even for a fun morning with friends. It seems fully out of character, and there is no clear explanation her sudden anxiety. This week, when it was time for her to go to preschool, my friend said her daughter asked if she could take her blanket and favorite pet manatee to school. My friend said as long as she left them in her backpack, she could take them with her. Her daughter was so relieved to stick her two favorite things in when it was time to go. A few tears welled up but didn’t spill over, and she waved goodbye just a little bit braver with her blanket and her manatee on her back.
When you’re four maybe it’s a stuffed manatee. When you’re 28 it might be faux leather boots. Of course I knew the boots wouldn’t change much of my panicked reaction if an intruder appeared. They just help me show back up, and I suspect that has a lot more to do with bravery than we tend to think.
Maybe courage is about more than just being fierce and unshaken when the really hard things do happen. Maybe it’s as much about dusting off, wiping tears, and showing up again because there is more of life to be lived, there is hope for better days.
Maybe it’s more about being honest, admitting the things that do knock us down and flood us with fear and drive us to flee the scene, lowering down to receive the kindness of the people near us, and then standing up to offer the same kindness when they’re flattened from something that seems insignificant to us.
If you’re feeling the paralysis of a hulk sized fear, I hope you turn away from all the shame talk and allow yourself to be loved by your people a little more, accept their warm grace, even in your wildest moments, without thinking too long or hard about it (overthinking grace never does us any favors).
If you have a story to share of fear or grace or courage, I’d love to hear it!
Keep showing up,