When I was four, a dragon put its head in through my bedroom window. No one would ever believe me, I don’t really believe myself, but the memory is just as vivid thirty years later, it seems like it must have happened. He wasn’t scary, no snarling fangs or flaming nostrils and he looked a bit like a drawing. Still, opening my eyes and seeing that scaly, reptilian neck and head filled me with the kind of fear that starts in the guts and settles in the code of each cell to instruct the body what to do. It was a fear I knew I had to handle on my own, I did not cry out for help and I never told anyone about it until this writing. It was a childish fear, but it was also one of my first memories of fear, the night I saw the dragon. I’m sure I felt fear before, but I don’t remember it now. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, he was gone. Some of my fears since then have gone the way of my dragon, while others still hover outside my bedroom window.
Around the same age when the dragon visited, I also battled nightly with my fear of much more clearly evil demons that would come out of the dark, looking for sleeping people to eat. I could not stay awake forever to watch for them, so I started to educate myself about them. They would chew the flesh off your bones like a dog cleaning the scraps off ribs, but they also were not very intelligent; I needed to know they were dumb in order to control my terror. If your body was covered by sheets and blankets, they didn’t know there was anything to eat. I could trick them by staying always tucked away beneath my blankets. I didn’t like to have my head under the covers though, afraid of suffocating, so I also explained to myself that the only part of the body they didn’t like to eat was the head. If I kept my blankets wrapped snuggly around my neck, only my head showing, my fists knotted up, the demons would visit me, but then they would move on to other bedrooms and other people who did not take the precautions I did. I thought about telling my parents the rules, making sure they stayed fully covered, but I was also sort of embarrassed about the demons and what I knew about them. Part of me knew they weren’t really real, but then again, the fear was real, so maybe the demons were a little real too. In the end, I kept it all to myself.
As I got older, my fears began to target threats that were more “real,” even if they still existed only in my imagination. One day I started running up and down the aisles at the hardware store, searching for my mother, after I became convinced that she had forgotten me and driven away. There was a metal pipe for a mostly dry creek going beneath a road that I only convinced myself to crawl through a couple times, even though you could see the daylight at the other end. There was the day our house was broken into, shortly after I locked up and left for school. There were warnings on electrical cords and sharp blades, urban legends of death and dismemberment from friendly strangers and dolls, and people who hid in the dark. I lived in a suburban neighborhood where the biggest threats to one’s health and well-being were probably lawn care equipment and cancer. All the same, the places I wandered through freely through the day became frightening at night. As I walked along the dark streets and bike paths, my eyes would examine every bush and tree and patch of tall grass, searching for the first movement that might give me an extra second to defend myself against the person leaping out at me. I would think about what the authorities would be able to figure out, what the story would be, if something did happen and only silent clues were left behind. At home, I felt torn. On the one hand, I wanted anyone lurking around outside to know that someone was home, so they wouldn’t try to break in. I wanted light and noise, so they’d know to keep on moving. But on the other hand, if the person were looking for a human victim, the lights and music would give me away. Often times, I would turn on a couple lights, careful to duck down when I passed in front of a window, so no one could see me from outside. I would then camp out in a dark place like my room, reading with my head and a flashlight under a blanket, so I’d have the best possible chance at escape if anyone came in. I spent a lot of time planning around how I would handle the things I was afraid of, now possible according to news and police reports, even if still not very probable.
Somehow, it all changed when I went blind. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid of the dark. It’s not that my fear of the dark eventually went away after I went blind, it’s that the first time I went outside in the dark after going blind, I felt absolutely no fear. It seems just as likely that it could have gone the other direction, that I would constantly be in fear of things I couldn’t see, my perpetual darkness. My best guess is that my internal systems that experience and manage fear basically shorted out to protect me from an overload. They decided that we couldn’t handle it all, so we simply weren’t going to.
The other day, I got to spend some time with a friend and her one month old baby. She was crying a bit, so we were talking about the current knowledge or understanding of infants’ crying. My friend was told there are five reasons why new babies cry—discomfort, hunger, tiredness, and pressure from gas in their upper and lower digestive system. New babies do not cry out of fear, they are not yet aware of everything out there for them to fear. In that case, somewhere between when I was born and when I was four or so, I decided to be afraid of dragons and demons. I was not afraid of strangers, I willingly trusted people I didn’t know to feed me and change my diaper or help me get to the bathroom and play with me from the time I was six weeks old. I felt no fear for the health and future of my little brother who had a couple of major, life-saving surgeries in the first few weeks of his life. I did not fear our dog Kermit, after he dragged me along the road on my bare knees until my father could get ahold of him. It doesn’t really make sense. If I am going to learn fear based on life experiences, it seems that the truly threatening realities should cause the most fear.
The best I can figure, I fear less based on the degree to which something is truly a threat and more to the extent I can deal with the fear. I could handle fearing a dragon that might or might not wish me ill. I could handle fearing the demons where I set the rules under which they presented a danger to me. I could hide from the people in the night who might come after me, because they probably wouldn’t. After going blind though, I no longer had the capacity to fear everything I couldn’t see, so I simply no longer feared it. It makes me think of what I fear now. I fear getting to the end of my life and feeling like I wasted everything I was given. I fear having to keep a conversation going. I fear other people thinking I’m stupid or incompetent. I fear how others will judge the things I create. In the past, if my fear wound up being invested in the bogy monsters I invented for myself, I can’t help but wonder if I direct my fears now towards real or imagined threats. Of course, they seem like real threats to me now, but so did beings that dwelled in the dark before I went blind. I’m curious if maybe I should second guess these fears too…terrible though they seem. A scary thought.