When I was about ten there was a boy in my neighborhood who decided he wanted to fight me. He had no reason – no offensive words or gestures were exchanged, no challenges made, no insults traded. I can only surmise that it was my turn to be tested in his effort to advance on the neighborhood “toughest” scale. I had no interest in participating in any such primitive ritual; therefore, I avoided any contact with him. My life was miserable for a couple of weeks. I ran home daily from school, stopped playing outside, and suffered humiliation piled on by my scornful friends. Besides lacking any reason to fight or interest in the same, I was sorely afraid of being hurt. It was a fear that would torment me for years to come.
Fear and anxiety are closely related, but there is a distinction. Anxiety is an alerting signal – like palpitating heart or sweaty palms – to a threat that is not immediately present. When you have alarm bells going off relative to that trip you are taking in a couple of months – that is anxiety. Fear, on the other hand, is an alerting signal to threats that are more immediate. Several years ago my dad turned left in front of a heavy line of traffic. My mother screamed out, “Oh, God!” Dad rebuked her saying, “Jenny, you know we don’t use God’s name except in prayer.” “I was praying!” was her quick reply. Mom responded with fear.*
Everyone experiences fear and anxiety. It is part of our innate nature when danger, real or perceived, presents itself. It can be both hereditary and experiential, both nature and nurture. You may have a generalized anxiousness about the stresses in your world, a phobia that has been passed from your parent to you, or a traumatic event that alters your sense of safety. When these fears and anxieties begin to disrupt your daily functioning, it is called a disorder. According to Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, “Anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent psychiatric conditions in the United States.”*
My fears and anxieties were varied. In my early teens I had recurring dreams about someone breaking into our house through the back door. It was so real that I frequently got out of bed, checked the back yard for any sign of intruders, and made sure the door was secure. Often I put a table knife in between the door and the interior casing to prevent easy entrance and noise makers in front of the door to alert me to trouble. This dream and behavior persisted until I went to college and then it inexplicably went away.
When I was fourteen I started working with my brother roofing houses. The heights and the wooden ladders he used did not bother me. It was not until I was hired out to scrape and paint exterior window casings on an old Victorian house that I discovered I had a real issue with aluminum ladders. I could not finish those third story windows while that ladder was fully extended. No, I was too busy hanging on for dear life to free a hand to do the necessary work. Bouncy aluminum ladders and I do not get along.
My fear of ledges and falling can be dated to that job. For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary my wife and I visited the Grand Canyon. Picture a forty-something fat man crawling on all fours and eventually dropping on down to a belly crawl in order to get close enough to the edge to take a look at the canyon below. If video camera capable phones would have been as ubiquitous then as they are today, I am sure my experience would have gone viral.
As a new father of a darling baby girl, I was very anxious about her well-being. During those first several months I was up multiple times a night every night to check on her. I would silently tiptoe into her room to steal a gaze upon her chubby cheeks, gently touch her little torso to check for breathing, and adjust her blanket for warmth and comfort. It was not until she was old enough to climb out of her crib and into bed with my wife and me that I brought that behavior to an end.
There was a time when I became concerned about my eternal destination and especially a secret rapture of all Christians and children. Did I love God? Was I truly saved? For a couple of years I roamed our house during the night checking on my wife and children to see if they had been raptured and I had been left behind. I had given my heart to Jesus when I was fourteen, graduated from a Bible college, and served in pastoral ministries, but still I was haunted by the ghosts of doubt. It was not until the truth of I John 4:10, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us . . .” (KJV) soundly penetrated my heart and soul that I was able to put these doubts to rest.
I was reminded very recently during Grandparent’s day at our grandson’s school that I am claustrophobic, too. As several dozen of adults and children squeezed into a space no bigger than a great room for the annual book fair, I realized hastily that there was no room for me. My personal bubble had not only been breached, it had also been burst. Needless to say, I left the room quite abruptly.
But, back to my fear of being hurt. There is a name for that, traumatophobia. It is the fear of war or of getting physically injured. It may be harsh to say, but it made a coward out of me. I walked away, ran, or hid from the possibility of physical confrontation for over forty years. My self-esteem took hit after hit and I questioned if I could fulfill my role as my family’s protector if and when the time came. It was not until I was immersed for a year into a place where physical confrontation was a constant probability that I put that fear behind me. I did not realize that I had conquered it until I put myself at grave risk of bodily injury for a family member. I did not think about it, I just did it, and only awakened to the fact of what I had done after it was all over.
There are no easy or quick cures for fear and anxiety. If anyone tells you they can relieve you of your fears in three easy steps, walk away and write in your journal that you met a charlatan today. Medication can help, but be wary of depending on it or allowing it to mask the heart of your issue. Behavioral therapy involving some kind of desensitization is effective, but prepare for a long journey. Cognitive behavioral therapy also helps. By God’s grace I have overcome some of my fears, yet some persist. Thankfully, it has been rare that my phobias have disturbed my functioning for more than a few hours, days, or months.
By the way, my father caught wind of the neighborhood boy that was making my life unbearable. He threatened to whip me if I ran away again. I was more afraid of my father’s belt than I was of the bully from across the alley so I confronted him. In the end he went home crying. It was the last time I ever willingly had a physical confrontation with another human being.
*Kaplan & Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, 9th edition p. 591