Friday, February 1, 2013

Conquering fear: Tornado in my closet

I used to be terrified of tornadoes. Lightning? Pretty. Thunder? Sky-bowling. But quick-moving winds? I remember one year at summer camp, a storm moved in rapidly. The clouds scurried across the sky so quickly you didn't have to sit still to see them move, and the afternoon grew twilight dark. Wind whipped through the trees and tore free leaves that fluttered down, spiraling and dancing and as bright green as they'd ever been. I crawled under a table and wouldn't come out.There may have been a few tears and little incoherent whimpering.

A camp counselor got on her hands and knees to tell me there wasn't even a tornado watch. It was just a fast-moving summer storm.

I didn't move until it was gone. Any clouds moving that fast had to be driven by cyclone-power, regardless of what the weathermen said.

There wasn't, off course, any tornado. But having grown up in the South in an area where tornadoes aren't an uncommon threat, having a phobia of them isn't unusual. I could stand spiders with minimal squealing and chair-hopping, but tornado watch? Send someone to pry the kid out of the game closet. Heck, I'd share a crawl space with spiders if I had to.

As I got older, I got better about ignoring the fear. Play it cool, I'd say to myself, and get through the day by blatant denial--turn off the radio and get lost in schoolwork, or turn on the TV to a news channel (in retrospect, probably a giveaway because it was the only time I was the one to flip to the news channel, but my parents never called me on it) and pretend to be  reading a book instead of watching.

One night in high school I had two nightmares. In the first, I was trapped in a hotel in which a tornado was bearing down on us. Had a lovely view of it coming our way from our 20th story room with a wall-to-wall window. I ran out into the hallway to find some windowless room to hide and encountered a chestnut stallion, possibly the most beautiful horse I'd ever dreamed up. I grabbed his halter and tried to pull him with me to safety, to get him to the stairs so we could go to the basement (I'm thinking it was a slow-moving twister when out of sight?). He was spooked, though, and I woke up as things started to fly.

Well of course that put tornadoes on my mind. So when I fell back asleep, no surprise my next dream featured a tornado bearing down on my house. I ran and hid in the coat closet, squeezing in between the vacuum and spare table leaves, stepping over the bag of gloves and hats, and ducking under the coats to protect my face from possible flying objects. (Since I had plenty of waking experience with this, that part of the dream was rather realistic.)

But then in my dream I decided I wouldn't accomplish anything by hiding. So I stepped out of the closet just as the tornado reached the house and blew into the hall (oh dream physics, how you defy logic). Rather than running from it, I put on full bluster and began to scream at it (How dare you, tornado!). I scolded that twister so thoroughly it twisted up with shame and shrank, and finally ducked into the closet to hide from the terrifying human. At some point it had acquired a face that now began to droop and sag and wince, and in true Harry-Potter boggart fashion I completed the picture by giving it a pink-and-lime hairdo and a handbag.

I woke up feeling powerful and exhilarated. I had defeated the tornado! Go me, go me, strike a pose and victory dance.

If only shaming tornadoes worked in real life.

But after that dream, my knuckles stopped turning quite so white when the clouds blew in, and if I still twist an eye up to the sky now and then during tornado watches, it's just a twinge of persistent nervousness, not gut-clenching fear. Tornadoes are something worthy of being a bit nervous about, if you ask me, so a little careful awareness isn't uncalled for.

These days I rather enjoy storms. If the news says I don't have to worry about major damage, I'll spend a summer storm on the covered balcony watching the clouds roll by and the lightning flash. Sometimes I'll feel a bit of uneasiness if the wind is too strong, but then I remember a tornado with pink-and-lime hair, and that the weathermen really do know what they're talking about, and I can go back to watching.

There's something about taking control that diminishes fear, at least for me. It's why I mock the scary movies that scare me the most, because it gives me power over them. It's why boggart-fighting works for me, because making my fear ridiculous gives me control over it, and that makes it less terrifying.

It's why I can do things in my real life that scare me, such as following the dream of becoming an author, such as submitting queries knowing I'll probably get many rejections before I find an agent: because I can remind myself that what I write is within my own control, and that I can improve. It's why I can attempt any major life change: because if any plan doesn't work out, I can do things to mitigate the damage, such as save money beforehand, have a back-up plan, and have friends on call to talk me through the down times.

I can't control other people, and I can't scold tornadoes into closets. But I can promise myself that I  have many options if my first choice doesn't work out, and then take advantage of those options, because I only lose if I give up, not if I take a different street to store. Knowing I can change my path, even if I don't, gives me choices, which is a form of control, which gives me courage. So, afraid or not, I put the pink-and-lime hair on my most terrifying challenges, and then I face them.

I'll never fully stop being scared. But I don't have to hide in a closet, either.

What's a fear have you faced? How did you get through this fear?


  1. I wish I could control my nightmares and conquer them--your story was amazing!

    1. Wish I could do it on command! But hey, one fear down is one fear less, right?

  2. I must admit, I'm afraid of spiders. Or rather, I should say I hate spiders. I say this because when I was a kid, I was forced to take the "face your fear" advice, but all it really changed is that now it puts me in "destroy" mode instead of "run away" mode when a spider comes around.

    When I was a kid, my family lived in a very wooded area, and all manner of creepy crawlies managed to work their way into the house. One night I happened to wake up in the middle of the night, and my room was lit by the TV set, as I'd fallen asleep with it on. For some reason, I had trouble falling back asleep, so I left it on. Out of the corner of my, I see a shadow (or something) move across my bedroom door. When I look, there's nothing there, so I think nothing of it.

    About five minutes or so later, I got up to use the restroom, which was right down the hall from my room. I turn on the bathroom light and freeze. Sitting on the wall right above the toilet is the biggest spider I've ever seen in my life. It was about the size of hand, fingers outstretched. I really had to go, and everyone else in the house was asleep. It was him or me.

    Now every time I see a spider, I hear duel music from spaghetti western films in my head, and picture a tumbleweed blowing by.

    1. "Now every time I see a spider, I hear duel music from spaghetti western films in my head, and picture a tumbleweed blowing by."

      I have to admit that may be the most brilliant line I've seen all month... I will never be able to look at spiders without hearing spaghetti western music again! But that's pretty fitting, since between a friend with a deadly allergy to spider bites and friends who are downright "ohmagawd it's LOOKING at me" phobic, usually I'm the (shaking-knees) sheriff in town when it comes to chasing them varmints out of town (or, er, squishing them with someone else's shoe. Hey, if I'm the one doing the showdown, it ain't gonna be MY shoe.).

      Also, I've seen one of those hand-sized spiders. Pretty sure they could eat a kid. I'm siding with you on this one: ya had no choice.

  3. I'm afraid of disappointing people, people being mad at me, people being unhappy because of me, people not liking me, and people not appreciating me. I'm a basket case. An epic people-pleasing basket case. *sigh* Wish I could figure out why I'm wired this way... Still working on overcoming it.