There are so many different kinds of fear.
I have felt so many fears in the past week.
Part of my treatment for PCOS is a medication I take ten days of the month. If I don’t take the meditation, my breakthrough bleeding goes out of control, I’m more likely to miscarry if I get pregnant and I might get uterine tumors if I’m not pregnant. I’ve got to take it. But it makes me sick.
The medicine contributes to my anxiety during the daytime. At night, it is supposed to produce “relaxation and deeper sleep,” which is why I have to take it a couple of hours before bed. But along with the deeper sleep comes nightmares. The nightmares begin before I’m properly asleep: persistent, intrusive, terrifying worries, worries that I would laugh at if I were fully awake, worries so severe they make it hard to lie down and close my eyes. And then I drift off, and the dreams begin. I am pursued by Nazis and demons and Handmaid’s Tale aunts, I am thrown into prison or buried alive, I pick the bodies of dead children out of the wreckage of bombed buildings. I hear the people I desperately love say they do not love me and never did. And then I wake up, but I’m still afraid.
I have an icon of Holy Archangel Michael that I keep beside my bed. Holy Archangel Michael is my best friend. I have icons of her in several rooms of my house. Every night I’ve been praying to Holy Archangel Michael to please do something about the nightmares– or if she can’t, to please come into the nightmares with me and keep me company. Every morning I wake up and she’s there, staring with that blank icon stare. I snuggle the icon like a teddy bear. I tell myself that the things I dreamed of absolutely cannot come true. And then I start my day.
On one of these evenings, while I was dreading taking my medicine, I got on a video chat with a friend because I desperately wanted to talk. But my friend said something insensitive that triggered my birth trauma and made everything worse.
“I have to go take my medicine,” I said, and fled without hanging up the video chat.
Due to the method of delivery for this medication, I have to lie down for at least fifteen minutes after taking it. I was lying on my back like a character in The Handmaid’s Tale when I had the flashback to the rape and the nightmare abusive birth where Rosie almost died inside of me. I also flashed back to the several times that I’ve thought I was finally pregnant again and then started bleeding at eight or fifteen weeks, felt the cramps begin, cried in the bathtub while the thick endometrium fell out of me, and went to the doctor for help to be dismissed as hysterical and just needing to lose weight. I didn’t get diagnosed and realize it wasn’t all my fault until I was thirty-six years old. And many people with PCOS have the exact same experience. Doctors don’t listen.
I’d wanted more than anything in the world to have an enormous family, a house full of babies and laughter and fun. I am terrified that there will never, ever be another baby moving inside of me, never another chance for a rainbow baby and a happy birth story. I’m also afraid that I will finally conceive and the baby will die and fall out between my legs with the endometrium. PCOS makes your chances of miscarriages much greater. I’m afraid that Rosie will grow up and that will be the end. It will be the terrible, horrible, unholy abortion of all of my hopes. I won’t be a mother anymore but a crone.
That was what raced through my mind as I laid on my back, waiting for the pill to dissolve. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking of it since.
Those fears aren’t like my nightmares. They’re real fears, fears while I’m conscious, fears of actual things that might happen to me.
I wondered if Holy Archangel Michael knew how lucky she was to not be a human woman with a uterus and an endocrine system. I wondered if she ever thanked God that she wasn’t a thing made of flesh that could break.
Later in the week I drove to Wheeling to take Rosie to a play date. I thought I’d gotten much better and wouldn’t be in danger of more anxiety messing up the trip, but Wheeling is an anxiety-inducing city. It’s built on the side of the Ohio river, so the roads aren’t a grid but a squiggle. At one point I found myself quite accidentally crossing the great big suspension bridge going toward Ohio, and the bridge was under construction. There was only one lane open. The other lanes were closed off and scattered with machinery. I don’t like driving in construction and I like heights the least of all. For a second I had the terrible mental image that the bridge was going to collapse with me on it– or that one of these other cars would nudge me and I’d go toppling over into the Ohio and drown my only daughter as well as myself.
That did it. I had a panic attack.
I got across the bridge and panicked in a parking lot until I was exhausted. I gave up on the play date and drove Rosie all the way back to Steubenville without her fun.
That is another type of fear. It’s not the irrational fear of a nightmare or the more rational fear of things that really could happen, but a weird combination of both. No, I wasn’t likely to fall. But then again, well, I was on top of a bridge. Bridges do fall. Cars do create accidents. Bad things happen and we’re never totally safe. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, just unlikely. Anxiety takes that tiny sliver of possibility and blows it up into something else.
The next day we went out with another family, to the pumpkin patch. This was an elaborate pumpkin patch in the middle of a Christmas tree farm, with many things to see and do. Besides the pumpkins there were pony rides, a petting zoo, a gift shop and a spooky haunted hay ride. I went on the hay ride with Rosie and her best friend who is four years younger. Rosie is bold and feisty but her friend is more ladylike. Rosie likes silly and spooky surprises, but her friend isn’t so sure.
The hay ride took us through the woods on the outskirts of the pumpkin farm, past displays of skeletons standing in the trees or rising from plywood churchyards. At one point there was a cage with what I thought was a mannequin of a gorilla in it, but it was really an actor in a gorilla suit. When the tractor drove near, the gorilla came to life and burst out of the cage. He ran behind the hay ride saying “hoo hoo hoo!” in an unconvincing way, and then jumped onto the back of the hay ride itself.
Most of the passengers laughed.
Rosie’s friend’s eyes went as big as saucers; she looked ready to cry in terror.
Rosie put her arm on one of her shoulders and I took the other. “It’s okay,” we said. “Remember it’s just pretend. It’s just a joke to startle you. They’re people in silly costumes.”
Her friend smiled and laughed.
The gorilla jumped off the ride and went back to his cage.
We laughed for the rest of the ride.
Sometimes fear is entertaining and funny– as long as it doesn’t last very long, and you know that it’s just pretend. And I don’t know what an archangel would make of that.
That night, we had company. Michael was taking out the window air conditioners for the year, removing the plastic that we staple to the oddly shaped windows to create a good seal so there won’t be a draft or a hot patch. He found that a bird had somehow squeezed in between the side of the air conditioner and the plastic and built itself a nest. Now that the plastic was gone, the nest was inside our house. And the bird was still in it. She must have been scared half to death– one moment she was secure in a nice little pocket where no predator could reach her. The next she was exposed to a blast of hot air with three startled apes reacting to her and making noise. She flew out of the nest and the bedroom, down the stairwell to the living room, a surprise that made me scream and frightened the bird even more. Michael went looking for her but couldn’t find her, so we all went to bed.
I found her the next morning as I was getting ready for liturgy.
She had perched on the highest point in our dining room library, on top of the largest bookshelf, where I keep another icon of Archangel Michael. Archangel Michael had kept her company in her uncanny new surroundings all night.
The bird flew right out the window we opened for her, and that adventure was over.
There are so many kinds of fear.
But at that moment, I didn’t feel a single one.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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