Fear Itself

When you sit in the waiting room at an oncologist’s office, you always have an invisible companion with you.  It’s never acknowledged, but it’s always there.  You try to ignore it.  You notice, though, it always has its way with you: You talk more loudly than usual.  Laugh too much.  Or freeze into silence.  Or seethe with irritation and frustration, ready to pick a fight with anybody unlucky enough to be around you.

“I was talking to one of my patients about it,” my oncologist said this week.  “How she gets so scared when she has tests — mammograms, breast mri’s.  She doesn’t know what to do with the fear.”

Oh, yes.  Fear.  That’s the invisible companion whose name never gets mentioned.  We’re all ashamed of it.  We live, after all, in a society that manufactures No Fear T-shirts and sentiments.  The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  Never let them see you sweat.

You know how it is.  There’s nothing more ignominious than being scared to death.

“How are you feeling?”  That’s what you’re always asked at the oncologist’s office.   They’re talking about suspicious symptoms, of course — a recurring cough, a mysterious ache, ankles that swell.  So, how are you feeling?  You never say the obvious, the omnipresent, the great unmentionable: Hey, glad you asked.  I’m a nervous wreck.  Can I vomit now, please?

No, forget it.  That would be in very poor taste.  Being afraid is in very bad taste, in the first place, and you need to learn to keep it to yourself, like your bathroom habits, your nose-picking, your time of the month.  Too much information!  Shut up, already!  Whistle a happy tune and everybody’s a little relieved, everybody gets to call you brave, even though you know you’re not.

Someday, I want to think, this will be a thing of the past — similar to the way that cancer as an unmentionable, shameful secret is also a relic of another time.  Someday, maybe, you’ll step into a waiting room and punch a Fear-O-Meter that indicates your level of anxiety from just-measurable to inches-away-from-a-total-screaming-meltdown.  Then, your name will be called and you’ll enter the little office and jump into one of those unattractive little gowns and the first thing you and your oncologist will discuss is how scared you are and how difficult it is to live with that fear and pretend to be normal.

But that’s not happening yet.  Today, I’m just happy to know another patient is talking to our wonderful, concerned oncologist about her sheer terror, that she isn’t so ashamed of it that she pastes on a smooth face or screeches with inappropriate laughter the way I always did.

So, let’s talk about it — that nebulous, smothering beast.  Let’s name the fear and drag it out of the shadows where it thrives and haunts us.

“You’re so brave!”  God, I always hated hearing that, even though it was said with the best of intentions.  Sometimes, I’d say no, I wasn’t, I was just doing what I had to do.

But I always lacked the guts to say, “No, I’m not.  You want to know the real truth?  I’m scared to death.”

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

4 comments… add one
  • Bravery doesn’t exist without fear. That would be fearlessness and it’s something else altogether.

    The cockeyed thing about people telling you that you’re brave is that it’s not like you had a choice. If someone gave you the choice and you said, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll give cancer a shot,” (like one might say about bungee jumping or cliff diving) then perhaps that would be  brave. Or idiotic, more like it.

    So what are you, then, if not brave … hmmm …. strong? Tough?

  • M A Link

    From my experience, everyone responds differently to life-threatening injury/illness.  A friend of mine who is experiencing cancer was in an absolute rage when she first began treatment.  During the beginning of her illness she told me that I told her she was going to die, which, of course I never did.  I’m a nurse, I wrote about nurses caring for dying people with cancer.  Why on earth would I tell someone with cancer that they were going to die?  She misunderstood me and I knew at the time that she had but in no way challenged her.  Now that she is living with cancer we’ve talked about this incident and she knows that I didn’t say that, but at the time she was in no frame of mind to see this.

    I’ve experienced a life-threatening injury myself.  I fell 50 feet and landed on butt and am living with an incomplete spinal cord injury.  People didn’t necessarily call me brave but they called me strong & tough because I rarely got angry & cried about the situation but just plowed through every new challenge.  The truth is, I have had my fearful moments both during initial rehab and more recently, too.  Almost every step I took in rehab (& in the years afterward) was shear terror, which, if I was to move on and continue the independent life I had cultivated I felt I had to conquer.

    No, physicians don’t acknowledge the fear that patients experience.  The people in medicine who do are the nurses and other allied professionals (PT, OT, etc).  But with the state medicine is in now no one has the time, let alone the skill to listen to patient’s fears.  Nor are the majority of physicians even taught how to listen to anything except for the health facts that might lead them toward an accurate diagnosis.  Western medicine, as it is practiced in the USA, is in a sorry state I’m afraid…

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Sophie — I think people talk about bravery when they have absolutely no idea what else to say.  Also, it differentiates you from them; if they’re different, maybe they won’t get cancer, too.

    MA — People imagine things when they’re under so much stress.  I kept going to appointments that didn’t exist.  I also completely forgot I’d buttonholed a friend into speaking at my funeral.  He was a bit hurt when he mentioned it a couple of years later and I had no memory of it.  And yes, nurses are invaluable to patients.

  • Good entry!  I wrote something not nearly as eloquent a few weeks ago (<a href=”http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/kim/archives/006481.html”>Bravery</a>) but after my entry today, a friend suggested I come over and read your blog. I love your style.

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