When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything.
I was afraid of every single animal, land sea or sky. I was afraid of heights, small spaces, and crowds. I had a special vendetta against mascots, like the ones you would find at theme parks or sporting events. In fact, I’m sure if you get a few glasses of wine in my mother, she’ll happily show you a grainy video of the time when I ran away, sobbing and screaming, from a very confused Universal Studios employee dressed as Angelica Pickles from the Rugrats. To be fair, I don’t believe that my fear of Angelica was an irrational one – she was loud, dishonest, and used fear to manipulate those weaker than her. It’s the same reason many people are afraid of Jenny McCarthy.
Not only was I born with these ridiculous fears, I inherited several more from my parents, like my mother’s fear of cats, and my father’s fear of my mother.
I’m not using the word “fear” lightly; these weren’t simple aversions or discomfort. They were deeply rooted, paralyzing, traumatizing fears. As a result of this, my fears would often inconvenience others. I would grind class field trips at the aquarium to a screeching halt because of my fear of frogs, or I would make my parents leave Disneyland due to my bawling and wailing in fear of the characters. Again, to be fair, Peter Pan is terrifying. You know he was murdering those Lost Boys, right?
Other kids would make fun of me, and would make me feel like an outcast. My parents would be angry at me for crying at school, telling me that if I was just strong and brave, these bad things wouldn’t happen to me. And I truly believed that they were right! Everyone was right – me and my fears were burdensome. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I would never be accepted by others, and that I didn’t deserve to be.
I developed a fear of all the elements that proceeded fear – the shame of crying, the guilt of embarrassing my parents, and the dread that the opinions of others would continue to make my life difficult.
My fears so continued to inconvenience those around me that I developed my greatest fear of all – my fear of fear.
And so fear became an auxiliary character in my life, always lurking around darkened corners, hiding in the shadows of every decision I made. As I transitioned into adulthood (?) many of these childhood fears dissipated to make way for bigger, more mature fears, like climate change, dying alone, and whatever a “Billie Eilish” is.
The worst part about this transition was the shame and guilt I felt about ever having those fears in the first place. I had watched my childhood pass me by from between my fingers, and I was never going to get these moments back. My childhood was so tainted with these bad memories that I chose to ignore those memories altogether.
Family members who I hadn’t seen in a while would chuckle and say, “Remember when you cried at a Warriors game because you were afraid of Thunder?” and I would pretend like I didn’t, the same way that most Warriors fans chose to “forget” the “We Believe” seasons. On occasion, I would run into an old classmate who’d laughingly reminisce: “Remember the time on our class trip to D.C. where you cried because you were afraid of Dick Cheney?” To my credit, if you’re NOT afraid of Dick Cheney, I shudder to think of the other things you’re not afraid of.
So while I did slowly transition away from many irrational fears, I still retained the habits that made those fears so unbearable at the time: most notably, The Shame Spiral. For example, as an adult, I have an aversion to what the humans call “small talk”. Social anxiety is one of the most common types of anxiety, but for those of you who are blessed enough to not experience this, let me share what social anxiety looks like from my perspective. The cycle usually goes like this:
- I will be invited to participate in a social gathering by a friend
- I will say yes, like a fucking sucker
- I will think about all of the social blunders I could possibly make in the social gathering
- As a precautionary measure, I will bail on the social gathering as to avoid the promise of embarrassing myself, my family, and the ancestors
- Bailing on the social gathering will cause me to feel complex emotions as shame, shame, guilt, shame, and then more shame
- At this point, my friends will have decided that they hate me so I die alone, at the age of 27, surrounded by cats that I don’t remember adopting
- I am jerked out of my reverie of the lonely, cat-filled funeral only to realize that I have yet to respond to the inquiry from step 1, and my friend has been staring at my glazed-over eyes for the past six minutes, waiting for me to say literally anything
- I will say no to the plans, my friends go out without me, and my fear of isolating myself from my friends becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy
- Rinse, repeat
Finally, there was a point where I just got sick of it. Not the fear, mind you. I had spent my entire life feeling shame for my fears. I had come to peace with the fact that I will always be one fearful, fashionable bitch. I was tired of making myself feel bad for being afraid. I was tired of being so reactionary. I was tired of the Shame Spiral. It was finally time for me to say, “I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m full of irrational fears!”
My fears keep me grounded. They keep me from putting myself in situations I don’t want to be in. However detrimental to my childhood, my fears became a tool that I used to reflect on potential actions. Over time, I learned how to discern between rational fears (the stuff that could have long-term ramifications to my safety, happiness, or health) and irrational fears that cause discomfort at the time, but when tamed, could lead to something great.
I imagine it as an internal Microsoft spell-check. Fear is just a little squiggly line that pops up and says “hey, pay attention to this, it could mean danger”. Sometimes I say, “Hey, you’re right, let me fix this”, but sometimes I’ll have to buck up and say, “Fuck you, Clippy, I know how to spell my own name.”
I’m not saying that I’m fearless, or even significantly less fearful than I was as a child. I’m just more strategic about it. I use my fear as a way to be more discerning in my actions – it’s like a scanner at the TSA, except that my method actually works. Here’s an example:
In the first two years of my comedy “career” I hit a seemingly impassible speed bump: I was having panic attacks moments before I went onstage. This usually happened because I had a monumental fear of forgetting my material. It happened to me once before. I never again wanted to experience the humiliation of being on stage in front of dozens of people who are expecting you to make them laugh – and your mind is as empty as the bleachers at a Chargers game.
Ultimately, my failure would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I was visibly nervous, the audience would often be able to tell, and I would lose credibility and ultimately their attention. After months of failing to escape this cycle, I started developing pre-show rituals to keep my mind off of the panic. Small stuff, like focusing on the texture of the brick wall against my fingers, or concentrating closely on the precise order of my jokes, would help me not be as visibly nervous when I got onstage. The fear was still there, but instead of letting it overrun me, I used it as a tool to refocus my energy on where it needed to be: the present.
I’m not going to tell you how to handle your fears. I’m not a fear doctor. I’m not Joe Rogan. I have nary a DMT to offer you on your quest to face your fears. I can only say with certainty what works for me – I take a page from Sheryl Sandberg’s book and just kinda lean into it. If you don’t have fears, I’m sorry, but you’re a weirdo. Enjoy spelunking in the San Andreas fault or whatever weird shit fearless people do. But maybe, for the rest of us, we can try to take a break from beating ourselves down for the things we believe are shortcomings. The world does that enough for us already. Click on that squiggly red underline and click “Add to Dictionary”. You never know when you’ll need to use it.