Fear and Loathing in Oakland

We start out our lives fearless. As children, we are blithely unaware of all of the horrible possibilities life can hurl at us. Unaware of life’s cuts, scrapes, and broken bones, we wiggle our way into abandoned construction sites and contaminated Superfund sites without a second thought of rusty nails, oozing petrochemicals, broken glass, or any of the other contaminants just lying in wait to puncture our outer armor and kill us with tetanus or cancer. We don’t think twice about creepy men in windowless kiddy-toucher vans cruising the neighborhood checking out our preteen bodies. We roll our eyes as our mothers shout warnings to us of sunscreen and insect repellent as we ride away on our Schwinns, determined to explore that huge muddy ditch full of mosquito-laden water we’d discovered on the way home from school yesterday.

Later, at the start of our teenage years and well into our college years, perhaps beyond, we are fearless in different ways. Perhaps slightly more cognizant of life’s larger dangers, yet still convinced we are invincible, we forge our own paths out into the world, make our own friends, start to make our own decisions, start to develop our own moral codes. Alcohol and drugs are experimented with. Tattoos are gotten. Bridges are jumped off of—not metaphorical ones, literal bridges. Questionable one-night stands are had. Even more questionable relationships are entered into and perhaps endured too long. Cars are driven home drunkenly.

In short, dumb decisions are made, but if you’re like most of us—the lucky ones—these decisions don’t have real, long-lasting consequences. For most of us, the one-night stands don’t lead to abortions, the jump from the bridge doesn’t lead to a broken neck, the bad relationship doesn’t lead to domestic violence, the drunk driving doesn’t end in a death. And so we manage to hold on to that feeling of invincibility a little while longer. And if you don’t have kids of your own to immediately start fretting over from the moment of their birth, if you’re lucky, maybe that feeling of fearlessness can carry you into your thirties. Shit, for some people that fearlessness never goes away. Those are the insane idiots you see parachuting off the International Space Station or trying to break the land-speed record out in Death Valley while driving a matchbox car made out of spit and tinfoil.

But for most of us, at some point, a slow-burn fear starts to creep in. For some it’s a fear of mortality that comes with, maybe, your first real health scare or when, say, one of your parents dies. Or maybe with the loss or your first “real” job and the fear of being out on the street. Again, for many, it comes with the birth of our first child when we suddenly feel terrified by all of the things in the big bad world we realize can suddenly harm our wee bundles of defenseless joy. Now we understand what our moms were yelling about all those years ago.

For me, my moment came with the onset of chronic pain. Once my body started betraying me, it did a number on my mind as well. I stopped wanting to do things. And I don’t just mean the minimal outdoorsy shit I used to do, like the occasional camping trip or whitewater rafting trip down the American River. I mean fucking everything. Going out to a big dinner with a lot of friends in a loud restaurant suddenly became an exercise in terror. How far away will we have to park? We’re a huge party—how long will be have to stand while we wait for a table? Will the restaurant be loud and crowded and hot? Will that throw me into a panic attack because my feet will start hurting? Will we be there too long, longer than I can handle it, so that I’ll start to get angry and snap at people and drag my wife away earlier than she wants to leave, which will start a fight on the way home? What will be the residual effects the next day? Will my feet hurt worse so that I’ll need to cancel tomorrow’s plans as well? Then I will mope around the house, which will cause a general bad feeling to settle over our domicile and my marriage?

And when your brain spends this much time thinking about these types of logistics, it fucking changes you. First of all, you don’t want to admit any of this to anyone. Illogically, you get embarrassed. Even though none of this is your fault, you suddenly feel as though people will see you as weak or as making this up or making a mountain out of a molehill or a million other irrational thoughts. You think somehow people will blame you for being the party pooper. The concept of sitting your spouse and your closest friends down and explaining to the them what is happening to you is so beyond your capabilities at this point because even you don’t know what the fuck is happening to you.

Fuck this shit.

So you bottle all of this up. You keep it to yourself. You don’t tell your family, you don’t tell your friends, you don’t even tell your wife about all of this. You just lash out and act like an angry asshole, furious because this is happening to you, furious because you have to spend 75 percent of your waking hours thinking about this shit, thinking about your goddamned burning feet, trying desperately to find a fix, something that will make it go the fuck away—pills, exercise, changing your diet, meditation, acupuncture, physical therapy, talk therapy, more pills, illegal drugs, an onslaught of doctors, so many fucking doctors, until you just can’t tell your story or talk about your symptoms one goddamned more minute.

Until it’s just easier to stay home, in bed, taking your pills, smoking a ton of fucking weed, passing judgment on the world via Facebook.

When I started this entry, I was going to talk about how I’d become this lame person who’d gone from being this crazy, fearless chick who sold off all her shit, left the world she’d known her entire life in Texas, and moved to San Francisco without knowing a soul at the tender age of 25 and how she’d spent the remainder of her twenties and early thirties fucking her way through SF, backpacking solo through Europe, not having babies, and generally doing all this stuff the world said that Nice Girls shouldn’t do—gone from being all of that to being this fearful person who was constantly worried about having enough money to cover every contingency, never going out anymore, always worrying about every evil out there, constantly fretting about the state of the world, and generally being a fucking Debbie Downer in life. But how I’d reclaimed some of that old me because I’d jumped off the cliff and QUIT MY JOB with no backup plan. And how I was suddenly strutting through the world with purpose again, how I’d gained back a bit of my old swagger.

I was gonna write about all of that. But then I went out to dinner with an old friend who simply wanted me to walk eight blocks through downtown San Francisco with him to show me a building he’d been the project manager on that had just been completed. I’d warned him of my feet, but hell, he hasn’t spent the last five years around me, he didn’t know. He thought “It’s only eight blocks!” And I thought “What the hell? My pain levels have been really low lately. Maybe I can do this. It’s only eight fucking blocks.”

The thing about chronic pain is how psychologically demoralizing it is, how it just fucking eats away at the pleasure center of your brain, until one day, after, say, putting one foot in front of the other with gritted teeth, it can make you look up and say “This is all there is for the rest of my fucking life. A lifetime of not being able to walk eight blocks stretches before me like a giant gaping whale’s vagina. The list of things I will not be able to do is so vast it’s infuriating and soul-crushing. Why bother with this at all? What is the fucking point?”

I spent two days in bed in a Vicoden and pot haze after that evening, sobbing because my feet were punishing me for daring to think I could be someone fucking normal again. And I am one of the lucky ones: I have an amazing wife who tended to my physical and mental wounds around the clock. She set up Salon 540 in our living room, which went something like this:

Her: “I’ve filled one of the beer coolers with some foot oils and salts and it’s ready for you in the living room. I’m going to wash your feet…like you’re Jesus.”

Me: Well that would make you that whore, Mary Magdalene. Ha ha!

Her: Obvs!

Then she proceeded to tend to my feet, bring me wine, and feed me cold gnocchi from the night before because “we don’t do any of that healthy cucumber shit here at Salon 540.”

The moral of this story is, my pets, is that living without fear is a constant challenge. There are so many enemies in our battle against fear—age, financial security, the safety of our children, death, infirmity, pain—but the battle must be fought. For it is our fears that truly hold us back in life, that keep us from doing what we we put here to do, whatever that may be for you. Whatever that nagging little thought has been for so long in the back of your brain that’s been telling you that that’s the thing you need to explore and pursue to get yourself into The Flow. Is it learning to kayak or rock climb? Is it quitting your job and becoming a goatherd? Only you know. But odds are, the minute you let yourself entertain that happy thought, your brain immediately comes up with a dozen reasons why you can’t or why it would never work. That’s that fucking shithead Fear talking.

“It’s behind me, isn’t it?”

Hey, I did quit my job—that’s an entry for another time—but I sure as shit hope I use this opportunity to conquer some of my fears. I certainly don’t have the generic “I don’t have the time” excuse that we all like to use. So I’m adding “fuck fear up the ass with a cactus” to my ever-growing list of mantras. Be Powerful, indeed.

I was not put on this earth to be a pussy, motherfuckers.