I Am Afraid
“I’m not afraid,” I used to say, when I was young.
I wore it like a badge of honor and stressed the truth of it beyond believability.
“I’m not afraid,” I would tell my older sister when she peeked into my bed in the middle of the night.
The dark did not scare me, nor bugs or strangers or nightmares.
“I’m not afraid,” I really only ever told myself.
My favorite movie growing up was Mulan. I had a nightgown and knew all the words to all the songs. I thought she was so brave and always did the right thing. I wanted to be just like her. I thought that meant I could never be afraid of anything. I used to prove it to myself in little ways every day.
When I went down into our basement, I would close the door behind me.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I forced myself to take the last few steps without thinking about hands reaching out from between the steps to grab me.
When I crossed the room, I didn’t check all of the corners for some hidden monster.
When I reached the laundry room, with the light switch on the outside and the unfinished walls and the door that locked from the wrong side, I didn’t search the room before closing the door behind me.
I would feel my heart thump out of my chest and sweat gather in my shaking hands. Basements were supposed to be scary. However, when I stood in that room all by myself, I only thought of how I wasn’t scared at all.
When I was young, I watched a horror movie in my cousin's room. She was the same age as my sister who was a year older than me. My mom had left my sister and me there for the day. We weren’t meant to, but I wasn’t afraid, so we watched a gory zombie movie.
When my sister peeked her head over the top bunk that night and asked to sleep with the light on, I told her no. I always slept with the light off and we already kept the closet light on because she was always afraid. She cried.
My sister was always afraid and she never did anything about it. She was afraid of the dark and bugs and strangers and all the things children have nightmares about. She always cried when she was scared.
She wouldn’t go into the basement alone and she screamed if someone closed the door behind her. She always needed the lights on. She always woke me in the middle of the night when she was scared. When she had nightmares, she screamed until my parents came running.
It was annoying, but mostly frustrating. I didn’t understand how she could behave so fearfully without any effort to contain it. As we grew older, it became less and less understandable. Didn’t we grow out of our fears?
The answer seemed obvious when I looked at my dad. The one who always eased my sister’s fears, instead of exacerbating them as I sometimes had the habit of doing.
My dad never seemed afraid of anything. His hands didn’t shake and his heart didn’t form imprints through his ribcage. He ate the spiciest foods that could force tears with scent alone because he wanted to, because he liked to. He watched scary movies in the dark. He wandered the house with the lights off. He was never afraid.
Likewise, every adult I’d ever met seemed to lack the inexplicable fear children are prone to. This, to my young eyes, could only mean that I would grow up to never be afraid again.
We went to Hershey Park when I was eight. My mom was prone to motion sickness so she refused to go on any of the rides. Though, as kids, we weren’t allowed on without supervision. My sister and I looked around with bright eyes and immediately pointed to the tallest, fastest rollercoaster our heights would allow. My dad took one look and turned pale.
“Let’s start with the tea cups,” He’d said, already turning and walking in the opposite direction.
I’d turned to stone for a moment. I was young, but I knew fear. My dad was afraid, and he was walking away. We ended up on the rollercoaster later in the day, but that moment stuck with me long after it had ended. It was seared into my memory, something I thought about late at night.
Maybe adults didn’t grow out of their fears, and maybe they just learned to hide them better.
I was nine when I stopped saying I wasn’t afraid when my sister marveled at my ability push past all of her fears.
“How aren’t you scared? How are you so brave?” She had asked from the top of the basement stairs, standing in the open doorway in the honest and open way only children seem able.
“I am,” I had answered, with more thought than I had previously been capable of, “I am scared. But being brave doesn’t mean not being scared, it means doing things anyway.”
It seemed so simple a thought to me at the time. Perhaps it’s what I had been doing all along by pretending I was never afraid at all. But even after explaining it as well as I could, my sister still slept with the light on, and I never cried after nightmares.