Fear is the darkest place I have been to. It is a paralysing state of mind. It is mental anguish, so strong that once it strikes there is nothing I can do.
Fear drains my world to total bleakness and makes it small, suffocatingly so. All of a sudden there are no options, no choices, no potential outcomes. All I can envisage is failure. On all fronts.
Then, the questions start. They swirl and swirl around completely blocking my line of vision with a deep and intrinsic doubt.
The main one always boils down to: ‘Am I good enough?’.
It is not the same as being afraid of something specific and palpable. It is more like harbouring a deep fear of making the first step or continuing down a chosen path. The ideas and the goals are there, but each time that an attempt is made to attain them, a dark wave of insecurity rises up washing up any resolve away.
The easiest thing in such moments is to curl up inside myself and not do anything. The fear of failure is so overwhelming, that all I can muster is some inane activity, like browsing the internet, whilst munching on a handful of popcorn or other mindless snack.
This frozen by fear state started about ten years ago when I was almost mugged in Barcelona’s underground. It was violent and it was pure luck that I didn’t lose anything in the process.
I had studied Spanish for five years and had even worked as an interpreter with Spanish, but had never been to Spain. Then, in February about ten years ago, I booked a long week-end away in Spain. At the time I was living in London and would travel solo as much as I could.
I arrived in Barcelona late at night. I was ecstatic to be in Spain, a country about which I knew so much. I didn’t pay much attention to the guy who followed me through the Sants station – then a notorious crime spot, I don’t know how it is now.
I noticed him loitering behind me when I asked for information at the Tourist Office, when I bought a ticket for the underground and when I walked through the busy tunnel leading to the trains. I noticed him, but dismissed my sixth sense, as I felt street smart enough.
A smaller tunnel ran off the main one. It was deserted and it was leading to the platform of the train I had to take.
All of a sudden the guy was at my back pinning me against the wall and tugging at my bag.
You never know how you would react in a violent situation until you are in one. Well, my reaction was to put up a fight. I grabbed my handbag and started pulling it back. I also screamed as much as I could.
I remember a Chinese man with a little boy, perhaps his son, looking at me struggling with this guy, and laughing his head off. No, he didn’t help me. This was a quick lesson in human nature. It is not always nice.
Then the strap of my handbag snapped. The guy grabbed my bag and ran off. It had all my money for the four days I was to spend in Barcelona, my brand new smartphone (a big thing back then) and, most importantly, my passport with my British visa, without which I couldn’t get back in the UK.
Without thinking, I threw my suitcase to one side and I ran after the guy and my bag. I have never been good at running, but I remember running like never before.
The guy jumped out of the small tunnel straight into the main one which was teeming with people. As he was holding my handbag by the broken strap, the bag hit the wall, it burst open and some of my stuff flew off. At this point, the guy must have panicked, as he threw my bag to the floor and ran off.
A couple of students picked my bag, collected my stuff and calmed me down. I was hysterical and wanted to go and punch the face off the Chinese man who was still there laughing at me with his tiny son.
Miraculously, I didn’t lose a thing. That is if you don’t count my faith in people. And I gained something – a sense of deep fear that I still fight with at different stages in my life.
My four days in Barcelona were not great. I went sightseeing, but steered clear of people and never wore a bag, instead stuffing everything in the pockets of my jeans. If anyone was kind to me or smiled at me, I would snarl back.
I discovered food in a completely new light. I lost myself in Barcelona’s food places, nursing yet another cup of thick hot chocolate instead of engaging with the city and enjoying life. Food gave me a momentary comfort, a small warmth and a fleeing sense that all was all right.
Upon my return to London, I cancelled all my plans for future travels alone. I couldn’t face it. Post-traumatic stress is an unhappy place.
It took me awhile to regain my enthusiasm for travelling and discovering new places and things. My newly entrenched fear held me back on many occasions. Often, I would feel not good enough for many things – from work to friendships, like it was somehow my fault that I got attacked and almost mugged.
Ten years later, I still have the occasional glitch, a sudden moment when I am thrown back into the depths of fear and I have to battle with all my strength with my own self to remind me that all is OK.
What truly helps me in such moments is simply to do. It doesn’t matter what. The important thing is not to listen to the swirl of questions in my head, not to succumb to the feelings of dread and doubt, but simply to get up and do.
It could be something totally simple and mundane, like washing the dishes or cooking for my family. It could be something much more exciting like moving to Italy – a long-held dream. When I do, I am happy.
Things I do are not always perfect. But at least they are there, palpable and achieved. They give me hope and make me feel like I have done something useful with my time.
So, my recipe for beating fear is Do. What is yours?