“I’m scared and I’m doing it anyway.” Those are words I’ve lived by since being diagnosed with a brain tumor 10 years ago.
Unlike astronaut Chris Hadfield, who worked since childhood diligently preparing for and dreaming of his scariest moment, I didn’t practice walking through spider webs a hundred times in order to learn to face fear with patience and calm. There isn’t an anti-gravity simulator for life – and even if there were I would not have wanted to test it.
Maybe I was preparing for my moment too; I just didn’t realize it.
I learned how to face fear when I had no other choice.
Ten years ago, I was living a completely normal life: commuting to my job to climb the corporate ladder, and planning a wedding to the nicest guy I’d ever met. The things you take for granted when you’re 28 years old.
Then I had an ear infection and a wooshing sound in my right ear that wouldn’t go away after a round of antibiotics. The doctor ordered an MRI to make sure it wasn’t anything serious.
At what I thought was a routine appointment in 2004, I met my little white blob face-to-face for the first time: A golf ball-sized brain tumor had lodged itself behind my right inner ear, intertwined with the delicate, wet-tissue-paper strands of my hearing, balance and facial nerves for what the doctors guessed was five years before it was found.
Ten years ago this month I had the first of two surgeries to remove it. As Chris described his preparation for the shuttle’s launch into space, I was eerily reminded of my own final moments of life as I knew it.
The foam slippers and white cotton gown I wrapped nearly twice around me as I climbed onto a gurney for the first time. Being surrounded by instruments meant to monitor every step of the exploration that the neurosurgeons were making into my brain. And the moment when I thought we were past the worst of it, when I was in pajamas easing into my new life at home after surgery number two, and woke up one morning in the most excruciating physical pain I have ever experienced.
Another diagnosis: bacterial meningitis.
The third trip to the hospital felt like a space walk in some ways. I was hallucinating worlds away from my loved ones and the reality we used to share together. My mind was creating some of the most amazing images I’d ever seen of snowy mountaintops, soft cat fur, and wheat fields bending in the wind.
Chris asks each of us: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
My scariest moment was not brain surgery, although it felt that way at the time. What was scarier was after I returned to ‘normal’ life, and realized that I didn’t particularly like it. I wasn’t fulfilled at work or in my relationships. There wasn’t a little white blob to blame anymore, and that meant it was up to me, gulp, to build the life I wanted for myself.
I was going to have to face demons that I’d carefully avoided up until then: fear of being alone, fear of failing, fear of disappointing the people I had always looked to for approval…
Facing danger is not always a choice, but you can choose to face fear.
The gift my brain tumor gave me was that scary things didn’t seem so scary anymore. Suddenly I had perspective – not only on what I was really afraid of, but also on my own mortality.
I changed careers. I got divorced. I moved to a new city. Each of these choices was scary – but the alternative was worse. It was not living.
In the 10 years since my brain surgeries I’ve had some of the best, most exhilarating moments of my life. They came from daring to be who I always wanted to be, but had been afraid to admit before.
As Chris says, Fear Not — or be scared, and do it anyway.
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