My 'Courage' While Facing Illness Isn't a Personality Trait. It's a Skill.


I am not a courageous person. I do not like to push the limits of reason with dare-deviling feats. I am not someone who can take an action without analyzing the potential consequences. I am not brave. The fact that people often think I am just because I have unstable health, with a body that refuses to be defined or clarified, is a misconception.

I became dramatically sick shortly after my 15th birthday. “Dramatic” because I lost all control of my arms, legs and muscular system, all from a disease or diseases that have yet to be identified, even more than a decade and a half later. While my symptoms haven’t changed, my health still has never completely stabilized, resembling more of a roller coaster ride. All of my body systems have directly or indirectly been impacted, and none act or react as expected. It makes every day, every activity, every doctor’s procedure, an occurrence with a high likelihood of (negatively) unexpected occurrences.

I can count more times than I have fingers and toes when some routine test, medication or routine physical therapy activity has gone off-the-charts wrong, leaving me to be the calm one, steadily reassuring the physicians. Alarms blaring, even nurses swearing, doctors muttering and turning ashen white, and all I can do is just wait for the moment to be over, somehow.

Does it make me brave? No. It means I am stubborn.

While leading up to every procedure, every appointment, I face the struggle to keep my emotions at bay, to cling to reason. In the actual situation I’m most afraid of, I have learned how to be calm and appear utterly relaxed.

This is what many people see, and even misconstrue as courage, implying it is a personality trait I was born with. It’s not; it’s a skill.

You can learn to do it too.

Perhaps your biggest fear is a presentation amongst fellow students or co-workers. Maybe it’s teaching your teenager to drive a car. Maybe it’s awaiting a diagnosis yourself from a doctor. Or maybe, in the wake of so many recent school shootings, it’s simply being in a classroom. Whatever it is, the ability to endure in such a wake of butterflies, nausea and raw fear is the same: one moment at a time. Below I share a few of steps I have learned that have helped me in numerous situations

In my experience over the years, the fear hasn’t gone away or even lessened, but the steps to get through it have become second nature.

My first practice in being calm in the midst of terror wasn’t during an event after I got sick as a teenager, but when I was little, around the age of 5. My father is a sailor at heart, and we grew up spending every weekend of our childhood on a sailboat. Sailboats, if you are unfamiliar with them, can have an engine (depending on the size), but their primary mode of travel is by sail power. When you have enough wind in the sail, the boat leans — called heeling — and you cut through the water like glass.

The more wind power, the more you heel, the faster you go, the happier my dad and sister were and the more petrified I became.

Ever since I can remember, I have been terrified of heeling. My parents were aware of it, and they logically tried to explain why it was safe, why the boat wouldn’t fall over capsizing us. My father, an engineer, even took me with him to the shipyard one day so I could see a similar sailboat out of water. He explained to me how the design of the boat would not allow it to capsize. Well, even at the age of 7, I could ask a hundred questions, and when I kept questioning his explanations, pointing out worst-case scenarios and his answers went from “that shouldn’t happen,” to “that rarely happens,” finally to “well, if that happens, you’ve got troubles,” I stopped asking. I simply accepted there was a large risk, but if it happened, it would be after a series of events, and we would all be together in it.

I thus practiced, before I could even identify them, the skills I would come to know better than the back of my hand:

1. Identify the fear. And be specific here. For example, are you really afraid of speaking in front of your co-workers, or are you more afraid of what they will think of the merit of the material you’re presenting? In the case of my childhood fear with sailing, I realized I was afraid of the boat tipping over.

2. Imagine the fear actually occurring. If you were to play out the worst-case scenario, what would happen? And not just your emotional response but all of the actions around you. Virtual reality is being used by some psychologists now to help people face their fears. For example, if your fear is speaking to your pears, wearing the virtual reality goggles, a psychiatrist would put you in a conference room with you at the head of the table. (Yes, they actually have created such scenarios.) You begin reciting a presentation, and, in so doing, you would be reminded you have different moments to engage the people, use inflections and react to the vibes they are giving off.

3. Accept what is out of your control. Now that you have identified your fear, imagined a worst-case scenario and seen there is a series of events in every situation, accept the wild card, the X-factor. You can’t control whether or not Fred the co-worker is having a bad day and is pissed off at life in general, so nothing you do in your presentation will make him seem amenable.

4. Accept what you can control, and embrace it. If your fear is not being sufficiently prepared for a presentation, for a driving lesson, etc., then prepare as much as you reasonably can. If your fear is not having the right posture, then practice standing in the mirror. You’ve imagined the worst-case scenario objectionably, seen what might be and know what your involvement is. In my case, what was in my control was literally staying calm and being relaxed. I learned to appear that way until I felt that way. That was the element I could control, which felt empowering rather than victimizing to fear.

5. Take a breath, meet the situation and endure. You know what to do now. You have identified the fear, the situation and prepared for it, so now trust yourself. Do what you have to do. Be fully present, paying attention to the nuances of the situation, and just get through it. No situation lasts forever; you just have to make it until it’s over.

This story originally appeared on Living as a Mystery.

Getty image by marzacz.


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