I’m afraid. I’m afraid to be alone, I’m afraid not to be alone. I’m afraid of what I am, what I’m not, what I might become, what I might never become. I don’t want to stay at my job for the rest of my life but I’m afraid to leave. And I’m just tired, you know, I’m just so tired of being afraid.
I’ve spent too much time being afraid. Worried about what people think of me, paralyzed by the fear I’ll be “found out”—everyone in my life that matters to me will eventually see the “real” me when all my flaws and hangups are exposed. The me that I know best, the one I know is a joke. I carry this with me more often than I care to admit. I’m sure most of us do. We internalize that relentless self-doubt and distorted perception of ourselves. We feel isolated and alone in these feelings. It’s very hard to pull ourselves out at that point. It can take me days, sometimes. And during that time I’ll be absurdly hard on myself. Blaming myself for the feelings, believing that someone only wanted me to feel awful because I am awful and it’s what I deserve.
Being afraid that I’m never going to be enough—for anyone else or even for myself—is a pervasive feeling I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. I don’t have siblings. Was I enough for parents who wanted a big family? Was I good son then? Am I a good son now? Will I ever be half the father to my children that mine was to me? When I’m residing in that foggy headspace, when my feelings are a combination of shellshocked and extremely panicked, the answers to these questions land with a resounding thud, over and over again: “No. You weren’t, you aren’t, you will never be good enough. Don’t even bother trying. Just slink off and leave everyone alone.”
The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but Jesus, at times like this it feels like it’s laying waste to me.
Frankie, from Frankie and Johnny (1991), is one of my cinematic kindred spirits, a character whose own doubt and regret color her life in ways I can relate to. I get her struggle because it’s my struggle. Our lives, our backgrounds, our sex and our genders, and our traumas might be different but they’ve left us similarly scarred. Similarly afraid. Listening to Michelle Pfeiffer deliver Terrence McNally’s heartbreaking words is like watching a window open into my own thoughts and emotions. I am afraid. I’m afraid of what I am. Afraid of what I’m not. What I might become. What I might never become. I’ve cried in recognition many times watching Frankie lament that she’s “so tired of being afraid” “Me too, Frankie. Me too,” I think.
Like Frankie, I’ve developed my own defense mechanisms against fear. Mine typically revolve around withdrawing myself from situations that cause me fear or anxiety. This withdrawal can take the form of actually physically removing myself, but always involves an emotional and psychological distancing as an often-misguided form of self-care. This act can hurt those close to me while also making it look as though I simply don’t care. I’ll verbally cut myself down before anyone else can, thinking this will protect me from harm when in reality it just feeds into a pattern of self-loathing.
These defense mechanisms are common. I recently read actor, writer, and director Andrew McCarthy’s memoir Brat: An ’80s Story. Since high school, friends and even strangers have told me I look like him (I do) and remind them of several of his most famous characters—especially Kevin from St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). Well, now I know I’m also quite a bit like the real McCarthy as well, at least in terms of our shared tendency to be overly sensitive, stubbornly introspective, hard on ourselves, and fearful of fucking up. McCarthy describes his own defense mechanisms with brutal honesty: “I slouched farther down, saying next to nothing, demonstrating no interest in the conversation or the film I was there to get cast in. Even as I knew I was tanking the meeting, I sank behind a feeling of helpless self-consciousness.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve reacted to fear with the same sort of “helpless self-consciousness,” to the agonizing dismay of those around me, I would never need to worry about money again. It’s an excruciating feeling. It’s like an emotional drowning, where I can feel myself being pulled under, losing air, unable to communicate for help, and just sinking…sinking…sinking. Often times I know those around me are scared by what they’re witnessing but even so I can’t stop myself. I can, of course, with years of therapy and maybe even in conjunction with medication, but even so, these feelings will persist, and it’ll always be my particular challenge to struggle to overcome them.
In I Am Sam (2001) Michelle Pfeiffer plays an entirely different sort of character from Frankie, but while Rita might seem like a confident and indomitable attorney, mother, and all-around success story, the cracks are evident. Late in the film she finally has a full blown anxiety ridden meltdown during one of the most gut-wrenching monologues of Pfeiffer’s career. It’s long, rambling, and utterly devastating to watch unfold.
“It’s like every morning I wake up and, I fail. And I look around and everybody seems to be pulling it off, but I-I-I can’t! No matter how hard I try. Somehow, I’ll never be enough.” Rita’s fear of failure, of never being enough, is something most of us grapple with throughout our lives. The key is not to let that sort of thinking overcome us, but instead to realize it’s simply not true. I am enough. You are enough. Sometimes we need a breakdown like Rita’s, or Frankie’s, to release the pressure. Let it go. At least some of it. Then learn to talk yourself down before it gets to that point the next time…but guess what? You’re going to fail at this, repeatedly. But you’ll also succeed sometimes. Celebrate the small victories and keep letting those propel you forward, through the fear. Because the fear can’t control you if you won’t let it.
I work on controlling my fear every single day. And will be for the rest of my life, most likely. Fear will never fully dissipate and nor should it; a healthy amount of fear is important. It’s when it takes over your life that the real work begins. After all, life is a work in progress, and no one ever said the work would be easy. That struggle is a small price to pay, though, for living a more authentic life. Frankie opens her heart again, making room in it for someone who truly loves her. Andrew McCarthy can see his fear as not just a limitation but an emotional source he can draw on for his work. Rita chooses to care a little less about failing in the eyes of society and just living a little more in the moment. I’m working on all of this as well. We all are. Always. And sometimes when I’m most afraid, someone who loves me will remind me that I’m not alone, that it’s okay to be afraid, that it’s okay to be me. I’m not alone. And neither are you.