Fear Factor

Worry can debilitate, spoil life, and create unnecessary stress. Or it can motivate.

An alley connects the downtown office building where I work to Illinois Street. Even though the pathway is a nifty shortcut to Panera Bread, where I like to pick up a nice BBQ Chopped Chicken salad, I never walk it alone. Colleagues find my reluctance silly, as no one to our recollection has been assaulted, murdered, or dismembered there. But my thought process works differently: If something bad is going to happen, it probably will happen to me.

Psychologists call my state of mind “anticipatory,” meaning I think ahead. Trouble is, most of those thoughts are negative. If an elevator takes a moment or two to lift off, I’m sure I’ll be stuck in it, for days, perhaps, trying to stave off dehydration and death. I read about a New York high-rise where this actually occurred; the occupant was so rattled by the Friday-night experience that he never went back to work there. I once got trapped in an office-building elevator and, panicked, called the emergency number, only to reach voicemail. You wouldn’t think a 100-pound woman could pry open elevator doors, but with enough adrenaline, she can.

When I am on a flight that experiences turbulence, I’m convinced the plane will plummet wildly from the sky. Any vibration I feel on terra firma foretells an earthquake. Again, some of the fears those psychologists might term “irrational” emanate from familiarity. I survived the 1994 Northridge quake, and unless you’ve run down a hotel fire escape only to reach the bottom and have the ground give way, your entire center of gravity thrown off as you scream and race for an open space, any open space, frantically reaching for your husband’s hand just out of your grasp—you shouldn’t judge.

There is no obvious explanation for my recurring nightmare that, as a baby, my younger son, now 35, falls off of a flimsy wooden raft into an unidentified body of water, and I dive in after him, but it’s too dark below the surface to see. Some things only the  subconscious can process. In real life, I always locate the nearest exit in a crowded theater, imagining chaos and trampling, and drive breathlessly through tunnels, hoping against hope that traffic doesn’t stop, overcoming us all with carbon monoxide. I practice walking to the exit from hotel rooms, counting the steps, in case I have to retrace them in a smoky hallway. All of these fears, rational or otherwise, can debilitate, spoil life, create unnecessary tension. Or they can motivate.

Consider last year’s State Fair tragedy, where, as we all know, the rigging over the stage where Sugarland was set to perform collapsed in a stormy gust of wind, killing seven people and injuring dozens more. Prodded by my own sense of impending disaster, I have given a lot of thought to what I would have done had I been there. I am a fan of the country duo and, were I not wary of outdoor events for fear of heatstroke, biting bugs, and crushing crowds, I might even have been there, too, happily awaiting the performance. Maybe.

On the night of the stage collapse, I think I would have left in time. I would not have been one of those killed or injured.

For the sake of argument, let’s say I was. As soon as the sky began to blacken, I feel sure I would have headed for my car. I never would have expected the horrific accident that was to take place, but doom is doom. Lightning could strike anywhere, and amid all that metal, who would be safe? What if the skies opened and everyone ran at once, pushing and shoving, crowding the way out? About a year ago, I was attending an indoor gathering when tornado sirens began to blast. The venue was less than a mile from home, and, rather than ignore the warning like the rest of the group, I made a dash for my car, anxious for the security of my basement. The shrill horn blared unceasingly along my harrowing drive, during which I was sure I’d be whipped up at any moment, spun around like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and dropped somewhere less appealing than Munchkinland. When I reached my garage, I heaved a huge sigh and broke down in tears.

At the Fair, I think I would have left in time. I would not have been one of those killed or injured. My irrational fear might, in this case, have been rational, and just the hint of an approaching storm would have been enough. I wouldn’t have trusted the Fair officials or Sugarland staff who deemed it unnecessary to call off the show. Something else I know, though, is that I wouldn’t have been a hero, either, one of those courageous individuals who rushed to help, trying in vain to shore up the structure, ministering to those bruised and dying. Unfortunately, fear can embody selfishness; your own safety comes first.

Most of our behavior can be traced back to our childhoods. Perhaps all of those elementary-school fire drills, where we marched in front of the building and stood, shivering in the cold without our coats, were enough to engender my worst-case- scenario mindset. And perhaps I thought bombs really might rain down on us as we sat against the corridor walls in an air-raid drill, our legs crossed Indian-style, hands clasped behind our bowed heads. Bad things can happen—best to be prepared.

And then, unexpectedly, comes irony. Last spring, on the way to Disney World, I sat beside my 4-year-old granddaughter on an airplane. When the flight attendant referred to the safety information card, the preschooler plucked it from the seat pocket and, eyebrows knit together, studied the passengers pictured in life vests and skimming down an inflatable slide. The oxygen-mask demonstration caused her interest to turn to outright alarm. “Oh,” I said in my calmest voice, gently patting her leg. “None of that ever happens. We’ll be fine. We always are.”


Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.

This column originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.