I hate flying. I’m sitting on a plane right now and every gust of wind sends my nerves into overdrive. I never used to be an anxious flyer; in fact, when I was younger, the excitement of flying enchanted me. Then I started flying more often, and probably also watched a few too many episodes of Lost, and airplanes lost their charm. I don’t get so anxious that I need to pop a sedative, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had one.
My plane is going to Chicago, where I will board another one bound for Des Moines, where I will hurtle into the arms of one of my best friends in the world. I’d endure far worse than a little turbulence to see her, so the unpleasant trip is well worth it. Many of my loved ones live a plane ride away from me, and I also love to travel, so flying is a necessary evil (albeit also a massive privilege) to live the life I want. I often become frustrated with myself for my anxiety, wishing I had the carefree outlook of my childhood self, and chiding myself for indulging such an irrational fear. At the same time, I am thankful for it. As I write, legs folded into my claustrophobic seat, gazing out at the clouds below, I feel alive. I suppose that since the original purpose of fear is to keep us alive, it makes sense that fear activates a sense of gratitude in me.
I would never describe myself as fearless. I worry about a lot of things all the time. I triple-check that the stove is off every time I leave the house, even if I never turned it on. I save documents twice. I take the stairs so that I don’t risk getting stuck in an elevator. I have no desire whatsoever to jump out of a plane or onto a roller coaster. I am not fearless. What I am, however, is determined. When I feel the oxygen draining from my bloodstream, I know that I am afraid, but I also know that I will keep going. I know that I will keep going because I have done so before. I lived in a foreign country. I got a tattoo. I moved across the continent. I said “I love you,” first. I quit my job, and then I quit another one. I started to write. I stopped eating animals. I faced cops. I breathed pepper spray. I went to therapy. I took medication. I admitted I fucked up. I left an abusive relationship. I made my body soft. I battled suicidal ideation. I decided it doesn’t matter if I’m someone else’s regret. I stared down the barrel of my self-loathing and I survived. I was terrified all that time. I am not fearless. But I keep going anyway.
The best moments in my life are the ones when I saw the drop in front of me, and felt it in my gut, and closed my eyes and jumped. Everything I have done that was worth doing has been accompanied by no small amount of terror. Every single thing.
I did one of those things when I was eighteen. It was the first time I truly faced a fear and kept going, and for that reason it remains one of the most formative days of my life. I used to play classical violin, and for my teenage years it was the center of my daily life. In my last year of high school, I had the opportunity to perform a concerto. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a concerto is a solo performance given with a full orchestra backing, and the soloist always performs from memory. I worked on my concerto (this is the one) for over a year. Since we were students, not professionals, the seniors performing concertos were not required to memorize pieces. I told myself all year that I wouldn't play from memory, since I was still scarred from a recital several years earlier in which I realized my worst nightmare and forgot my notes. My violin teacher, however, had other ideas. She insisted that I could play from memory and that the only thing stopping me was my fear of humiliating myself onstage. I knew deep down that she was right, and so I agreed to memorize my concerto. I felt good on the day of the concert, but my confidence quickly dissipated as I changed into my gown later that evening. My hands trembled as I tried to pin up my hair. I went barefoot for fear that I would fall over in my heels. As the concert rolled on and my slot approached, I had what I can now identify as a panic attack. While the orchestra members shifted to prepare for my piece, I couldn't breathe. I was convinced that I was about to experience the most embarrassing moment of my life. I frantically tried to signal to the conductor from offstage that I needed my sheet music, which I'd deliberately left locked upstairs in case I had second thoughts, but she didn't see me. I contemplated sprinting out of the theater. Instead, something inside me nudged me forward, and I walked onstage. My knees were literally knocking together beneath the folds of my dress. My mind went completely blank as the orchestra began to play, and I realized that my only option was to trust my muscle memory. I placed my bow upon the strings and played the first note.
In that instant, my anxiety vanished. I just played. I played beautifully. I didn't miss a single note. I felt like I was flying, I was so elated. It was the closest thing I've ever had to an out-of-body experience. Once I finished, I could remember the first few measures and the last few measures and nothing in between. Somehow - I had no idea how - I had carried myself through.
I no longer play classical violin, as its demands for perfection fueled my mental illness. I will remember that night for the rest of my life, though, because it is the first time I felt fear and moved forward anyway. I have carried that lesson with me ever since. For that reason, I don't believe in making decisions based on doubt or worry: the most important experiences are on the other side of the fear. When I feel afraid, I feel alive, because I know that I am on the cusp of something meaningful. I jump, and I find the wings I didn't know were there.