I was thinking a lot the past few days about what it is to be brave. I had a friend tell me that I am brave, and the next morning I was engaged in a guided meditation to help me be less afraid. I am always afraid, in a sense. PTSD keeps your system in a state commonly referred to as “hypervigilance”. Basically, you are always assessing for threats, even in environments where there is little or no danger. And your body and your mind and your spirit are always feeling threatened by everything.
And all of that is totally justified by some form of trauma, but it makes being brave a difficult thing, while also making simply stepping out your door a step toward bravery.
There are lots of conflicting, dichotomous, and counterintuitive things about this illness, so the whole scared/brave thing is just one, but it often gets me thinking.
I remember a day when a friend labelled links to other friends’ blogs with one word descriptors, and mine was Brave. I think I cried when I read that. I never feel brave. I always feel chaos and fear and indecision and doubt and whatever other anxiety-ridden thing you can think of. Every moment. Every day.
And it isn’t a fixable thing, really. You cope, but your brain chemistry was altered at a critical time in your development, so there isn’t really any fixing the problem. You live alongside it, and you delve into it, and you learn skills to combat it, and you find ways to rationalize it. You never end it.
Yesterday, I went to the geneticist and then to the lab. For the next month I will wait to find out if I carry the gene that likely caused my mother’s dementia, and find out if I might also have indicators of other dementia. That was the act that was considered brave, but somehow it was the easiest thing I did. And maybe that is because the other things I did had elements or consequences that I might have some control over.
I have no control over my genetic makeup. That ship sailed over forty years ago. And if I have the gene, I have Alzheimer’s to plan for and work against, so there are things I can control after the fact, but I can’t control the result of this test. There isn’t a way to mess it up. It either is there, or it isn’t there. And knowing has consequences, I suppose, but not knowing has them too.
The other things I did yesterday, like going on a first date and going to a new pool and finding my way when I got lost in familiar surroundings, seemed harder. I felt less brave when I walked in the door to that gym, or stopped to open up my map application to find my way, or met a new man who may or may not be a good man, or got on the bus, or let that man drive me home, or stepped out my door, or started a conversation with the other naked girl next to my gym locker, or did anything that day. And maybe that is simply because my genetic makeup is like my PTSD.
It isn’t a fixable thing.
And I can learn to cope with it, but I can’t stop my genes from being my genes any more than I can stop my brain chemistry from being my brain chemistry.
In my mind, I’m not brave.
I’m honest, and I’m practical, and I’m self-aware. And maybe those things masquerade as bravery, but they aren’t. I face what I must because I must, not because I am stronger or better or braver than the people around me. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t face half of what I have faced in my lifetime. But I didn’t have a choice.
So, I guess if the definition of bravery is facing what you must, I could be considered brave, but it isn’t a state that I see myself in. It isn’t how I would characterize myself.
I am a survivor.
I fight my way through life, and I don’t back down from the challenges that come my way. But what I feel—what is deepest and most prevalent during those moments—is not bravery, but fear.
There was a moment in my history where I stood over a man, with a sword at his throat, and demanded freedom and justice and an end to his tyranny. That sounds like an epic tale of a brave knight, but I was terrified in that moment, and after, when I was safely away from the situation, I cried and shook violently as the adrenaline of the moment left and the terrified aspect came to the surface. My demands had been met, yes. But the way I felt in and after that moment was indescribably bad. I didn’t talk about it until years later, and even then I had to have another clarify that the moment was real—that I didn’t dream it. Afterward, I dissociated from the event, because I was that frightened.
Fear motivates many of the things I do or have done. I’ve been divorced for 19 years not because I was brave enough to leave my abusive husband, but because I was afraid enough to run for my life. I’ve raised a daughter on my own, not because I am a brave woman, but because I was afraid of what might happen to that daughter in the care of another. I’ve survived homelessness, and sexual violence, and physical violence, and living in impoverished areas, and going back to school as a non-traditional student, and working in stressful environments, and physical and mental illnesses because I have two choices. Survive or don’t survive. Live or die. Make it through or don’t make it through. And I wish that I believed it was more nuanced than that—that I contained within my being some strength that others cannot draw upon, or that I had many options but chose the best ones to get me to today. But I don’t think it was.
Most of my life has been lived in a state of laser-focused survival instinct. Most of my life there were the two choices. Leave or stay. Fight or flee. Live or die.
Over and over and over and over, I just choose to live.
So, yes, I went and faced the fears of the genetic testing and the unfamiliar gym and the first date, but I wasn’t necessarily brave during any of those parts of my day. I just had to choose to live, like always.
And we are all meant to survive. The instinct is so ingrained in us that even those who choose to die, struggle in the act of doing so. Their bodies and their minds seek to stop that death from happening. We are designed to keep fighting, keep reproducing, keep eating, keep drinking, keep breathing, keep going. So, either we are all brave, or none of us is brave, from an evolutionary perspective.
I just do what I was designed to do, and I keep going.
There was a day several weeks ago where I didn’t want to keep going, but I did. I kept saying aloud, “I can’t do this anymore.” But, it turns out that I could do it, that I could persevere, that I could keep working and keep trying and keep fighting. My instinct to survive took over, and I did what needed to be done to keep living, even when I didn’t want to and didn’t believe that I could.
I’m not brave. I just follow my instinct to survive.
Sometimes I hear people comment that bravery is not the lack of fear, it is moving forward in spite of your fear. And, to some extent, I can allow that by this definition I might be brave. I keep moving forward in spite of my fears, but I don’t think I do it consciously, and with purpose, and in ways that I find noble or exceptional. I just don’t know how to live in a state other than fear, so I have to push through it or I have to stop living.
That might sound strange to anyone who isn’t hypervigilant and trying to reintegrate disparate parts of the brain inside their head, but to me it makes all the sense. To me, living is being afraid. The absence of fear is death, and overcoming fear is an impossibility. It will always be there. And I might be able to use mindfulness and mandalas and yoga and CBT and all sorts of other things to cope with that fear, but it will never go away entirely. And I have two choices: live in fear, or stop living.
I go on. I always go on.
A month or two will pass, and I might have huge relief that I may not become like my grandfather and my mother, slowly slipping away until I am a shell staring into nothing, or I might have the knowledge that I will absolutely become like them, and work to put in place safeguards that give me and my daughter the best chances at choosing the way we deal with becoming like them, and choosing whether or not to risk creating another generation of those long, slow ends. And I might have no conclusive evidence of risk or not risk, and simply have to wait and see if I lose my mind when I am old, like everyone else. But none of those options include a caveat that says I might not go on. Because I haven’t survived all of these things and gone on and on and on to give up on my survival instinct now. I will go on.
And I don’t believe that makes me brave. I think it makes me human. I think that when it comes down to it, and we are faced with survival or death, we all do what it takes to survive. The actual doing may be harder for some than it is for others, but we all choose living over dying by default. And I would rather live in hypervigilant fear, going out into the world and chancing whatever it offers me, than not live at all.
So, tomorrow, I will face another day, with new fears and new challenges or old fears and old challenges, but I will face it. And though I don’t believe I am braver than the rest, I know that my commitment to facing what comes is strong and resolute. I will go on as long as I am able, and in the best way possible. Even if that time and that way are both filled with all sorts of reservations and anxieties and fears.
And to all the people who are thinking today that you can’t go on, it isn’t true. You can go on. You were designed to go on. Whether you are brave or afraid, you will still go on.