All my life, I’ve been somewhat crippled by fear. I was afraid of failing, so I wouldn’t start, afraid of being rejected, so I wouldn’t put myself out there, afraid of looking foolish, so I didn’t try new things. I remember as a child being terrified to jump off the backyard fence, it seemed so high. I sat there for a while before someone helped me down. I just couldn’t make that leap.
When I turned 30, I decided I would try to not live in fear anymore, so when my friends decided to go skydiving, I jumped at the idea. (The joke there is just too easy, so I’m not going to take it.) I put on a hot pink jumpsuit and harness, took the mandatory class, and headed out to the runway. At this point I wasn’t scared which was unlike me since I was about to leap willingly from a perfectly good airplane at 15,000 feet with a man I didn’t know strapped to my back and a trust that he knew what he was doing. That 8-foot wooden fence had given me vertigo, but here I was, resplendent in pink and thinking of paratroopers in old movies.
There was one moment when I actually thought I might throw up, just as we were leaping directly into a cloud. In the pictures you can clearly see the what-the-actual-fuck-was-I-thinking look on my face. I’m sharing that moment with you because I’d rather be funny than cool.
Skydiving was scary and exciting and made me question my decision-making skills, but once I did it I felt like a rock star for a while. In the grand scheme of things though, it was a fun diversion and nothing more. I overcame a fear and then went to get pizza. Life changing leaps, the sort of make-it-or-break-it moments, those are far riskier. Ok, the dive was also risky had the chute not opened, but you see what I mean.
When the first tech boom happened in San Francisco in the mid-‘90s, I was working as an Administrative Assistant, which was good steady work, something I could do and make a livable wage, but I wasn’t happy and I wanted to do more. I knew nothing about computers; once a friend told me I could download my work to a floppy, and I had no idea what that meant. But I started to look at the techies sitting in their toy-covered offices and realized they weren’t actually any smarter than me, I just had a gigantic learning curve. So I made a bold decision; I was going to save six months of living expenses, which one could do in those long-gone days, and then quit my job whether I had a new one or not. I figured that would be a great incentive to hustle.
I lived alone with my cat, so it was all on me, sink or swim. I was terrified. I deeply questioned my decision-making skills. But I did it anyway, and I ended up working in I.T. for 20 years. It sounds as I write that like it happened quickly and easily, but it did not. I worked hard to get there, paid my dues, got hand-me-down equipment to tear apart and put together, learned what it meant to download to a floppy. I put in the time, and I succeeded.
Then, after 20 years I decided it was time to move on for a variety of reasons including my health, but that’s a story for another article.
My point here is that skydiving, and taking a giant risk to change careers didn’t make me brave, doing those things while every fiber of my being is screaming “Are you out of your damn mind? Terror! Death! Homeless!” is what made doing them brave. I was scared and unsure, but I did it anyway, I took the chance.
None of this makes me special. Like the techies rolling through their offices on Segways, I am not any smarter than you. I am pretty average and I can’t do math in my head. I can barely do math at all, honestly. I don’t like math is my point, I guess.
Bravery is not going in, metaphorical guns blazing, confident and bad-ass and fearless, bravery is going in when you’re scared and doing it anyway. Bravery is taking a deep breath, squaring your shoulders, and moving forward.
The things I talked about would never have happened if I had not taken the brave steps of saying the words “I am an alcoholic” and confronting the illness I was self-medicating. My book would never have been finished. This blog would not be happening. My art and my budding photography would be gone.
This does not happen overnight, it is not easy, and you may fall. I got sober, and then I relapsed, and then I got sober again. And each time I felt like a failure, and my illness agreed, so I drank more. But I got back up, did the work, and succeeded. Now I’ve been clean for years and work hard to live and thrive with bipolar disorder; I have the correct medicine and support and do the best I can, day by day.
None of this makes me special. But it does make me brave. Facing these demons, getting out of bed even now when I feel depressed, these are the regular, personal victories that should be celebrated and praised.
Whatever you’re facing, big or small, makes you bad-ass and strong, you are a lion or whatever image you like. You are diving out of a plane at 15,000 feet into a cloud, every fiber in your being screaming “This is a really bad idea!” but doing it anyway. Don’t forget that.
Oh by the way, contrary to what cartoons have told us, clouds are in fact not bouncy and soft. They are really really cold and wet. I had an ice-cream headache when we landed.
And it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
If you are suffering, and afraid to ask for help, remember – you are awesome. You are bad-ass. And getting help if you need it is every bit as brave as taking that leap.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.