When I was first asked to participate, I considered what frightened me.
My brain works like a kaleidoscope and I saw a swirl of colours (I recently discovered I have synesthesia – for instance I see vowels as the colour red and I hear a sound and I see a colour – you can go here if you’re interested in knowing more. Many artists have it.
So I saw (in my head) all these colours swirling together representing tangible and intangible fears.
I thought I’d start with tangible fears first.
I’m afraid of rats (and mice to a lesser degree) but rats… seriously, I have to say it boarders on paranoia! Don’t believe me? Try this for a fun fact. Some time ago I owned and lived on a farm. I had cattle, a few goats, ducks, chickens, geese, guinea fowl, even pheasants.
In the winter time, I would have to walk about ½ kilometre, cross a running creek, up a hill, to the hay shed so as I could feed the cattle.
Did I mention I hated rats? Right good. Here’s how much. In the hay shed lived a resident tiger snake. I would see it sometimes, in the summer, wriggle it’s way down from the hay shed to the creek and then head back ‘home’ to the shed. Now tiger snakes are seriously dangerous. They are in the top ten of the deadliest snakes in the world:
“The Tiger Snake… Death from a bite can occur within 30 minutes. This wide, yellow-banded snake is feared for the accuracy of its strikes. Without treatment, the fatality rate is generally around 70%. Like most other snake venoms, Tiger Snake venom causes paralysis, which may lead to respiratory failure and death.”
Got the picture?
Well I was happy to have my resident tiger snake and risk a snake bite, because this little old snake meant there were no mice or RATS in the hay shed. Like I said, fear boarding on paranoia!
So that’s a tangible fear, but the real fears are the more intangible ones.
I genuinely fear getting old, not because I fear old age; I couldn’t care less about age! But because my Nana got dementia and I saw how it began to destroy who and what she was. Worse she saw it too and could do nothing to stop it. But at least Nana had us. Mum, dad, myself and to a lesser extent, my brothers. We all looked after her – no institution for Nana! I fed, bathed and dressed her, as did mum. The thing is, I don’t, and will never have, children. So when I’m in my 70s there will be no one to feed and bathe me.
I fear one day discovering my cancer has returned; only this time, I’ll have to lose my breasts, as my mother did.
I fear I will never have a real ‘identity’ – I know this sounds bazaar, but I also know this is very common with adults who moved countries, and cultures as toddlers, as I did. I am neither truly Croatian, nor Australian and yet I am both – it’s like the worst kind of fence-sitting imaginable – does make it interesting when Australia is up against Croatia in say… The World Cup. Up side, I love being able to relate to both worlds and cultures and as far as sport goes, Australia vs Croatia – my Team always wins!
Sometimes I fear I made a mistake in giving up full-time work to pursue a full-time career as an artist/author, (with little or no financial return thus far).
I had a very well paying job. Six figures, plus bonuses and benefits – I gave it all up at the end of 2012 so I could work full-time on my art and my writing. Most of the time I don’t regret it. I love my freedom, my ‘right’ to express myself as and when the moment or inspiration strikes.
But there are days, such as when the electricity bill is so high you’re sure the decimal point is in the wrong spot, when I question my decision (and no I can’t ‘just go back to it – I was an accountant – almost three years out, basically I’d be going back to school to relearn and re-starting at an intern salary).
I’m quite straightforward and always have been. I’m very open about my bi-polar for instance. However I do have a fear people will judge me based on that, as though this one thing defines me, which it DOES NOT. I fear it because I have already lived it. “oh, really? bi-polar? So you’re… like… a schizophrenic? What, do you hear voices and stuff?” (Actually said to me from someone I’d known for almost 12-months. Someone who I thought was neither that much of a social bigot nor that ignorant. I wasn’t hiding my condition; it simply had not come up in conversation).
I fear I will be mistreated again by a (romantic) partner so therefore I fear intimacy and love. I’ve been hospitalised from domestic violence. I’ve been robbed. I’ve been mentally abused. I’ve been left penniless, and in debt. All this and more, from more than one partner so I have resolved I’m a terrible judge of romantic/sexual partner character, hence why I have been single for … years!
I fear depression.
I can handle my bi-polar swings.
I am great friends with both my ADD & OCD
I have come to terms with my scoliosis, hell! Sometimes I think my back plays up just for attention!
I have my psoriasis under control (most of the time)
But when the ‘blues’ turn to the ‘mean reds’ and they become so debilitating that I literally cannot drag myself out of bed, it is both confronting and terribly frightening. It’s like I fear life itself and nothing can remove the darkness. I have been there more than once and I truly fear that place more than anything else.
And I fear I have likely said too much here, but I know I am more fearful of ignorance. If we share our fears, perhaps we can help each other when the blackness comes.
It was suggested we could share photos or poems. I’ve decided to share two poems (and two of my original artworks that I felt represented the paintings).
Both poems are about fear and were written about 12 months ago, but the second one has a happy ending…
of one lie after another
of believing the lies; day after day, year after year
The Sting of Pain
of facing one’s fears only to discover physical fear
of a slap, skin burning, face trembling, ears ringing
of salt running down tender reddened skin
The Sting of Shame
of never ending denial
of hiding; doors closed, windows shut, body covered
of knuckles tattooed into tender skin
The Sting of lost Love
of dreams shattered and days yet to come
of thorns and thistles, inside and out
of once believing in us
— by Nikola Vukoja April 2014
My Tree, My Forest, My Fears
I stand at your gate, fear is what I feel.
I stand a moment in time, memories are what I fear.
I stand within an arms length of freedom & capture.
I stand on the edge of safety or love.
You: a tall tree.
Me: a small bird.
Within the darkened forest, you tunnel my light.
Within humming woods, your heart beats my march.
Within each stride, hope and devastation mix.
Within devastation comes rebirth.
Me: your voice.
Each: living alone.
Neither: desiring loneliness.
Among the forest of trees you stand unique.
Among the uniqueness we will thrive.
Among us will solid ground sway to our will.
Among the clouds is where we will live.
You: my shelter.
Me: the moss to keep you warm.
Each: working together as one.
Neither: complete without the other.
I walk through the gate.
I walk into the sunlight as fear frees its grip.
I walk to where frost cannot touch me.
I walk toward our future.
You: reaching for the stars.
Me: your one true star.
Each: at last free.
Neither: alone evermore.
Secure in our entwined futures.
Secure in what we share.
Secure in the past on the other side of the gate.
Secure in an endless spring of daffodils and violets.
— by Nikola Vukoja April 2014
(© All works of art in this piece belong to Nikola Vukoja and must not be reproduced without her written permission.)
I took a tentative step to my right. The biggest of the bunch, an angry looking effer whose beady, black eyes suggested he thought me personally responsible for every goose-y injustice, stretched out his long neck, an ungodly honking sound escaping his ungodly long bill, and he bit me. Bit me! Who knew geese were biters? I yelped, or at least I tried to, but I was suddenly unable to take a breath as my vision collapsed in on itself, a pinprick of color full of this angry, vengeful goose in a sea of gray.
It’d started out so innocently. My dad, bigger than life and just as tired, had taken the day off work to drive me out to this scenic park to take pictures for a special school project sponsored by Kodak. Armed with my cute disposable camera, I snapped pictures of the local flora and wildlife. Southeastern Michigan wasn’t known for much, but in my nine-year-old dreamer head, I fancied myself quite the budding photographer, standing there in the midst of these urban woods. I imagined myself working for National Geographic as I crouched to get a picture of few squirrels. I filled my roll up with robins and blue-jays and flowers and trees I didn’t know the names of but were pretty.
We spent a few hours there, me taking my time to perfectly line up every shot. My dad was a trooper through it all, but he was tired and I would have stayed all day given the chance. Finally, he cleared his throat and declared it time to go. We took a trail that led around the small man-made lake the park was butted up against, my dad wandering on ahead as I scanned for anything I could use the last few pictures on. As I drew closer to the lake, I heard splashing. My dad turned back to look at me and put a finger to his lips, motioning for me to get closer to the waterline.
Southeastern Michigan wasn’t known for much, but we did get our share of Canadian Geese that made a pit stop during their migration.
I grinned. No one else in my school was gonna have shots of geese. The other kids in my class all had plans of taking pictures of such mundane things. Their bedrooms. Their siblings. Their favorite toys. When the representative from Kodak came to collect our pictures, they were gonna be floored when they came to mine. I imagined all the praise they would rain down on me and felt my grin growing wider.
I inched closer, slowly, quietly, and raised the camera to my eye.
The geese stopped their splashing with the first flash, turning to look at me all at once. As if drawn to the tiny rectangle in my hand, they moved as one, exiting the lake to come closer.
I had four pictures left in my roll. I was gonna make them count.
I waited until they got almost close enough to touch before taking another. I pulled the camera away, slid my thumb across the little gear to do whatever it was it did to get another picture ready.
I didn’t notice they were circling me until it was too late.
My dad whispered urgently to run. “I’ll bring the truck to the entrance” then he was gone, moving much too fast for a man who usually moved so slow. It was as if he had always been saving all his energy for this moment. The moment his oldest daughter was caught in a circle of pissed off geese who weren’t keen on having their likeness captured on film.
That’s when I took the step. When the biggest goose took offense to that. And that’s when I had my very first panic attack.
I thought I was dying. Surely I had to be. That was the only explanation for my chest to feel like it was simultaneously gonna burst open and cave in. I couldn’t draw a breath. I couldn’t see. My skin felt too tight. My lungs were on fire. I was gonna die here. A Kodak camera in my hand, only nine years of life under my belt, surrounded by a gaggle of geese.
Then moving turned to running with line of geese on my trail giving chase, snapping and honking at my ankles, the backs of my knees. Sometimes they connected. It might have hurt. It was hard to tell when my breath was coming out in wheezes and my heart was racing and skipping so hard it was surely going to fly out of my chest. Maybe migrate back to Canada, along with these awful creatures who wanted to end me.
I remember throwing myself into my dad’s truck when I finally reached it. I remember panting out, “you leftme!” when I finally caught my breath just enough to force it out. I remember thinking that while, yes, that encounter was scary, what had happened back there wasn’t normal. I wasn’t normal. I prayed whatever it was my heart and lungs and chest had did, it never happened again.
It did. Many times. Eventually, it happened every day. Sometimes there’s reasons for it. Sometimes there isn’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard the words “anxiety disorder” followed by, “probably in addition to bipolar disorder.”
I’m nearly thirty-years-old now, and I’m terrified of geese. I freeze up when I spot one. My chest gets tight and my heart starts racing and, for a second, I feel like that nine-year-old who was abandoned in a circle of them, convinced she was dying.
But when I think about it, when I truly stop and think about it, I don’t know if it’s the geese that I’m so afraid of, or of my brain that betrays me. That convinces me and my body that we’re dying. That makes me feel abnormal.
Because geese are mean and angry and, man.
When I first saw Louise talking about this on Twitter, I thought it was a wonderful idea. A scary, terrifyingly wonderful idea. So, of course, I immediately made a joke about sending her a crazy long post about my fear of spiders that would consist of nothing other than pictures of them with me screaming LOOK AT THIS in the captions. I could easily do that, but it wouldn’t be real. I don’t want this to be a joke.
I am afraid of so many things. I’m not really sure where to start or how deep into my fears I want to go or if I’ll even be capable of talking about this in a serious way that doesn’t end in me cracking jokes every other line. Humor is the easiest way to for me to deal with my fears. It makes it easier to pretend they don’t matter. If I can laugh then it must not be that bad, right?
I didn’t actually intend to write about spiders but they are a good example, and they’re also a fear I joke about often. I think most people are at least a little afraid of spiders, and that fear is easily mocked. My fear of them is a bit easier for me to talk about than some of my other fears. I promise I won’t make this 50 pages though.
My fear of spiders is very real. I joke because it helps alleviate some of my fear. Although, as much as it alleviates my fear, it also invalidates it.
It would be a long drawn out death that would include lots of suffering on my part. Or that fear about spiders crawling into your ears and laying eggs? I believe that could happen too. This fear of them has led me to all night vigils. I just can’t bring myself to close my eyes and let down my guard, even if I’ve already killed the spider I saw, because there might be another. I’ll have trouble going to sleep or even relaxing for the next few nights because there might be more.
I have panic attacks when I see spiders. I avoid entire rooms of my apartment for days at a time after I’ve seen a spider in that room. I always look up and around when I enter a room I’ve seen a spider in. I have to check a room for spiders before I can be comfortable in it. I obsessively google trying to figure out what type of spiders I’m seeing, egging on my fear because I cannot stop myself. My fear causes me to leap out of the way when I see them. I’ve injured myself trying to get away from them. My fear has led me to calling my mother at 4 o’clock in the morning crying my eyes out because I hate this fucking spider infested apartment and I don’t feel safe staying here despite the fact that I have already killed the spider that caused this. Want to hear a real joke? As I was writing this, a tiny spider crawled across the screen of my laptop and I threw it. Luckily, my laptop is fine but I’m panicking and guess who’s not getting any sleep tonight.
Afterwards, when the adrenaline ebbs down I feel completely ridiculous because I can’t believe I was acting so silly. I can’t believe I let my fear get so out of control and made such a sobbing fool of myself. My fears feel so illegitimate that afterwards I am ashamed of the way I behaved while I was afraid. I am mortified. I hate myself. I berate myself. Why did I do that/act like that? What is wrong with you; it’s just a spider? Why are you crying!? You need to calm down. Quit acting so stupid.
When I’m around people the only thing I can do is laugh it off because they’re certainly laughing or looking at you like you just grew an arm out of your face. So, I laugh off that mortification. I pretend that everything is okay and save that self-hatred for later when I’m alone. Then I’m even more embarrassed because someone witnessed my mess. And it pisses me off that I’m ashamed of the way I act and the things I’m feeling. It pisses me off that I feel like the only thing I can do is laugh it away. I wish that I didn’t feel this way. I wish I could just have an honest reaction and not be embarrassed by it. I wish that people’s first reaction was to comfort or at least acknowledge that it happened without making me feel worse because of it. The laughing and the weird looks do nothing other than tell a person they should feel bad because of the way they’re reacting. Which is why my first step in creating a world that doesn’t laugh at any kind of mental illness is too stop laughing at myself. I would never laugh at another person; it’s time to stop doing it to myself.
The second step is to spread awareness. I think one of the reasons people are so hurtful, whether intentionally or not, when it comes to things like this is because they just don’t understand how very real these fears are. They don’t understand how much these fears can affect our lives. That’s why I’m so happy Louise started this and so many people have joined in. That’s why I wanted to be a part of this. I want to get to a place where I don’t have to be ashamed of the way I feel or react in the presence of my fear. I want compassion and kindness to be the default response of anyone witnessing someone in the grip of their fears. I want to help shed light on something so many of us are afraid or too embarrassed to talk about with the hope that in doing so we create a world that’s a little kinder. I hope that the next time you see someone seemingly freaking out you remember one of these #TalkFear posts and offer kindness and understanding. And I hope that anyone reading this with fears/phobias will know that it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to act on those fears, and that you are not alone.