I left my husband after eleven years of marriage. We lived a comfortable life with money in the bank, good jobs, a nice house, a dynamic circle of friends, all within an interesting and livable town. But I walked away from it all and when I did, people said I was brave.
I came clean about my sexuality in the midst of leaving. Bisexual would be the culturally understood term to describe who I had known myself to be since I was a teenager, but that cold and lifeless word didn’t quite fit the heat of my reality. In truth, I was just plain sexual with people of any gender that I found interesting. But while walking down the street with my girlfriend, I was called brave.
People thought I was crazy, but said I was brave when I quit my full-time job that provided me with a modest income, health insurance and most importantly, credentials. I could read it on their faces. Or perhaps those looks were a reflection of my own feelings about dropping a sure thing without a long-term plan in place? It’s hard to remember and say for sure now.
I moved to a new-but-familiar place and transitioned into a new-but-related job that I knew was only going to last for two years. At the end of that time, and without a steady income, I decided to move to the big city. Navigating through an unknown environment alone, searching for a different career, introducing myself to new people,— essentially trying to find my way — roused even more comments about bravery and me.
Then I was raped by a stranger who picked me up off of a city street after I, unknowingly, had been drugged by a different stranger in a bar.
Needless to say, that event simply knocked me off my already directionless feet. The world as I had understood it up until that point no longer looked, smelled or tasted like anything with which I was familiar. I was in shock, but I felt ferocious. As I sat on the train taking myself to the emergency room, I remember thinking very clearly that no one was going to take my city away from me, that this would not shatter me. Standing on a street corner crying hysterically, I explained to my sister on the phone that I would not and could not come home for treatment because this was my home and my life depended upon staying and working things out here.
People said I was brave for staying, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it simply as a means of survival. There was no choice to do otherwise, just as there had been no choice regarding those other pivotal moments in my life. To leave my husband was to live then. To stay in the city was to live now.
But what I came to find out through almost two years of trauma-focused therapy was that the only way out of the deep ditch I had been pushed into was to look at what I was feeling squarely in the face. Simply reacting, like I had done so many times in the past, wasn’t going to get me anywhere. In order to regain my footing, I had to consciously live with it all. It was only when, I saw all of my fears staring back at me, did I start to catch a glimpse of what bravery really entails.
Being out late at night scared me, being with strangers scared me, drinking scared me, certain places scared me, intimacy scared me, the list went on and on, but one thing that stood out the most was my fear of traveling alone to new places. My natural adventurous self felt like it had withered up and died as a result of this experience, and that infuriated me to no end.
So what did I do? I looked at it. I got curious about it. I slowly unearthed the root cause of it all. I took small steps by going to places where I knew a supportive person was on the other end. I took bigger steps by traveling to places I knew, but did things I never had done there before.
Then I started to imagine places I had never been. I studied their geography. I researched what could be done there. I started planning things I’d like to do while there. Essentially, I made myself familiar from a distance. And then I booked a plane ticket. And made a reservation for a cabin. And hired a guide to help me explore the wilderness. And then I went.
As I stood watching my guide climb over boulders, the glaciers that were so precariously placed along the edge of the gorge we were about to enter, is when it really hit me. I was terrified. All the steps I had taken up until that point were made with some trepidation, but they had been planned. These remaining steps that I needed to make in order to get to our destination were unforeseen. I didn’t know we would have to climb over giant rocks, scale walls, walk on timbered ladders, step into ice-cold water. But that was the reality and there I was.
My guide looked at me and asked if I was ready to go. I burst out crying and blubbered no, that I was scared for this reason, that I was scared for that reason. But I also managed to express that I was as ready for this challenge as I ever would be, and that I wanted to face this fear fully. As a forty-something year old woman, this could have been a dramatic or cheesy movie moment. But it wasn’t a movie. It was my life.
When we hiked out of that gorge I was changed. I had faced a deep fear, but I moved forward with conviction. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche has written in The Sacred Path of the Warrior that true fearlessness involves going beyond fear. That’s really what I did. And finally, I felt brave.