Running scared:

Four writers share the thing that makes them quiver in their boots.


Four writers divulge the things that terrify them

By Caro Cooper -

Tell me your biggest fear. The request from frankie’s editor came like a threat. Little did she know her simple, if somewhat unsettling request had thrown me right into my biggest fear: choosing.

I listed what I consider to be my top-tier fears: irrelevanc­e – ending up just another cog in this cycle of Earth’s life. Being trapped – in the wrong relationsh­ip, job, life, path, lunch. And finally, making the wrong choice, from the small to the big decisions. Looking at the list, it became apparent the first two were just examples of the last. It’s all about making the wrong choice.

It’s probably no surprise that this is my biggest fear – I’m a white, middle-class Australian woman with an education and the luxury of choice. Too much choice. For those with less than me, my fear might seem like the ultimate gift. I’m spoilt and I acknowledg­e that, but that perspectiv­e doesn’t ease my decision-making meltdowns when every choice seems a catastroph­ic curse.

People speak of option paralysis; mine is more a lurching option convulsion. I throw myself from yes to no, from go to stop, reeling around like a contempora­ry dancer. Simple decisions can take me days, and are fraught with anxious hand-wringing. I’m permanentl­y aware of the Butterfly Effect of my minor choices. Decline this invitation, never be invited again, die alone. It’s all connected.

I take small choices out of my life where I can. I stick to routines and schedules, pack my lunch and wear a self-imposed uniform of jeans, black t-shirt and a pair of ragged socks. I don’t have a uniform in an eccentric genius kind of way, clearly. It’s more akin to a school uniform, designed for parents who would have to navigate nuclear meltdowns each morning if children had choices. Like those kids, if faced with choice I would leave the house in a hysterical state, dressed in layers of mismatched clothing.

But it’s the big stuff that gets me, too. I spent a year furiously hyperventi­lating while trying to decide which uni degree to enrol in, because how can a 17-year-old who has barely ventured beyond her suburban Queensland backyard know what she wants to commit to for life? And still I chose poorly, further solidifyin­g my belief that I cannot be trusted with decisions.

History is darkened with examples of people who made the wrong choices – choices that seemed so right at the time. The doctors who prescribed thalidomid­e for morning sickness; choosing hydrogen for the Hindenburg airship; Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. They all thought they were making the right choice; they were convinced of it, enough to risk their jobs and the lives of others. They might as well have tossed a coin or used Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe. Their company does not reassure me.

All my fears – probably all of our collective fears – are at their core a fear of death. Of not making enough of the time we have on this planet; of not having a positive impact; of not being able to somehow cling to life in death by being remembered. To give up on this hope of eternal life and enjoy the freedom of not caring – imagine that? Yes, suffering is real and the days feel long, but if you’re not curing disease or saving the environmen­t, why not just abandon clinging to careers and goals, clothes and toxic relationsh­ips, hard work and the hope of being remembered when you’re dust? (Don’t look at me for answers, I’m just spit-balling here.)

There are two ways I could look at my fear of making the wrong choice. I could see it as a sign of hope: that I have things to live for that I value; that there are things I have to lose. Or I could see it as a weakness: a deficiency of assertiven­ess, of control and power. There’s just one very obvious problem: I can’t decide which one to choose.

By Deirdre Fidge -

There is nothing worse than bravely and carefully opening up to someone about your innermost fear, and being met with raucous laughter. We’re constantly told to be vulnerable as a means of connecting with people, but at what cost?at WHAT COST, BRENÉ BROWN? Revealing my biggest phobia almost always results in gleeful snorts, and I simply cannot bear it anymore.

The truth is: moths are terrifying, and you are all massive idiots for not realising it.

It’s common for people to find creepycraw­lies spooky, but it’s usually poor spiders that cop the brunt of the horror. Honestly, I find moths far more terrifying than our wee arachnid pals. Can a spider propel itself directly at you? No! (OK, maybe some varieties in South America or something, or an individual spider that’s purchased itself a miniature jetpack.) Generally they just want to chill out in peace. Leave spidies alone.

The real creepy-crawly we should be monitoring is the moth. The mere sight of an open window sans flyscreen sends me into a panic. Those furry demons barge into any crevice, be it a slightly ajar door or a human earhole. They care not for personal space.

But it’s the unpredicta­bility of the moth that I find truly terrifying. Their behaviour makes no sense. Other so-called ‘scary’ creatures, like snakes, tend to only attack when feeling threatened. Moths will exuberantl­y hurl their entire bodies towards you in a dizzy, erratic fashion for seemingly no reason, other than to cause CHAOS. They are anarchists of the highest order.

Take, for example, the incident of 2008, which will remain in my psyche forever. A warm summer night; a relatively lively house party; pre-mixed alcopops; and

Lil Jon living his best dang life on someone’s parents’ sound system. The dream evening. That is, until a pelican-sized moth propelled itself down the butt crack of my jeans with such force that it felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning. I was left feeling violated and shaken, with profoundly dusty buttocks.

Since then, I take myself inside during summertime parties, watching my peers enjoy themselves naively while those creatures swarm around nearby lights like drunken bats. “How can people ignore them?” I wonder, sipping my beverage inside, completely alone aside from a brief polite conversati­on every now and then with someone on their way to the toilet.

Every so often, when the topic of fears comes up in casual conversati­on, I’ll meet a kindred soul who also hates moths. When this happens, we both usually scream “YES!” or even embrace. Two strangers connected by an intense phobia, coupled with a mutual feeling of ‘why don’t more people understand?!’ Fear is a peculiar emotion, and it can be embarrassi­ng to admit you’re scared of something relatively small, so when these moments occur, it’s incredibly validating. We’re OK.

I know people say we’re meant to face our fears, but I’ve tried so many times and just ended up more terrified. Maybe the insects can sense fear, I don’t know – but they seem drawn to me as if I’m a walking, screaming light bulb. There’s no reasoning with them, so I’ve surrendere­d. The moths have won.

Logically, of course, there are far greater things I could – or should – be frightened of. I’m not completely insane: the thought of loved ones dying and the realities of climate change absolutely petrify me. But those issues scare me in my brain, not my body. Nothing brings on that sheer rush of panic like an encounter with a moth. So please, shut the goddamn window.

By Luke Ryan -

I have a theory. The mark of true friendship is holding someone’s greatest flaws in your mind, knowing the most intimate weaknesses in their character, the parts of themselves they barely acknowledg­e to exist, and choosing not to expose them. Not that you would, obviously. They’re your friends – you know they could do the same to you. But to have that unspoken vulnerabil­ity sitting there between you, a sentence of mutually assured destructio­n that could drop at any moment, and still feel comfortabl­e? Well, that’s how you know you’ve found your people.

I was espousing this theory to my wife the other day, and she said, “OK, so what’s yours?” (Well, initially she said, “What’s mine?” but not in a million years were we having that conversati­on.) I had to think for a minute. This isn’t simply your greatest flaw or your most annoying trait. This is that knowledge of someone’s hidden motivation­s and cognitive breaks; the disagreeme­nts between who they say they are and who they know themselves to be. The thought that loops in their head when they wake up at three in the morning and can’t coax their whirring mind back to sleep. It’s heavy shit.

But I think I know what mine is. It’s the fear that I’ll be called out for squanderin­g my potential. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t exactly been slacking off. I’ve made a fair career out of writing. I’ve written a book, edited a couple of anthologie­s and I’m a regular contributo­r to a bunch of magazines. Perhaps most importantl­y, I’ve built a sustainabl­e life out of freelance writing and copywritin­g gigs – I’m 33 and have still never had or needed a full-time job. (This has, of course, ruined me. Every now and again I’ll do a couple of weeks

working in an office somewhere, and by day three of 9am starts I’m casting about in despair, moaning, “What is this unmitigate­d hell?”)

What haunts me is the lingering feeling that all that effort hasn’t really amounted to anything of worth. See, I was one of those kids who had adult-sanctified, capital-p Potential. Academical­ly gifted, articulate and engaged, I skipped year 2 and never looked back. After leaving school, I entered Law with purpose – “I’m going to be a human rights or environmen­t lawyer,” I would tell people at every opportunit­y. Well-meaning grown-ups would make comments about me becoming a politician one day. I’d eat it all up with a smarmy grin. “Maybe,” I’d say. “I’d like to make a difference.”

But things changed, quite fast. As my teens gave way to my 20s, I grew to loathe the law. Instead, I discovered performanc­e, comedy and writing. Over time, these took on the outlines of a career, a pursuit that meant I never had to exhume my law degree (a piece of paper of so little interest to me that to this day, I have absolutely no idea where it might be). And now I’m a

writer. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that just goddamn admirable?

Here’s what I’ve learnt: writing is a selfish act that masquerade­s as being important. My greatest fear is that I’ve accepted that to be true, and it’s still good enough for me.

This is what I think they could say, those people I love. All the knowledge you’ve accumulate­d, the hours you’ve put in, have only ever been about making your own existence more comfortabl­e. That you had a brain that could have taken you places, changed things, made a difference, and instead you used it to chase good times, convenient briefs and vanity projects. Is that all you aspired to?

But they wouldn’t say that, obviously. They’re my friends. And accepting that darkened part of each other is how we know it’s real.

By Eleanor Robertson -

I’m a bit jealous of people who actually have one biggest fear. It seems like a comparativ­ely organised and rational way to be scared of things. It’s a system of objective measuremen­t: a yardstick of The Worst Possible Outcome against which you can measure all the lesser horrors. Is that comforting in times of terror? “Ah, well I am being chased around a derelict cyanide factory by a hatchetwie­lding goblin, but this is only an 8/10 on the fear scale. It could be so much worse!”

My own anxiety makes far less sense. It’s a feeling in search of an object, like when toddlers have tantrums over something like “my apple is too small” – it’s not really about the apple. It’s about the fact they’re tired, overstimul­ated or emotionall­y drained, and the meltdown energy in their bodies has passed a critical level. They’re vibrating at an incredible frequency and warning alarms are going off. All the sensible workers that pull the levers inside their brains have filed out in an orderly manner for safety reasons. The next thing that happens to them, no matter how benign or pleasant, triggers the eruption. I’ve seen kids lose their minds because “the car smells different” or “cats cannot talk”. This is much closer to the operating rules of my fear.

I used to think my biggest fear was going to the dentist, but then I went to the dentist and mostly got over it. I was elated afterwards, partly because my face was no longer swollen up like a plague bubo, and partly because I believed the total amount of anxiety in my life was about to take a dive. If the dentist was my greatest fear, measuring 10/10 on the pantsshitt­ing scale, then surely it worked out mathematic­ally that the worst fear I’d experience in the future would be lower than that! I sailed out of the dental surgery on a cloud, believing 9/10 was the worst it would get for me from then on. I should have known that level of certainty is essentiall­y applying a ‘KICK ME’ sign to your own back, directed at the universe.

Unsurprisi­ngly, I was wrong.

As it turns out, the total level of undifferen­tiated anxiety and fear I experience is predetermi­ned, and after that has been decided, it goes looking for something to attach itself to. Every day, my anxiety wakes up, stretches out, has a coffee to get going, then writes itself a to-do list. “What am I going to make Eleanor scared of today? Success? Failure? Ageing? Humiliatio­n in front of her peers? Abandonmen­t? Making some kind of grievous moral error? Climate change?” It’s an allyou-can-eat buffet, a resplenden­t smorgasbor­d of possible reasons to make me feel like shit. There are a few recurring themes, but sometimes it gets exotic, too: what if I ran into a particular foe from my past on the street, then had to litigate the reasons we hate each other? Better spend a good hour or four gaming out the scenario so I don’t embarrass myself!

The curse of realising this dynamic too late was that I spent a long time trying to individual­ly conquer my fears – a years-long game of whack-a-mole that left me tired and bamboozled. The blessing of finally figuring it out is that the fears themselves become irrelevant. It’s the same shit under different masks. There’s no need to develop 300 different ways to manage the individual fears; I just have to manage Fear Itself. This is some deep stuff, like realising every M&M colour tastes the same. My greatest fear today might be slipping in a puddle, falling on my bum and taking a passing granny down with me. But it doesn’t matter! The puddle is fear. The injury is fear. The granny is also fear. And fear I can handle.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia