For as long as I can remember I’ve been terrified. I don’t think I can remember a time when I was not terrified. I remember hiding under beds fearing my mother’s or grandfather’s or aunt’s or uncle’s belt. I truly don’t think I was especially abused. It’s just the Jamaican way...to terrify, threaten, and cripple children with fear. Every relative had a belt and they would pick it up and hurt you anytime it pleased them.
I would not consider my mother cruel but before she earned her double masters and PH.D at Brooklyn College, she had strange ideas about fear. Fear was the power to keep girl children from coming home with the belly. Not that my sister and I were even sexual enough to even think of sex. By age thirteen both or us were pretty much emotionally destroyed. She would wake us at night by beating us with a belt if she came home to find the house messy. My mother must have had some inkling about the power of fear – she apologized for all the things she had done to me when we were growing up. And she also talked about the fear the whippings she received from her parents had caused her.
The trouble with all this terror is that it was interwoven with a kind of rebuked life. When they terrified you, they rebuked you. You were always wrong. And when they rebuked you, they always terrified you. Kinda like those people on television who always warn about how fat black women are going to get cancer anytime soon.
The image I have in my mind is this: a group of well-meaning vaguely sadistic folks digging a deep pit in my heart and mind that can only be filled with fear. If you do not believe me when I tell you how sadistic Jamaican parents generally are, I won’t try to convince you. Trying to convince people stresses me out. I will only say that rebukers -- media health nuts, telephoning collection agents, parents, know-it-all church people use terror in much the same way these old country folks delighted in telling me ghost stories. (Won't mention the sneering cruelty of atheists in this post cause they generally don't terrify.) The faces of the old folks lit up when they saw how their evil cruel stories made you tremble. To this day I can see and imagine this trace of spiteful joy on the faces of folks who rebuke and terrify me.
I once saw on the news a story about a little two year old who died of fright when halloweeners arrived at her door. This kind of thing is understandable. Fright is an emotion that literally – I mean “literally” tugs at the heart strings. I remember once a friend of mine played a practical joke on me. “Look, Carole, a bee is on your shoulder.” My chest became so tight that for about two weeks I had a burning tearing in my chest.
I am actually quite used to that tightness in my chest. It pops up all the time quite dependably whenever I hear bad news. But it also pops up when I only fear bad news. My body seems to be running overtime and fear seems to have its way with me. For instance, whenever the gate opens, I anticipate the mailman bringing bills and the chest pain rises.
This is not a panic attack, mind you. Panic attacks come and go. This is a kind of sustained emotional state that I can only say that my body is worn down with stress and fear. I do not add the fact that since my second son was born eighteen years ago I have spent every night fearing he will die. So then, what to do?
The trouble with this fear is that it has persisted through my adult years. Because it comes in various form even when one has become an adult. There is always some person out there who wants to either rebuke or terrify a person (or both.) I’ll admit two things: One, I used to terrify my child with stories about what would happen to him if he didn't finish school. I have terrified the soul of that kid. Mercifully, he has forgiven me. And I have tried to bless him with good words instead of cursing his spirit with negative terrors and rebuke.
And my second admission: I myself have fed and nurtured this terror within my own soul. For instance, whenever I get into a discussion with anyone, I find I am utterly unable to pick up the phone...lest the person I had a disagreement with is calling. If I owe bills, I try not to pick up my phone at all. And if I accidentally pick up the phone when a bill collector calls, the terror I feel rivals anything a good slasher fill could conjure up. Before my mother’s death she used to visit us. On those Saturdays, I would lie in my bed in a fetal position – remember, I was way past 30 by then– and tremble in fear until I psyched myself to come down.
May I rest in the peace of God.
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