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Sweet fearlessness – Wonderlust

There are currents of our selves that flow beneath the surface – parts of our own minds that are dark matter even to ourselves. This is a story about fear and its many forms. And it’s also about a dog.

As a child I had many fears. The dark, fairground rides, bumpy car trips,  classical music in minor keys… all these things could inspire terror in me. In particular, animals frightened me. When I turned four a tiny kitten jumped out of the box I was unwrapping and I immediately leapt into my Dad’s arms and for days refused to travel around the house by foot until the hapless Fluffy was banished to the garage. Fluffy and I eventually developed an affectionate relationship, but I was always wary of his unpredictable teeth and his claws. As for dogs, they were beyond terrifying. I avoided visiting friends if they had dogs. When I was in grade two a classmate bought a litter of Dalmatian puppies in for show and tell, and I stumbled out of the classroom in terror of these helpless, practically blind little fur balls. 

I had a little nightlight – a ceramic house inhabited by Beatrice Potter-style rabbits, which was lovely but likely useless in deterring occult apparitions. At night I would wake and dash through the house in terror to my parents’ room. Mum and Dad consulted books on kid’s psychology and tried exercises like getting me to draw what it was exactly that I was afraid of.  I didn’t know. How could I explain that I was afraid of something being there when I opened my eyes. They tried methods like tying a string around my finger, connected to Dad’s finger so that if I woke up in the night I could wake them up without hurtling into their room. Eventually I got old enough to know that it was embarrassing to be scared of the dark, and from then on I just slept with the covers pulled over my head, hyperventilating in my safe little cave, even through the hot Brisbane summers.

When I was twelve my family and I moved to the South Coast of NSW, to a house in the country, backing onto a mountain. It was a big change from suburban Brisbane, and at night the shadowing garden and towering eucalypts fueled my vivid imagination.  My family decided to get a dog. We had the space and we could do with a guard dog. That’s how we found Honey at the pound. Honey was miniature. She was a mutt of indeterminate breed, probably some mix of Labrador, Rottweiler, Mastiff and Ridgeback. She was six weeks old and had a velvety black muzzle, ears that could flop down or stand to attention, and kohl-black outlines around her almond-coloured eyes.  She was beautiful. But I was terrified of dogs.

Honey started the trip back to our house safely contained within a cardboard box on the back seat. I cautiously patted her between her ears, maintaining a safe distance from her little teeth. But somehow during the course of the short drive home, something changed.  Somehow, even though she looked about as badass as a puppy could look, even though she’d been dumped with her half-dead litter on the side of the road and could have been nervous, or frightened or mean, she was sweet and calm and bold. She won my trust without so much as a lick. We were to discover that she never licked anyone. Maybe she was too proud?

As she grew up, Honey became big and her protective guard dog instincts kicked in. It was impossible to predict who she would approve of and who she would deem a threat, though curiously, she seemed to like women and children universally. More than once she frightened male visitors to the house with her vicious barking, lips curled back, and ridge standing up along her spine. Once she bailed up a fisherman whilst we were walking to the beach, and he was so spooked he got out his knife and threatened to stab her. One neighbour lost a cat and a duck who both made the mistake of jumping the fence into our yard.  She was a mongrel, despite attending puppy school and enduring a ‘bark busters’ consultant who attended our home and instructed us to growl at her like a dog.. We couldn’t control her wild behaviour.  But she loved us fiercely and though she had a mean side, the other side was the sweetest, most glorious thing.  

As I entered my mid teens, her fearlessness became a sort of protective aura around me. Alone, I didn’t go very far into the bush – what if something happened? A snake bite or a convict ghost or a serial killer? Now I wasn’t afraid. We explored the whole mountain, taking wallaby trails through vine tunnels. We ran through the long grass and once we leapt over a brown snake in exhilaration. I swam naked in the hot muddy dam with Honey at dusk, unafraid of drowning or being raped and murdered. The fearlessness rubbed off on other things too. I relished in making my friends do an Ouija board at a sleepover, something that would have once terrified me. 

I grew up. Things changed. Mum and Dad broke up, I finished school, I moved out of home and started uni. Honey lived with Dad now and I only saw her during visits. I fell in love. I got involved in student politics, socialism, activism. I wore long hippy skirts, worked part-time in a store and coasted along in my degree. I went to protests, art-house films, sticky-carpeted pubs and occasionally escaped the inner west, making solitary trips to the ocean on the sweltering 370 bus. Honey would come to stay when Dad went on holidays and we would walk the grungy Newtown streets together. Once she stayed in our share house during two weeks of uninterrupted rain and inhabited our laundry like a monster in a cave, breaking her gigantic tail open on our narrow terrace-house walls and leaving a line of blood at tail-height. Our housemates couldn’t stand her wet-dog stink, which pervaded the house, but in the midst of my aimless wanderings through student life, she felt like a connection to something solid. Life was carefree but somehow a little lonely too. Maybe I missed the family life that no longer existed in its previous form for me to return to. Maybe I felt a little too anonymous and unanchored, surrounded by people that I hung out with but weren’t really friends?

I had grown into an adult, and I thought I’d grown out of my fears. But I wonder now whether the fear was simply lurking. Waiting for something new to manifest through. Because when I was 24 the fear reappeared with a vengeance, and reality was unceremoniously pulled from under my feet, like a magic trick gone wrong. I was on the bus coming back from Canberra to Sydney, and a cold heat rolled over me – I felt sick. But most of all I felt trapped. I was sick and I couldn’t get off the bus. But I wasn’t just sick – there was something seriously wrong. Like Meningitis. It could move fast. If I didn’t get help right away I could die. But I was also, comically in retrospect, intensely ashamed about asking the bus driver to stop.. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself – I couldn’t stand everyone looking at me. What would I do when I stumbled out of the bus on the side of the highway? And then the bus arrived in Sydney and I got out and I was ok and the terror lifted but everything had changed.

Suddenly I felt uneasy in the company of my own mind. The carriage of time seemed to drag – it felt like a scene in a film where a train shrieks to a stop in the dead of the night. You don’t know what caused the driver to slam on the brakes but you know nothing good can come of it. 

Something bad was going to happen, all the time, relentlessly. Like the sense of dread you get in a nightmare, this fear crept into my brain and wouldn’t leave. Physically I felt incredibly strange and weak. My fingers felt weird. I was dizzy. I felt sick in my stomach. I felt shaky and weak. I was sure it was some illness. A brain tumour. Multiple sclerosis. I was frightened. I had pathology tests for everything my symptoms could possibly be a manifestation of, and when they all drew a blank, I finally faced the possibility that it could be anxiety.  But I couldn’t understand why. I wasn’t a worrier. Was I? I was free-spirited, flexible, adaptable.  Sure, I was trying to find a job and was uncertain about where I was going in life. But I didn’t feel like I’d been particularly worried. Was it an accumulated weight of self-doubt and self-criticism? I didn’t know. 

We moved to Canberra and I got my first proper fulltime job. The anxiety came and went, seemingly unpredictably. Some days leaving the house for work felt like an incredible mental battle. I felt I couldn’t manage the act anymore. Like I was crumbling. I just wanted to be safe, to hide away from the world in the dark walk in wardrobe of our townhouse. But I was scared if I didn’t keep forcing myself out into the world I’d fall apart completely and never be able to climb back out of this hole. The dark currents had forced themselves to the surface and I was barely keeping my head above the water. 

Meanwhile Honey had grown older. Her muzzle was going grey and she couldn’t walk very far anymore. She had a bad hip from when she chased a car as a puppy, and the arthritis was starting to cause her pain. She was fighting her own battles. She came to stay at a time when the anxiety was particularly bad. I felt so weak and frightened that I didn’t want to leave the house. But Honey accepted no compromise when it came to walks, barking at the ordained time in a resolute and unyielding manner, and so I had to walk her. We set off down the street and she was so old she was starting to stumble a bit, but I felt like the frail one as I clung to her leash and the world seemed to stagger and tip with every step.  I was so healthy in my body, but being crippled by my mind. Honey’s body was degenerating but she wasn’t frightened. She kept walking like she always had, with absolute focus on the smells of the median strips and hedges. At that time, her fearlessness felt like a beacon, the only certain thing in the world. And 22 minutes later, somehow, we’d made it around the block and I was ok. The thing I didn’t think I could do, I had done. We did this everyday for weeks, and time passed and I felt like I had regained my grip on the world. The fear was still there, an ever-present threat, but it wasn’t crippling me anymore.

I learned to live with the fear. To accept that it was me – it wasn’t some external virus or pathogen. It was the primitive recesses of my own brain. And though I still didn’t understand where it came from or what it was about me that allowed it to inhabit me, I started to know it. The more familiar it became, the less I was afraid of it. The more times I sat through a wave of fear without collapsing, without making a scene, the more confident I felt that I could ride these moments out. The hypochondria relaxed its grip and I stopped thinking I had cancer or a degenerative disease whenever I wasn’t feeling 100%. Eventually I had times when I didn’t feel anxious at all, and then after a while the times when I felt anxious became few and far between. 

When Honey was 14, she came to stay one last time. It was a warm, dry summer evening and we had a barbeque. Honey patiently allowed people to pat her as she wagged her tail weakly and shuffled around. Everyone  – even big bearded men – thought she was sweet. This new undiscriminating sweetness towards strangers was one of the positive effects of her aging. After our friends had left and we had cleaned up all the plates and glasses, I stayed downstairs on my own. It was dark except for the fairy lights casting their nostalgic glow. I lay down next to Honey on the cool floor, amongst the clouds of fur that were spread out around her molting form, her great rib cage rising and falling. A breeze came in through the screen door, smelling of hot dust and grass. She thumped her tail a couple of times and nuzzled my hair briefly. She growled a low, happy bear-sound. She was tired. In that moment, I knew what lay ahead and I think she did too. But she wasn’t afraid of dying. Her fierceness was gone, but her fearlessness remained. I breathed it in like air. 

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