The Fear of Pain

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When I was 25, I married the wrong man. Not a bad man—or an angry man, or even an unkind man. Just the wrong man. 

I knew it. Even from the beginning. Deep down in the pit of my stomach, buried somewhere beneath our shared hopes and dreams, beneath the passion and love and intensity with which we built our relationship’s foundation.

It was a reckless kind of love. The flickering, crimson fire you feel when you fall in love young, before you know who you are and before you realize how ruthlessly the world is going to test you. 

Our love was beautiful, but it was also unpredictable. Too hot, too volatile, the kind of fire that wouldn’t cease until it eventually destroyed us both. 

A few years into our marriage, I began to realize there was no way to save it. I also began to have nightmares about snakes. 

Photo Courtesy of Mike Johnston

Photo Courtesy of Mike Johnston

A few times a year at first: an assortment of dreams where I would always struggle to avoid being bitten. The settings were all different—swamps, deserts, homes, even cars—and the snakes were all different, too. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, anacondas, pythons and cobras. 

The scenarios varied, but the story was always the same. I would come within inches of being bitten each time, yet I would always escape—either by holding the snake back or escaping or sometimes even fighting it with a rake or a shovel. 

I never got bitten. Not once. But the fear of being bitten soon became overwhelming.

My marriage began to unravel, and my nightmares began to increase in frequency. The dreams, which usually only haunted me a three or four times a year, started occurring six or seven times a year. And then more. Once every other month, then once a month, then once every other week or so.

By this point, I knew my marriage was doomed. However, my love for my husband and my fear of saying goodbye to everything we had built together made me drag my feet.

We fought, we cried, and my dreams continued increasing—both in frequency and in violence. Soon, I was struggling to protect, not only myself, but my friends, my family, my pets, even the children I taught at my nature center.

And the snakes… Well, they kept getting bigger. Faster. More and more aggressive. 

My fear began to paralyze me—both in my dreams and during my waking hours—and the dreams kept increasing until they were occurring once a week, then every other night, then almost every single night. 

I was a wreck by now—plagued both by the unraveling of my marriage and the fear that I could never safely fall asleep again. I even shut down for awhile, numbing myself with wine, TV and sleeping pills. Anything to calm the nightmares running through my brain. 

 At some point, however, I finally decided I needed to take action. I mustered the courage to file our divorce paperwork, I put in my notice at work, and I asked my parents to fly out to Colorado and help me pack my stuff and move home to Florida. 

They obliged, and the strangest thing happened that last night I spent in Colorado. After a tearful goodbye with my soon-to-be ex-husband, my parents and I checked into a hotel on the outskirts of Denver. 

I had one final snake dream that night. But this time, the scenario was different. Instead of successfully fighting off the snake like I had so many times before, I actually did get bitten by it. The snake sank its fangs into the meaty part of my left palm, and I felt the poison spread down my arm and seize up my muscles as the wound began to bleed.

My consciousness interceded, and I found myself reeling with confusion: Wait, this isn’t right. The snake NEVER bites me. Why did the snake bite me this time? 

A pause, and then even more confusion as I turned my hand over and studied the bleeding wound. This hurts. This hurts so much, but you know what? It doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would.

One last thought, as I began fighting the layers of sleep that held me paralyzed in my nightmare: I don’t think I’m ever going to have this dream again.

I woke up. And you know what? I have never, ever had the dream again.

This final nightmare took place more than two years ago, and I can’t tell you the number of times I have looked back and reflected on this experience. I have dissected the dream every way possible, and I have come to the following conclusions—both about what the dream was trying to tell me and about the way I should strive to live my life:

1.    If you let your fears define you, you will never have the courage to move past them.
2.    The fear of pain is usually so much worse than the pain itself. 
3.    You are stronger than you believe, and your setbacks won
’t defeat you.

Sometimes, these truths are easy to forget, so I took these lessons one step further recently. I actually got a tattoo of that final snake’s bite on my hand:

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A strange decision, really. Even the tattoo artist was confused when I told him what I wanted. But once I explained the significance of the tattoo, he and all the other patrons in the shop got very quiet. One of them finally shook her head and said, “Wow. That’s deep. I kinda want one now, too.” Everyone else quickly agreed.

While snakebite tattoos are certainly not universal (and I may be the only person who ever walks into a shop with that request), the lessons of my dream certainly apply to everyone.

So… whoever you are, and whatever struggle you may be facing right now, please remember that the fear of the unknown will paralyze you if you let it. Whatever it is that scares you—that job or relationship or move or project you can’t quite find the courage to finish (or start)… That challenge will continue to scare you until you make the decision to undertake it anyway.

Honestly, you can do this.

You are so much stronger than you think