Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A healthy fear of bees.

"Where in the church were you sitting?" Not the typical question you expect to hear from your therapist. Yet Adam had the wisdom to know this memory was a crucial one and needed to be processed thoroughly. It was a moment buried deep within, and in order to be excavated properly, it had to be fully felt: the sight, the sound, the smell, and the exact location of where I sat. As the layers of the memory began to unfold, the pain began to flow through my body. Now I know why I had buried it so deep. I was 12 years old when it happened, but its origin story begins when I was even younger.

I had never seen so many flowers in my life. I doubt I had even seen that many colors in one place before. The beauty mesmerized my 6 year old eyes, and drew me in. I ran my hands over them, attempting to comprehend the beauty. Their petals were softer, more delicate than any texture my skin had ever touched. I leaned in to try to smell each flower individually, then took a step back to sense how each one added to a symphony of ornate aromas. I began to pull flowers out of their arrangements, one stem at a time, and organize them into a pattern of my liking, creating my own kaleidoscope of color. I looked down at my masterpiece and began to smile. The vast arrangement of flowers on my father's grave was gorgeous. Even though my dad had been buried the day before, I remember thinking he would've been proud of me for rearranging them just right. Yet my revelry was cut short as I felt a sharp pain, as new and foreign to me as the sight of so many flowers, shooting down my arm. Confused, I wailed loudly as tears rolled down my cheeks. My aunt Marsha put her arm around me and comforted me while walking me back to the car. She told me I'd just experienced my first bee sting.

Me and my dad
For the rest of my childhood, I harbored a deathly fear of bees. I would avoid them at all costs. I would eventually get stung again, and found that the physical pain wasn't all that bad, but nevertheless, my intense fear remained. Now, 26 years later, Adam explained to me how our brains are wired to pair events, especially as children. So no wonder my fear of bees was disproportionate with the pain of a sting. When I was stung, I wasn't just dealing with a slight pain, but instead my brain was taking me back to that graveside, the day after witnessing my daddy being buried 6 feet underground, the day when I was still trying to make him proud by rearranging the beautiful flowers, the day when that pride was interrupted by a new pain. Bees didn't just bring a little bit of venom to my flesh, they brought the sight, the scent, the memory, and the sensation of death to my fragile heart.

There was no patience for my fear of bees in my household. My parents never asked me why I was afraid of them, they just expressed their frustration with me for being scared. The verbal lashings from my step-dad were frequent on this topic, as if his anger could yell the fear out of me.

On one summer day, I discovered a swarm of bees right by our front door - they had built a nest on our porch. I was terrified, caught between 2 forces that terrorized my brain: bees and the rage of my step-father. He had established a firm rule in his house: unless there was an active thunderstorm, I was not allowed to be inside the house. I was scared to break his rule and face his wrath, but I was also afraid to face the bees on the porch. So I sat on the couch and turned the TV on a low volume, hoping he wouldn't notice me. When he walked into the living room and asked me what in the world I was doing inside on a sunny day, I lied and told him I was sick. Calling my bluff, he said: "well, if you're sick, we need to get you to the ER right away!" and started reaching for his keys to emphasize his sarcasm and disdain. Out of options, I confessed the true reason I hadn't gone outside. As I expected, this unleashed his rage. "Well, if you're too much of a baby to go outside, you can go to your room and lay in bed in silence! That's what babies do - they nap inside on sunny days, so go do that! And don't you dare leave your room until you stop being a baby!" I went to my room ashamed and wept like the baby I was.

Yet the pain of that experience still paled in comparison to what happened in church when I was 12. I answered Adam's question and described the scene. I was sitting on the right side of the sanctuary, about 4 rows from the back. My mom sat next to me and was gleaming with pride: her husband was preaching that day. He preached on the topic of fear, and as is typical with sermons in the christian culture, he began with an anecdote. His story began by talking about the "No Fear" clothing company and how popular it was at the time (this was the 90's, and the peak of their short-lived fad). Then he transitioned into talking about how much I wanted their clothes, and how often I begged to own just one of their shirts. I remember smiling as the story unraveled, basking in the fame of being acknowledged in a sermon, and part of me believing he was about to pull out the trendy "No Fear" shirt I had wanted from behind the pulpit, bring it down the aisle to me in some cool sermon illustration, making me the envy of all the other pre-teens. Instead, he said: "why on earth would I spend $20 on a t-shirt that says 'No Fear' when the boy runs away crying at the mere presence of a bee?" The congregation responded with roaring laughter, and why shouldn't they. I was a baby, a scared little boy with foolish fears. I wasn't worthy of even a trendy t-shirt. I had a childish fear, I was alone in that fear, and the laughs of the parishioners served as an endorsement of my shame.  
Me as a baby

That day was pivotal in how I interpreted and treated my feelings. If I felt fear, it was because I was weak. If I felt sad, it was because I was a sissy. If I felt anger, it was because my perspective was wrong. If I felt shame, it was because I was worthless. If I felt lonely, it was because I was a loser. If I felt guilt, it was because I was a failure. If I felt hurt, it was because my skin was too thin. If I felt glad, it was because I had parents who were willing to put up with me. Each emotion directly corresponded with one of my weaknesses, making each one unbearably excruciating. The more emotion I felt, the more I was aware of my deficiencies. So I devised a plan to bury every emotion I had.

If I felt fear, I compensated with risky actions executed with apparent confidence (I solo'ed a plane at 15 years old! No one tells a pilot they have fears). If I felt sad, I did so in private and kept my cheeks dry. If I felt anger, I self-harmed to atone for my screw-ups. If I felt shame, I fought back against the feeling with stellar accomplishments and exemplary performance (I have the report cards to prove it!). If I felt lonely, I erased it by pleasing people at all costs. If I felt guilt, I minimized it with unmatched piety and exuberant participation in religious activities. If I felt hurt, I protected myself by keeping people on the periphery, never revealing my true self. If I felt glad, I praised my parents for not giving up on their shitty son.

With this action plan, I prepared a grave for each of my emotions. I sentenced them to death and buried them deep. It worked oh so well - for a while. But feelings are like zombies, and no matter how deep you bury them, they will eventually reanimate and awake with a relentless appetite for human flesh. No matter how many years have passed, they will show up when you least expect them, ready to devour your heart.

That's why each week I show up at Adam's office, ready to do work. He hands me a shovel, and we begin to excavate, bringing every zombie to the surface. Once it's out in the open, we can see it, acknowledge it, and finally put it to rest. Instead of burying it again, we put it in a mausoleum of memories where it can be recognized as something that shaped me, a memory that exists, an emotion that can be pulled from its drawer, a moment remembered but disarmed of its controlling power.

As the seasons turn to spring, I'm thankful to say I no longer run the other direction when I see a honeybee. Yet when I do witness them doing their work of pollinating flowers, I still envision a 6 year-old boy, confused, sad, and mesmerized by the beauty of the flowers arranged on his father's grave. Seeing the bees of spring reminds me to go to that little boy and comfort him the way only his future self can. When he feels fear, I remind him fear brings us wisdom by alerting us to danger. When he feels sad, I tell him sadness testifies to the beauty and importance of what we've lost. When he feels anger, I remind him that anger exposes our heart for justice and can spur us to doing what is right. When he feels shame, I explain to him how shame can instill within us a deep humility and allow us to better appreciate the talents of others. When he feels lonely, I tell him of his future bride and his amazing friends, and how they love him and accept him. I remind him that loneliness gives us the ability to see the value and beauty of relationships and community. When he feels guilt, I share with him how guilt gives us the humility to seek forgiveness, and I testify to the existence and the splendor of mercy and grace. When he feels hurt, I show him how hurt opens the door to healing. When he feels glad, I remind him of how little control he has, and encourage him to see the fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

Yet the longest-lasting effect of my fear of bees has been my desire to ask questions of others. My longing for someone to ask about my fear rather than assume where it came from instilled in my heart an acknowledgement that the fears people experience may not be easily explained. Where there was once pain now stands compassion. With these questions and compassion, there burns a desire to help others process their emotions now, preventing the need to slay zombies later. For that, I thank the bees.

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