This article is part of the Lily Lines newsletter. You can sign up here to get it delivered twice a week to your inbox.
Four friends board a sailboat on a summer night. Two men, two women — all younger than 25. Around 2 a.m., they decide to take a dip, leaping into Lake Michigan without dropping the anchor. The boat drifts off. The friends get separated. Hours later, fishermen setting out at daybreak find the two women; they’d been treading water for nearly five hours. Police divers recover one man’s body; the other man is labeled missing.
Days later, his body surfaces.
This happened in Chicago, in 2010. I knew one of those young men — barely, but enough to be deeply shaken. To me, this is true terror: When just one variable is amiss, and one mistake, misstep or random circumstance turns an ordinary event tragic. That’s what keeps me awake at night — all the ways a routine day can go horrifically wrong.
Ahead of Halloween, we asked about your fears. Many of you described terrors more bone-chilling than snakes, ghosts or strangers in hockey masks. You dread illness, loss and failure to launch.
Here’s what seven women said makes them afraid.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Fear: “That my marriage will fall apart because my husband took a job out of state. He’d been unemployed for more than a year when we got married. Living apart is very lonely and difficult, especially after being single for most of my life and not marrying until my 40s. I help care for my stepdaughter, keep our large home from falling apart and try to maintain the connection with my husband from afar. I worry it’s not sustainable and don’t know what the future holds.”
Fear: “I fear that I am the victim of age discrimination in my job search efforts. Sure, potential employers communicate the boilerplate ‘don’t discriminate regarding age, etc.’ but I believe that they do discriminate off the record. I have two master’s degrees and a record of accomplishments and varied experience in my fields. But at age 56 and trying to find full-time, meaningful employment, I have had no success beyond interviews. After investing so much of myself in graduate schools and building a career, my work is a positive part of who I am. My unsuccessful job search has sapped my self-confidence, required that I settle for part-time work, and increased my depression and its effect on my family. I fear that the professional world has deemed me irrelevant and put me out to pasture.”
Fear: “Alzheimer’s. The fear of losing my mind or my identity is my biggest fear. My grandmother, who I was very close to growing up, had dementia toward the end of her life. Watching her drift away and live in an in-between state has continued to haunt me, even years after she’s passed away. It makes my second biggest fear — snakes (and centipedes) — pale in comparison.”
Fear: “I’m afraid of raising entitled, douchebag sons. I run a feminist nonprofit and have three white, middle-class sons. I try hard every day to point out injustice, but not in a way that will make them turn off. I try to get them to think critically and ask questions. I try to get them to express emotions and not put their stuff on other people. But when I see the world, I’m just terrified they are going to be more part of the problems than the solutions.”
Fear: “I have recently been diagnosed with cancer. My deepest fear is I won’t be able to travel to Argentina. I have traveled all my life and almost always on my own. I live and work in Japan, so Argentina is a long journey to take. Argentina has always been the country I wanted to visit. The thought of never getting there is very sad for me.”
Fear: “I grew up hearing and telling myself the narrative that I was exceptional, and that I could achieve anything if I worked for it. I’m so blessed to have a family that fostered that belief in me. However, it hasn’t bred confidence. Instead, it left me with a grueling anxiety and fear of failure. I aspire to a bigger life, but if I attempt and fail, was I really ever exceptional at all? Or was I just another average girl with illusions of grandeur?”
Fear: “My deepest fear is climate change. I am particularly anxious about the U.N. climate report, which gave the world a decade to revise the world order or go down in flames. I look at the darling babies born to my circle in the last year and I despair. I am thinking of suicide, but I have opera tickets and I hope for the silliest things, like seeing Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann sing ‘La Forza del Destino’ or ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and I figure, what the hell, you might as well live.”
Fear is often unpleasant, but it’s also useful.
“Fear keeps you from walking out into the middle of traffic. It keeps you from walking off the edge of the cliff. So it’s very useful in preserving your life,” says Alison Toback, a therapist based in Evanston, Ill. “If you hear a big noise, you’re likely to run the other way.”
The feeling turns detrimental when it’s paralyzing. When fear “starts to interfere with our ability to function in our daily role,” Toback says, it might be time to consider professional help. For instance, “if my role is as a student, and I’m so afraid of going to school that I can’t get myself to walk in the doors, then that’s significant.”
Fear is both universal and specific. We all experience fear, but triggers vary.
“Because the fear of an elevator, riding in an elevator for example, is really not comparable to the fear of disappointing your parents, or the fear that your partner won’t love you anymore,” Toback says.
There’s no magic bullet for vaporizing fear, she notes, but fact-finding can help.
“Do some research about dementia,” Toback says. “I have a grandmother with dementia — had a grandmother with dementia. It worried me too.” She went to a neuropsychology workshop and learned about the different types of dementia and contributing factors.
“Who’s defining enough? If you’re going by what’s enough for a parent for whom nothing is ever enough, you can’t win that one,” Toback says. She’d urge you to “quiet all of that external noise and those external people” and consider, “at the end of the day, when I’m on my deathbed and I’m reviewing my life, what do I want to be proud of?”
Once you have a better understanding of your fears, you might consider tactics like:
Setting long-term goals, then breaking them into bite-size pieces. Give yourself affirmation when you achieve baby steps.
Slowly exposing yourself to what scares you. So if you’re afraid of riding in an elevator, Toback says, you might start by talking about the experience, reliving it with a therapist. Then you might walk up to an elevator, look at it, then walk away.
Identifying ways you can take action. Ask yourself, Toback says, “where is there a nice intersection between your interests and skills and the problems you want to address?”
Tackling fear isn’t instantaneous. It’s slow-going. These women are taking steps to feel less afraid.
“I have a fear of being alone, either in public places, or in the wilderness, and also traveling. And so I force myself to try new experiences where I’m alone and I’m the only person that I can depend on, and it’s really helped me to expand my world and have a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have if I were too fearful of them.”
Her approach: “Hiking is something I do a lot. And I had never been hiking alone because I was too afraid to go out into the woods by myself, but now I just force myself to do it. I got a trail dog — that’s really important, to get a dog to go with you — and now I can go alone whenever I want.”
“The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot in this October month, Halloween, what’s really got me scared — not like spiders and monsters — is the fact that toppling the patriarchy is going to take something like 200 years. It’s going to take a lot longer, I think, than is possible in my lifetime. Toppling the patriarchy will be the work of generations after me and all I can do is move it forward a tiny step by step.”
Her approach: “Reading Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly. Supporting the National Women’s Law Center. Supporting Planned Parenthood. Supporting the ACLU. Challenging my friends to also buy books like ‘Rage Becomes Her’ by Soraya Chemaly — a woman of color — from independent bookstores.”
“A fear that I’ve had for a while is being on stage, being in public, being seen in that way. I used to be an actor, something I’m trying to get back into. … Since I moved into the area, I’ve been trying to get back into getting on stage more, and figuring out putting myself out there in that way.”
Her approach: “Oh, I just fake the f--- out of it. … Something that was very helpful that I was told when I was doing my thesis — we had to do presentations — my professor was like, ‘Nobody knows if you f----- up.’ Nobody knows, so just keep on pushing.”