Facing Down Your Fears

When I was a little kid, probably less than four years old–definitely before I started school–some things happened, incidents that defined who I was for decades to come.

The first one looked a little like this:

Source: Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

My neighbour’s dog. Big. Bigger than me. Brown and black, like a huntsman spider, with teeth almost longer than my fingers. Rumoured to be hungry. Rumoured, even, to be hungry for little children! I only saw him a few times, but those times…those teeth…were enough.

The second one was more than a rumour. The second one had a name. It’s name was Snuff, and he was black as night, with a nose pushed back into his skull as if he’d spent his life ramming his snout into the doors of terrified children.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

He also had teeth. And legs…long legs, that put his funny squished snout and razor teeth right in line with my chest, long legs that could run faster than my little four-year-old ones, legs that carried those razor teeth almost right up to me, and I just managed to make it inside my front door, screaming, before he tore me to shreds.

I am not joking. My mum looked at him, and she said “Garn!”* in that scary Garning Mummy-voice reserved for scary dogs, and he garned back over the road again and back to his house.

By the time I started school I knew one thing: Dogs were scary.

(I should tell you: a dog lived at my house too, but she was basically some kind of small golden doormat, and I paid her about as much attention as I paid my dad’s work bag, or the washing machine. Not a cat, therefore not interesting.)

There was a third incident too, about the time I was six years old. It was night, or at least evening, in the Winter dark. My mum was walking a couple of friends and I home, and all of a sudden I heard my friend scream…a dog had bitten her in the dark. A small one, all pointy ears and yap yapping, and…teeth. Dark was not safe. The streets were not safe. Not even Mothers Who Garn could protect us from Dogs With Teeth. The truth was out there.

See? Teeth. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

See? Teeth. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

One thing about me: I’m good at working through fears…or, at least, around them. i learned where all the dogs in my neighbourhood were, and I conscientiously avoided them. I’d hear a bark behind a fence and I’d cross the road. No big deal. See? I’m not afraid of fences that bark, or gates with snarling snouts beneath them, I’m just choosing to change my view. I got me a good Garn voice, and I practiced it, loudly, on all the dogs that would dare enter my presence.

And then we got Teddy.

Our dog Teddy.

Our dog Teddy. Also known as “Our Other Cat”.

The thing about having a dog, I’ve discovered, is that they need to be walked. I like this. I love walking. But the thing about walking with a dog is this: they attract other dogs.

Seriously! Streets I have walked in peace for years are now teeming with barks and snuffles and snouts pressed under gates, yips and yaps and teeth…oh the teeth! Not only this, there are dog-walking areas close to us, places where you can take your dog’s leash off and let it have a run around and sniff a few other dog’s butts for a while, while taking in a bit of fresh air and some pleasant scenery. Dogs. Run. At. Me. Here. Big dogs. Black and brown huntsman-spider-coloured dogs. Dogs with teeth. Big dogs, with big teeth, dogs so big that even now they almost come up to my chest…or at least my butt…or…

You know what? I don’t even need to use my Garn voice. I’m not afraid any more.

Yesterday this big dog, this big brown dog with teeth, came right up to me on the path and just stood there, waiting for me to pat it. Just like that. It was smooth-haired, and kind of soft, and it looked up at me with these big happy eyes above it’s teeth, tongue lolling out, just kind of happy to be here, and to be walking, and happy to be patted by me.

I know now that some dogs ARE dangerous, and I need to be careful, and dogs that are allowed by their owners to be off-leash in an area like that probably aren’t. I know now that dogs like to play, and that the vicious snarling black monster that chased me to my front door was possibly only running because I was. I know now that just because I’ve been afraid of something all my life doesn’t mean I need to live my life permanently in fear, but I can follow the example of others, maybe take a few risks, step out a little. Maybe there’s a lot of things I’ve been afraid of that I don’t need to be any more.

Excuse me a minute folks, I’m gonna go Garn me a huntsman spider.

*For anyone without an Aussie accent you may want to translate that as “Go on!”, or perhaps as “Out, vicious snarling dog! Rid the street of thy foul canine presence!”. She didn’t say that though, she said “Garn!”

The Experience of Monsters

My friend Sonnie had the coolest house ever, because it was up in the bush with 100 acres (like Winnie the Pooh) to roam around in, and wallabies and possums (cute Australian ones, not those scary-looking American ones), and her Mum cooked the best mashed potatoes and her Dad’d light the fire and the whole house would feel toasty and cozy, AND she had an electric blanket, even on her spare bed, so I’d leave it on full the entire night even though I ended up kicking off all the blankets because I was too hot to sleep.

I loved Sonnie. She was like, my best friend, or one of them, anyway.*

I loved staying at Sonnie’s house, but I got nervous every time, because of the monsters, and I really couldn’t do anything about them either.

There were five of them. Hairy, running thing, with teeth. In the house. With me. I tried not to act too frightened around them because I knew they fed on fear, but I made sure I kept close to Sonnie, and didn’t let my guard down, and especially, didn’t run.

I still loved going there. And it helped that Sonnie didn’t at all think of those monsters as Hairy Running Things with Teeth. She just called them “the dogs”, and she patted them and ran with them and kicked them out of her way when they tried to nuzzle up to her bottom and said “garn” in affectionate tones (“Garn” is Australian for “please leave me alone”). Sonnie eyed my fright with care, but with complete lack of understanding. And that, in itself, helped.

Sometimes, but not that often, Sonnie came to stay at my place. I didn’t have a spare bed so she had to sleep on a mattress on the floor, and I didn’t have a wood fire or an electric blanket. And…she was scared of my cats!

What’s with that? Who is scared of cats? They’re cute and fluffy and purry and warm and snuggle in your lap, and…and Sonnie thought of them as Jumping Things with Claws.

Sure cats jump, and sure, they scratch too. I’ve had cats all my life and I’ve been scratched – and bitten – more times than I can count. That’s okay, it’s not terrible or anything. It’s not like dogs can do.

Oh. I should tell you here…I’ve never actually been bitten by a dog. Once, though, when I was five, a black snarly dog ran at me, and he ran so close he nearly got me and I only got inside my house and the screen door shut by barely a whisker. And another time when my Mum was walking with me and my friend-from-up-the-road in the dark suddenly my friend screamed, and when my Mum asked her what was wrong she said a Dog had bitten her. There was Blood. I saw. Dogs are Dangerous.

Now here’s a thing, an important thing that I’m learning right now: Sonnie and I live in exactly the same world, and the dogs in my world are exactly the same as the ones in hers. Experience colours our perception, especially early-childhood chased-by-snarly-dog experiences. Or people coming to school with cat-scratches on their arm experiences.

It Doesn’t. Mean. We’re. Right.

Get what I’m saying? It’s kind of big.

I’m realizing I’ve CHOSEN to believe certain things, and, to make things worse, I’ve chosen to remember and focus on the things that agree with that decision (remembering the bad dogs), and ignored the evidence that doesn’t agree (all the friendly dogs who never once bark at me).

Are there things that hold YOU back in life? I know what they are for me (one is talking to people). Maybe it’s time for a mental spring-clean.

Care to join me?

*she still is one of my best friends. Except she’s not on Facebook and doesn’t read blogs so she has no idea I’m talking about her. Hi Sonnie! *waves* And she still has dogs…but these ones are nice 🙂