The View From Here (24-01)

black and white headshot of justine smiling at the camera

By: Justine Chichester

“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

When I was 10 years old, I took a trip to California with my family. We rented a station wagon and drove across the state, stopping at various cities and sightseeing spots on our vacation. One day, along this sightseeing tour, we stopped on the side of the road, where a bunch of people had climbed up the side of a tall hill, where there was a large patch of ice. My parents and my brothers and I got out of the station wagon and hiked up the hill to join the other tourists, for some fun and pictures with the family. You had the ability to walk out onto the ice, to a large rock, where most of the pictures were being taken. So, we had to join in! We walked out onto the ice, over to the large rock, had our picture taken and then my parents and my brothers began to walk back, to head back to the car. Let me just say here, that I am extremely afraid of heights. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where we have no tall hills or mountains. Just very flat land all around. And there is definitely never any ice or snow in Miami. So, when I went to take a step to leave, onto the ice, on top of that tall hill, where I had just walked over to that rock without any hesitation or problems….I looked down and I completely froze. My body would not function. I couldn’t even take one step. This is my first memory of allowing fear to paralyze me.

I keep thinking about that moment in California, on that patch of ice, as I now work towards walking with just a cane, trying to get rid of my walker altogether. After my spinal cord injury in 2014, I began standing and taking a few steps from my wheelchair, after being told by neurosurgeons that I would never walk again. While the ability to stand and walk was returning to my body, it was often fear that would keep me from moving forward in my mobility journey. I was not only paralyzed from my injury, but I also allowed fear to paralyze me, as well, to the point where I would get so frightened while standing, that I couldn’t move. It took years and years of work for me to gain the confidence to overcome that fear of falling, that fear of failing, that fear of hurting myself. Just the fear of the unknown became crippling. Little by little, just working on standing. Little by little, just working on one step and then two steps. Pushing through that fear. Day by day, I was building the strength and the confidence in myself that I could do all of it, even though “they” said I wouldn’t. Even though “they” said I couldn’t any longer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was overcoming the fear of failure as I was working towards my goal of walking once again, after paralysis.

There is a quote I love, that says, “If you can’t beat fear, do it scared.” So, now that I have been using a walker for a couple of years, I’ve been working with my physical therapist to transfer to using just a cane and getting rid of the walker. It takes so much work and dedication and practice every day. After a ton of hard work, I’ve now started using the cane in physical therapy, and I have used it, on occasion, while going out with family or friends, but I haven’t been able to break through and use the cane on a full-time basis. I have the ability, but it’s fear that keeps me from moving forward and progressing past using that walker.

One afternoon recently, I took a bunch of steps using the cane out in front of my house, by myself, without anyone around. Proudly, I turned around to come back to my house, but I was suddenly hit with that same feeling as when I was on that tall hill in California as a young girl, trying to walk back over the ice to my family. My legs froze, my body would not respond. I couldn’t take the steps I needed to take in order to get back, this time, to my house. The fear crept back in. No matter how many pep talks I had given myself, no matter how many tremendous obstacles I had overcome to get here, no matter how much work I’d done, the fear found its way back in.

So, I took a deep breath. Reminded myself that I could, actually, “Do it scared,” and I forced myself through the fear. While as a young girl on that hill years ago, I needed someone to help me get through that fear and walk back to my family, the years since and the trauma I’ve endured from my SCI have helped me now have the tools to work through the crippling fear on my own. I remembered all of the work I’d done, remembered that I actually now had the ability, and that I couldn’t let this fear keep me from moving forward. I pushed through, and I walked back to my house, by myself, using only the cane. Despite the fear trying its best to keep me from getting there.

So, now almost daily, I try to remind myself that F.E.A.R. can have two meanings, Forget Everything and Run OR Face Everything and Rise. The choice is yours. I’ve chosen to face the fear head on…and rise.