Maybe it’s time to face your fears.
The sentiment of this blog post is not original, new or ground-breaking. It is nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. It’s actually a phrase that has been heard and read so many times that it has become a bit like wallpaper. A tired, cheesy, throw-away piece of advice that is always so much harder to act upon than the advice-giver can ever imagine at the time they dish it out. Most of the time we agree that we probably should do it but very rarely do we actually get head to head with our biggest fears.
Yesterday I saw someone really facing their fears and it blew my socks off so much so that I had to write about it.
For the last year, Rufus has had a very real fear of dogs. There was no particular event that we can pin-point as being a catalyst for the fear, no traumatic episode we can recall, just one day we walked past a dog in the park and he freaked out. As a non-verbal child, he cannot express his fear in words but his body language says it all. Strapped into the pushchair with nowhere to escape, at perfect eye-level with most average-sized dogs, the only thing he can do is try his utmost to protect his own body. Upon seeing a dog approach him he goes still, stares straight at it then pushes himself as far back into the seat as physically possible and raises his arms, fists clenched so that the backs of his hands are protecting his face and eyes. He gets a look of pure fear on his face, sometimes whimpering right up until the dog has passed by. He then follows the dog with a stare until it is out of sight, often watching out for it long after it has gone. We often prepare him for an approaching dog now and tell him that it’s okay, that the dog isn’t going to hurt him and his big sister will sometimes come alongside him and hold his hand, telling him not to worry.
He knows the word ‘dog’ and stills himself if he hears us even chatting in passing about a dog, looking around for where it might be. He reacts similarly when he hears a bark and his fear is so real that it has got to the point that if he is watching TV (and his watching position is as close as is physically possible to the screen) and a dog comes on screen, his arms go up and he bottom-shuffles away as quickly as he can, looking back to check if it’s still there. He is even scared of life-sized fluffy toy dogs and furry animal hand puppets. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that it would be near impossible to ever be dog owners. We had always imagined living in the country one day and having a dog to walk and when Rufus was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome at 13 months, we heard of other families who became dog owners mainly to protect their Angels and warn them of seizures and accidents which sealed the deal for us that we would one day own a dog. However, once his dog fear had set in, we saw this as a very unlikely possibility.
But yesterday something unbelievable happened. Walking through the park I bumped into a friend who was sitting with his friend and her dog. We hadn’t seen each other in a while so Rufus and I went over to them and joined them on the grass underneath a tree. I said we probably wouldn’t be able to stay for long because Rufus is scared of dogs. He sat on the floor near to me with a serious face and looked at the dog, who was very chilled out, still and quiet but alert. The three of us chatted and shared an Argentinian mate while Rufus went back and forth from my knee to my friend’s knee, giving us Angel love, all the while keeping a close eye on the dog. Rufus then made it clear he wanted to break away from people’s knees and have some freedom on the grass. Not knowing the temperament of Gypsy the dog and seeing Rufus on the grass less than two metres away from her I was slightly concerned about how this would go but keen to let it play out (and enjoy our drink). What happened next was quite astonishing. He began to bum-shuffle towards the dog. He chose to move closer to his biggest fear. He then sat less than a metre away from it and just watched it. This was enough of an achievement in my eyes to know that something incredible was happening in his mind and he had realised that this particular dog was not scary and could even possibly be a friend. Then, completely out of the blue, he moved closer, reached out and lightly touched Gypsy’s leg. She moved a little but didn’t flinch or react abruptly. I was shrieking and high-fiving him inside but reacting all cool-mum on the outside. He then got even closer and stroked (grabbed) her on her back. By that point I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer and probably ruined the beautiful break-through moment by all the cheering and cuddles I gave him.
He faced his fears head on. This was not an engineered situation. He had not had therapy beforehand. We had not researched the breeds and temperaments of dogs and picked one to hang out with that would be chilled out and patient with heavy-handed toddlers. We had not hypnotised him or prepared him for this eventful day. It just happened. Something clicked in his mind. Given the freedom to choose which way to go, he chose to head in the direction of something that had developed into a very real fear and had over a year’s worth of connections and bad memories. Unlike being contained in a pushchair, in this situation he was free to bum-shuffle away or cling on to me. He did not have to go near the dog. But he chose to and the experience was nothing like he had imagined or built up in his head.
Sometimes we need to just sit in the presence of our fears. Not move away from them, protect ourselves from them, react in the way we always have done, the only way we know how to. Sometimes we just need to be near them and look them in the eye. Rufus didn’t jump in and get Gypsy in a headlock the way he does with everyone he knows and loves but he took his time and assessed the situation, where he was, what his escape route was and which safe person was near him. I am 99% sure that none of this would’ve happened though if I hadn’t been right near him, if I’d have sat him on the grass near a dog and legged it out of the park. Maybe he faced his fears because he knew he was near safe hands. Maybe he took that leap of faith because he knew I had got his back. Maybe he had heard us every time we had said ‘It’s okay, it won’t hurt you’ (even though we know this isn’t necessarily true with some dogs out there!) and decided that now was the time to test out what this crazy woman keeps telling me because she loves me and she wouldn’t put me in a situation that was dangerous.
Whatever the reason and whatever the thought process I am in awe of Rufus today and if he can reach out and stroke a dog, imagine what you can do.