In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: Life has a lot of “What Ifs” and this essay talks about how scary they can be, but it also talks about fear. Sometimes playing it safe isn’t the right answer. A lot of times doing what we fear the most is the answer. But that fear can be what’s driving us to become who we are meant to be.
Initial publication date: 10/13/2015
The Voice at the Back of My Neck
When I was very young I slept in a bunk bed. My brother slept on the top bunk, and my parents slept in a room down the hall. Dad was the best at making my bed; he could tuck the covers in so tight they wouldn’t move at all. To sleep, I had to slide into the sheet-envelope and flatten myself into the safety of my bed. There was a security with that cocoon around me. And as my family slept, I would lie with the covers pulled to my chin, body pressed between the sheets, and I would hope, with all the hope a tiny girl can muster, that I would fall asleep as well. Most nights I would drift into dreams without event, but it was the nights I could not sleep that I feared above everything else.
On those nights, when I couldn’t join my family in their slumber, a harsh whisper crept across the back of my right shoulder and perched itself just out of sight. If a whisper could yell, that’s what it did. The words would start, and with each syllable a hot breath steamed across my skin. I can still feel it, more than thirty years later. Fear breathing at the nape of my neck, words harshly whispered just behind my right ear, and with each brush of fear’s lips, true terror set in.
I would lie perfectly still thinking if I just wait long enough or if I’m good enough or if I hold my breath a little bit longer the voice would go away. Maybe I would cry myself to sleep, but I don’t remember that part. I do remember the voice and the paralysis. I remember knowing it was wrong to hear a voice that no one else could hear. I remember knowing I could not share the voice with anyone else. I remember I could not ask for help. But most of all, I remember the feeling of hopelessness against this disembodied entity pressing against my ear.
Fear, and the paralysis that accompanied it, followed me as I grew into an adult. There was always the question of “What if I do the wrong thing? What if I say the wrong thing? What if…what if…what if…” The what-ifs kept me frozen in my life, just as they kept me paralyzed in my bed all those years ago.
Yet somewhere along the line I made a choice. I remember writing it in my journal, but I don’t know why the decision came to me. The choice was to: “Try one thing a year I was terrified of.” And with this decision, my relationship with fear changed.
I still live in a state of fear.
But now when fear comes to me it is in the form of “What if I don’t…” and with each “what if” comes a choice: the choice to move through the fear, or the choice to let it keep me exactly where I am. There is something to be said for the safety of the known—the illusion of security often lulls me into delaying my decisions for far too long. But fear is tricky. It runs deep, simmering below all illusions, eating at my Jessica-ness until there is a point where I snap.
The snaps are hard—emotional, disorienting, physically exhausting. But when I get through one, I know I’ve done it right because there is no uncertainty. No questioning the decision, because it’s the only path I could follow
A great amount of trust is required to get me through the fear. If you’re lucky, like me, there are people who stand at the other side of the drop—letting you know they will catch you in case you don’t fly. And every time I make it through the other side of that drop… Even when the outcome is different from what I expected, it’s never as awful as I imagined it would be.
I developed coping mechanisms to help me make the jumps when I need to—the one I have the most faith in is work. I know if I do the work, I will not regret. There are infinite factors beyond my control—but the work; that… that I can do. I can work at shit jobs and find a paycheck. I can read books to learn. I can take the time to look at the world and see the stories that need to be told. I can put words on the page.
But standing up to fear starts in small steps, the “What if I don’t quit, and I wake up and twenty years of my life have been spent on nothing worthwhile? What if I don’t have another story in me? What if I don’t take this chance, the one that may never come again?” Making it through all of those is a good start.
The fear that fuels me right now is the fear that I may waste my chance. If I spend my time doing someone else’s work, not the work that is my own, the fear will win.
I know there are bigger fears looming that will only be confronted in my writing. That’s when my writing will get good. That’s when I’ll do my best. But when fear is that engrained, as much a part of my being as the DNA that grew into who I am, it takes time. I’ll have to mine my way to the bottom to get there. The stories I write now are the steps into the catacombs I need to excavate. I’ve made scratches in the dirt, and when I switch to a shovel my writing will improve, and when I break through the tectonic plates it may even get great.
I write because I know it is always the things I’m most terrified of that have shown me the greatest reward. I write because I’m scared.
By Jessica Conoley