When I was four years old, my mom and I were at the mall. This was a California mall which means that where malls in colder places have roofs between stores, we had just sky. Reaching for the sky in the center of the mall on this particular day was a kind of enormous temporary cage. Inside were…
“Lions! Mommy, look! Lions!”
There were both full-grown lions with manes and everything and little spotted lion cubs.
“Oh, look!” my mom said, as excited as I was. “They’re taking pictures of people with the lions! Would you like to have your picture taken with a lion cub?”
I answered by grabbing my mother’s hand and dragging her to the end of the line. The woman in line in front of us smiled down at me and then went back to watching the big cats.
The wait was long enough that the constant spark of my natural anxiety had a chance to kindle a flame. I watched a man posing with one of the adult lions, and a concern entered my mind.
“Mommy, do the lion cubs bite?” I asked.
“Oh, no. They don’t bite!” she responded. “They’re just like kittens.”
The woman in front of us spoke with an air of authority. “You don’t need to worry at all!” she said. “They only bite a little.”
In just a moment, I came to a conclusion: I didn’t want any lion bites, not even little ones. And what if one of the big lions got in while they were taking my picture with the cubs? Those big guys sure didn’t give just little bites.
I had to get away from those lions. Pulling on my mother’s hand, I started repeating, breathlessly, “Mommy, I don’t want my picture taken! Mommy, we need to go! Mommy, let’s go! I want to go home! I don’t want to have my picture taken with the lions!”
That was the first big old whiny freakout in my conscious memory. There have been others.
There was the time we went to Disneyland when I was eight. My dad and I were waiting in line at Space Mountain. We were moments from getting on when I realized that Space Mountain was a roller coaster. I pulled on my father’s arm with both hands until we were back out in the sunshine again.
When I was in my 20’s, my sister, my spouse, and our friends went to the stadium at Duke University to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. I saw flaming fireworks debris falling into the audience from above and I snapped. I jumped from my seat and grabbed my sister by the hand. “We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go!” I kept repeating as I pulled my sister out of the stands and under an overhang where we both watched the rest of the show without fear of burn injuries but with plenty of time to think just how silly I must have looked to the people who craned their necks to watch me as I lost my mind. It took moving out of state for our friends to stop poking fun at me.
Then just this summer, my kids, my spouse, and I were all four in a canoe in a wake-filled lake in New Hampshire when I got a very clear image of the canoe capsizing and me trying frantically to keep my children afloat in the rough water (since in a pinch I trust neither my spouse nor our life vests, apparently). It’s only after we were climbing out of the canoe back at the dock that I started to worry what our fellow boaters thought when they observed my histrionics out on the water.
At least when I was four, it wasn’t all that surprising. A four-year-old freaking out? Heck, that’s what they’re made for. A thirty-six-year-old woman freaking out is another matter entirely. I think the effect is exacerbated by the fact that I appear pretty laid-back most of the time (or so I’m told) so the freakouts seem to come from nowhere. But that’s pretty much how they are for me. As soon as I’m aware that the wave is building, it’s already broken, and I have no idea how to stop it. My limbic system is in charge; I’m running for my life, and I’m the only one who can save my loved ones. Or so I think until the moment passes.
Back in the sunlight, or safe under the overhang, or gliding alongside the dock, the cause of my terror seems distant and tiny. As soon as I feel safe again, both the feeling of terror and the superheroic feeling that I’m the only one who can save us fades away. What’s left is exhaustion and embarrassment and the very clear knowledge that I’ve overreacted. In front of lots of people.
Back in that mall more than three decades ago, my mother cursed the woman in line with us all the way back to the parking lot. By the time we got to the car, my fear was gone and I felt only shame for acting so babyish and for ruining my mother’s chance to sit with lion cubs. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m okay now. We can go back, Mommy, if you want to have our pictures taken with the lion cubs.”
But the appeal had waned, and she just packed me into our Toyota Celica (in the front seat without a seat belt because back then, people weren’t afraid of anything).
“Maybe they’ll come back another time we’re here! I won’t be afraid then!” I promised as we drove home.
I didn’t have another chance to prove my bravery with the lions, but I did have plenty more chances to freak out in public. I know there will be plenty more to come.
This post written as part of this week’s Remember the Time blog hop. Click the badge to hop on over to The Waiting and check out the posts that have been linked up there!