For the first twelve years of my life, my symbol for pain was an uncle I’d never met, my mother’s brother Bill, who died at 24 in a plane crash.

Bill had been an Air Force pilot; good enough to be training fighter pilots headed for the war overseas.

Accepting Bill’s death was not easy for my mother, her two sisters, my grandparents — Mamam and D. — and Granny, Mamam’s mother. Even as a small child, I could sense unforgotten pockets of pain in them, unapproachable wounds healing in the silence of privacy.

I accepted their loss as my own; although Bill died six years before I was born, I felt like I’d known him. He leaned out of a half dozen photographs in my grandparents’ house, with the unself-conscious air of someone who doesn’t care if he has his picture taken or not. It was easy for me to believe people when they said “There’ll never be another like him.” Not insinuating he’d been particularly bright or talented, but that he was so much himself everyone liked him. The kind of person I’d like to have for a brother or son. Unpretentious, good-natured.

Whenever I asked Mamam or Mama about Bill, there was a quiet reply that always ended inadequately for both of us; you can’t really communicate to someone else who he was. The silence that followed the words pulled at my heart and made me ache for them, missing him; more gently than in the past, but still hurting. This bond — their code of silent pain — fascinated me. I wanted to be a part of it.

It was the only pain I knew, and was not even mine, but with a child’s naive way, I was proud of it — a personal tragedy within the family — pointing out Bill’s picture to overnight friends when no one else was around, whispering, “His plane got struck by lightning. He and a whole plane full of trainer pilots got killed.”

It was the family’s inner strength and love for one another that cradled their pain, helping them through the violence of Bill’s death. Thirty years later, I am awed by the unexpectedness of his death and the strange circumstances: Bill missing his plane after three flat tires on the way to the Fort Bragg airport, waiting over a day for the next flight, Mama at work, hearing of a plane crash in Kansas over the AP wire, her certainty that it was Bill’s plane.

I hurt for D. more than anyone else. I knew without anyone telling me that he and Bill had more than father-son bonds. I imagined I was there too, at the service, scarred by D.’s tears, his open grief inconceivable for me to visualize in a man who rarely raised his voice, whose deep gaze merited the respect others had for him, for his knowledge of agriculture, his ability to build anything with his hands.

Because their pain was caused by what seemed to be an exterior event, the plane crash, I imagined that that was always where pain came from — the outside — giant events handed down by “fate” that one must learn to accept; nothing you could control or ever understand.

And so when my first real experience with pain did come, I expected it to come from the outside too. But, like everything else in my life, I created it from the inside, and with a power and depth that blinded me from myself.

* * *

From the very beginning, I felt blessed, lucky, as if I’d been born into a golden world. When I said my prayers, I’d thank God for everything I could think of, hoping my gratitude would stave off whatever troubles were my due.

I got older, still untouched by any darkness in my life, any real conflict, and I thought a lot about “what if” tragedies that had never come. In a sense I longed for them, because I often felt that these years of peace and security were being overshadowed by something else that was coming, that wasn’t necessarily bad, but something I wouldn’t be prepared for. Again, I imagined it coming from the outside.

 

It came suddenly, in the fall of my seventh year of school when I was put in an experimental advanced class of seventh and eighth graders. When I first heard I’d be in such a class I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was proud; it meant I was smart. But it also meant being in the same grade with people that seemed years older, eighth graders. My older sister’s boyfriend would be in the same class with me. And boys I’d begun to eye as “cute,” boys I was unprepared to talk to, to make eye contact with. I wanted to stay Kack’s younger sister, a tomboy, a child still, where I could be crass and younger and safe.

I wanted to grow up and I didn’t want to. I asked Mama if I could wear a garter belt and hose the first day of school. She said no. I wore knee socks.

The Methodist preacher’s wife was our teacher. She knew me well; I was Methodist, sang in the choir. That first morning, before she even called the roll, she summoned me to her desk, handed me a little book, and said, “I want you to read the devotions for us this morning, alright?” I said, “Yes ma’m,” and sat down with the book.

She called the roll, said the things teachers say at the beginning of the year, explained how she was going to handle a combination grade. I looked at the eighth graders on the other side of the room. There were three boys I could see right away that I had crushes on. I’d die if they looked at me. I felt myself starting to perspire. And then Mrs. Epps called me.

I got up, went to the front of the room, opened the book, and began to read. I glanced up, at the eighth grade side of the room, and realized I was nervous. I looked down, and lost my place. Someone giggled. When I started reading again, I did something I’d never done before — I lost my breath. I couldn’t get it back, and the words I was reading came out in gasps, partially inaudible. No one giggled. I looked up, confused, and tried to take a deep breath. By the time I finished the last paragraph, I was trembling with humiliation, and furious with myself. I sat down, and felt waves of emotion wash over me again and again, my cheeks burning, my forehead wet with perspiration. It was hard for me to hear anything the teacher said; I was too immersed in an inner confusion I’d never known before.

Why had I done that? I’d always enjoyed getting up before people; I liked reading aloud. Not being able to control my body, my breathing, my voice, bothered me more than not knowing why I’d gone to pieces.

The next day I came to school only mildly apprehensive. When I was called on to read, I was at my desk. The trauma of the day before was far away, but as I began to read, I remembered, and felt an internal pause that ended in uncertainty.

I’d only read a paragraph when my breath started to leave again, and the paralysis set in, an inability to control my muscles or stop the trembling of my body. I felt an overwhelming sensation of compression that shrank to nothingness my ability to cope. The words I was reading were inaudible to the rest of the class. I pretended I had a cold, and coughed until the teacher called on someone else.

By the end of the first week of school, I was not sleeping much. The dark quiet of the night was my only safety, where I could huddle under the covers and enjoy the remaining hours before dawn; the daytime at school had become a place where I felt completely vulnerable to “these attacks,” as I called them, picked apart by the possibility of an oral report, or being called on to read, or having to speak in class at all.

It never occurred to me that it didn’t have to be this way, my life dominated by this thing. I only knew that something terrible had happened, something unspeakable had taken over my presence so that I no longer felt familiar with myself, no longer trusted myself. I recognized it not as my own fear, but as an affliction, a disease that was going to eat away at my mind until I was no longer Betsy Campbell.

I desperately wanted to protect who I thought Betsy Campbell was, or had been, and so it was vital that no one know. I couldn’t bear the thought of my friends watching me disintegrate, in this disgusting display of weakness; I convinced myself they had been looking in the other direction whenever I’d had an “attack.”

With my family, it was even more important that they not know. I had nightmares about it: Mrs. Epps calling Mama and Daddy for a conference, her eyes serious as she told them, “There is something wrong with Betsy. Very wrong. I think she needs professional help.” But it never happened.

My parents attributed my new introspection and more noticeable apprehensions as normal for a budding adolescent, I imagine. I went to great measures to appear as normal as possible to them. I even spoke cockily of school at the dinner table; if Mrs. Epps did speak to them, I planned to become indignant, and declare she’d confused me with someone else. I didn’t think they’d take her seriously if she did tell them; I’d been too much of an extrovert before, organizing class plays, starring in them. I was no shrinking violet as a child; elected “Bossiest” and “Friendliest” simultaneously in the fourth or fifth grade.

The idea of disappointing, or worse, making my family worry, was the hardest for me to take. They never made us feel pressured to do well, but achievement in school was highly celebrated, especially by Mamam, who was convinced every grandchild of hers was a child wonder. She would grip my shoulders, her eyes narrowed, and say, “You can do anything in this world you want to.” She’d praise me for getting my own silverware out of the drawer: “Isn’t that child independent!” Her praise was a family joke, but deep down I didn’t ever want to let Mamam down. It gave me pleasure to give her pleasure. She’d spent endless hours with me when I was very small, and I believed she was a fairy godmother, her backyard fish pool a magical sphere of elves and fairies and golden fish, of which she was the queen, tending the azaleas and lilies that surrounded the water.

Part of the self-image I was trying desperately to cling to, as someone who did not have this problem, as someone who was bright and confident and always able to “make a record for herself” in school, was drawn by my sister, two years ahead of me in school, whose leadership role was already developing. She was respected and well-liked; her grades were the best. Mine had always been good, but no more.

It seemed that everywhere I turned I was no longer “being allowed” by this thing to be myself. At night, I was unable to concentrate on studying and didn’t want to. If I did exceptional work, the teacher might ask me to read it to the class. I had already defined as a way out the path of pretending not to care about anything, starting with school. My grades dropped, from A’s to B’s, and then C’s.

But I did care, and spent tormenting hours trying to look backwards, to reconnect with the person I’d been a few weeks before. The fear had fed on itself so much that I no longer could remember clearly what it’d been like not to have it, it so totally affected my decisions.

My golden world had evaporated, and I felt my innocence had too. All of my inner language, inner landmarks, inner symbols, had to be rediscovered by this new me, and adjusted, like straightening a picture on the wall, only I felt that I turned the picture to a crooked position when I re-adjusted each inner symbol because of this ugly thing. I saw daily encounters, the ordinary peacefulness of the streets of Weldon, as painful taunts, aimed at me, the rest of the world happy in its normality.

I remember a day on the playground, during our P.E. period; my friends were singing a name substitution song (Sally-Sally-Bo-Bally . . .). They were laughing and joking and I wanted to cry because I couldn’t laugh. I envied them, and wondered that they didn’t stare at me, this new person. The other Betsy had died, and here I was, a compressed old woman, feeling bruised and awkward and owned by this force. I cannot remember any other day in my life when I felt more total despair.

I had at least five years of school ahead of me, and surely that future included some required oral reports, reading aloud, verbal participation in class. There was no escape.

The seventh grade stretched on, and I felt a new closed quality evolving in myself that I was unaccustomed to, inching its way into every cell in my body’s memory. I tensed my muscles the moment the alarm clock went off in the morning, heart pounding, knowing — this is a schoolday. I often vomited before leaving the house; my nervousness would not allow my food to digest. I developed neuroticisms in class that annoyed even me, coughing excessively the moment the teacher began having people read aloud from textbooks, so she wouldn’t call on me. During the current events period in the early morning, I rarely brought one in, taking zeros rather than risking being called on to read mine. I was unable to hold my hands still at tenser moments, and would clutch the seat of my desk with one hand, and with the other, trace the letters of my name over and over with trembling fingers on the cold metal of the other side of the seat. Everytime the bell rang in the hall, my body would jerk noticeably; I couldn’t control it. It’d take me several minutes to calm down again after the bell had rung.

Weekends were no longer safe. I was in the church children’s choir, and being one of the shortest was positioned on the front row, exposed to the view of the entire congregation. In this setting, my fear fixation would concentrate itself on the lack of body control alone; I could feel my face redden deeper and deeper until my eyes filled with tears. When the choir’s Christmas program was given, I pretended to be sick, and stayed home to avoid the prolonged agony of a two hour ordeal in front of the congregation; at least on Sundays we sang only one three or four minute anthem.

I pretended to be sick often. I closed my eyes to the distaste I felt for deceiving Mama, who trusted me and whose loving concern insisted I stay in bed, if I had “vomited all through the night.”

Sometimes I felt badly enough about lying to deliberately entice illness to come to me. I courted it, riding the horse in the rain on cold days, in a thin blouse; leaving my window open at night on cold nights, sitting there naked, assuming I’d get pneumonia. I never did. So I faked it.

On two or three occasions, I did give oral reports that year, but each time I was so deep in shock by the time I reached the front of the room, I was hardly aware of what I was doing, and had little recall of it afterwards. The single event of an oral report wasn’t nearly as intense as the fear that preceded it. The paralysis, the mental despair, the physical feelings of compression were in full swing the night before the oral report and reached their highest pitch before dawn when I’d lay awake, hating the light beginning to tinge the sky.

It was in this year that I began writing a journal rather than a diary. Previously, I had carefully recorded each day with “I had fun today,” or “Today was just an o.k. day.” I rarely used writing as a mirror, a companion. But because I refused to admit to anyone other than myself that I had a problem, I started writing about it to myself. It was a help. When I ended a sentence with, “Things will get better,” I’d reread it and feel the cleanliness, the finality of a statement I wanted to accept. I found an article in Guideposts, and an Ann Landers newspaper column, about people with similar problems, and was appalled to hear that the cause was self-centeredness. (“What? All I want to do is hide. The last thing I want to do is be the center of attention!”) I’d not heard of the reverse ego at that time. In the Guideposts article was the verse, “I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me.” I had a hard time visualizing the man on the stained glass window of the Methodist Church being much help to me, but I believed in God deeply, and asked him to help me. I got calmer.

But not so calm that I didn’t pretend to be sick five Thursdays in a row in the eighth grade, after my teacher, a young man, announced we’d all give “speeches” every Thursday. After I’d missed the first five speech days, he abruptly announced we would no longer have speech day. I imagined that he’d guessed my secret, and I fell in love with him for being so compassionate as to eliminate speech day. I trusted that he knew, and would never make me speak in class. He didn’t, except in spelling bees, and my calmness grew.

The worst of my black days were over; I’d adapted to my phobia, not by confronting it or dealing with it, but by hiding from it as best I could. At that point, any adaptation at all was a relief.

High school was not as bad as I’d imagined it would be, although I consistently played sick on days when I anticipated a potential crisis; I took zeros instead of giving oral reports, and refused to get involved in any project that might involve public speaking.

Anytime I got sick without trying, I saw it as a wonderful blessing, allowing me to stay home, safe. When I got mononucleosis in the ninth grade, I stayed home, barely aware of my illness, thrilled with the security and freedom of six weeks at home.

By the eleventh grade, I was beginning to consider resolving my fears. I wanted to handle it on my own terms; it was imperative that I not be forced to deal with it. I even found the prospect of volunteering appealing at times. I was beginning to recognize the possibility that I might be able to handle it, because the monumental proportions of my fears were more and more obviously of no concern to anyone else, and if that was so, I was only clinging to my phobia because I needed it myself.

By the twelfth grade I had enough confidence to register for a drama class, partly by process of self-deception, closing my eyes to that perilously close private hysteria that had dominated me for years, pretending it had never happened. In part, it worked. I found it surprisingly easy to pretend to be someone else in dramatic roles. It was in one of our productions for the student body that I had a near-relapse into my old paralysis, and was saved in an unexpected way.

I had a monologue to give, a comedy of a woman in a grocery store. I knew my lines, was clinging to my need to be oblivious to any nervousness. I was standing backstage watching someone finish their monologue onstage; one more person and then it was my turn. I felt the familiar twist in the pit of my stomach and the voice of fear scratching at my armor (“All your friends are out there in the audience, watching. What if you forget your lines? What if you start to tremble in front of all of them, what if they see you that way?”) I was about to succumb to the seductiveness of my old pattern when I realized everyone backstage was huddled around a girl named Ida, who was supposed to go onstage now. She was crouching in a corner behind some backstage curtains, crying, and shaking uncontrollably. The others were saying, “Ida, come on.” Without thinking, I went to her, hissed at the others to get lost, and sat down with her; told her I was every bit as scared as she was, probably more; told her I’d walked home from school soaked in urine from being scared this way before.

“It’s your fear that’s scaring you, not having to give your monologue. Nobody cares as much as you do about this. Just do the best you can and don’t get so upset over something you’ve made up yourself — your own fear.”

She listened, quit shaking, went onstage and was fine. I completely forgot about myself; I watched her intently while she was onstage, knowing the inner battle of staving off the fear, trying to will her strength.

When it was my turn, I was feeling only relief that Ida had made it. She’d done it, she hadn’t fallen. I gave my monologue almost cheerfully.

Later, I realized how important that incident had been, learning to forget myself to care for another. In a sense, I was acting out helping myself, because I’d believed I could not help myself; I could not feel and hear the truth of the words I’d said to Ida, when I said them to myself. But when I told her, “Why get so upset over something you’ve made up yourself?” I heard, and understood, at last.

* * *

“That night when we discovered it, and I said, “It isn’t possible,” and C. said bitterly, “It seems to be,” I said to myself, “Now you will face a reality. You’ve lived in a smooth world of unrealities so far, but you’ve come up against it now.” And yet I never, never met it. If I had seen the baby’s mutilated body, would I have met it? I don’t think so. For I begin to think that the reality of a thing you try to realize is in you and not in the thing itself.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead

It took me more than ten years to understand that the reality of a thing you try to realize — pain, fear — is in you, and not an external thing. My fears were fear of self, of opening fully to the self that is capable of opening, of giving up its fears, of learning to see that every “crisis” is a key to the door of your own totality.

It’s preposterous to blame the twelve-year old I was because I wasn’t in touch with my body or soul enough to know that I control my breath, my life; giving up my whole being to one segmented perception called fear, experiencing the opposite of wholeness, my being crystallized into fragile glass, that broke, that I struggled to hold together.

Recently, I read Tales of Power by Carlos Castenada. Don Juan refers to “indulging” whenever Carlos decides to lose control, when he becomes fear. The nature of my own indulging was my refusal to be responsible for my own reality, dividing my inner self into two factions that warred against one another in a vicious circle when I defined the fear as an outer force, a curse from unknown gods.

I had a hard time writing about this. It hurt. I realized soon after we’d decided pain would be the topic for an US column that subconsciously, I wanted to deal with my own pain again, in a thorough way. Rethinking the experiences, I was put in touch with some of their psychic offspring, defenses I still use to keep from hurting. I have a dislike for people whose self-concept leads them to deny anything other than obvious “upliftment” but I myself often protect a self-image by denying pain, hurt, tiredness.

Besides the obvious unpleasantness of writing about it, my overcautious nature about the written word and its permanent quality, particularly in published form, affected me. But equally strong was a sense of rightness in opened doors: allowing another to step inside of you.

The goal is more than sharing; part of telling you about my pain, or you telling me about yours, is the moment when we are both listening to the story, and we are together, dealing with it.

We can open our pain or whatever contracted state we have to the understanding of all of us, seeing beyond ourselves, beyond the moment. When I love another person who comes to me in a very contracted state, I feel my love opening them, bringing them into more of a balance. That is part of the balancing mechanism within us all as a totality, that is the healing force.

Being open with your pain does not have to mean magnifying it; it perhaps means learning a new language, the language of that segment of yourself you’ve blocked off, making friends with it, inviting it into the parts of yourself that are open and loving.

Learning to treat ourselves honestly, our pain honestly, our hard days honestly, is as important as being open to our good days. It’s easy to sense the tension in a person who confuses putting out good vibes with keeping up a good front. The subtle self-deception creates a tension that is unpleasant to be around.

Over-acting contracted emotions is no good either. There’s a balance between hiding them and over-exposing them that keeps you from allowing the contracted emotions to dominate the self that created them but allows the two to converse.

Hiding contracted emotions or considering a “bad” day a setback to your well-being doesn’t help you assimilate the experience into your life. And an unassimilated experience, like pent-up emotions, does not go away. It sits, and festers, and can become harder to deal with.

That’s why it’s important to talk about pain. Pain is the voice of the inner pearl of being, crying out to be extricated from the blankets of belief that keep us from accepting ourselves, from understanding that aloneness is not loneliness.

In our singularity lies the key: the model of wholeness — of humankind able to fulfill, to meet all needs out of love — is within each individual, a replica of the greatest of universes.