I’m both outgrowing old fears and developing fresh ones all the time. I decided to draw up a list of some phenomena that I’ve been afraid of over the course of my life, and in doing so, I thought it would help give a clearer idea of why I totally wimped out over them if I also offered a timeline of the exact years when I allowed them to keep me up at night. Looking at my fears chronologically like this, I’m noticing that they have changed over time: When I was a little kid I was scared of simple, quotidian things such as centipedes; now that I’m older they revolve around murkier, more life-centric stuff like professional aspirations, social insecurities, and my status as a woman in a world that isn’t always awesome to women. Enjoy, and please excuse me while I go hide under my bed.

01 balloonsBalloons, 1992–1998.
As a young birthday party dissident, I refused any and all balloons because they don’t hang around long, and I’ve never really been one for abrupt goodbyes. If a well-meaning adult tried to force an inflatable on baby-me, I would totally plotz—it was like they WANTED me to have to grieve for it later when it invariably popped, deflated, or flew away. I would look at other kids at our town street fair and think, Why the hell would you clamor to hold on to something that’s just going to leave you heartbroken? What are you, some kind of masochist? Well, maybe I didn’t actually know the word masochist just yet, but I did know that I wasn’t going to become one myself by getting in line with the other chumps futilely tying ribbons to their wrists as if that would make their balloons stick around for good. I knew that if I ever had one myself, I would lose it, and it would be entirely my fault for being in some way irresponsible (even though the nature of balloons is that they’re ephemeral).

I’ve always felt intense guilt over many frivolous and dumb things. I think this is related to my terror at the thought of being left behind, even by a disposable Mylar circle. In some of my earliest memories, my parents, who were going through some shit at the time, were not always the best at picking me up from places when they said they would, and I was often the kid standing with a strange, kind adult outside of various buildings, waiting for my mom to come collect me. Yes, I sublimated my fear of abandonment into balloons. This fear, like its object, gradually deflated into nothing—I got older and all the helium just leaked out of it, I guess. I can be normal around balloons now, you guys. I promise! Please don’t disinvite me from your birthday parties.

04Sleepovers, 1996–2001.

While my parents were definitely not stellar at picking me up from school or soccer practice, they knew to be at the ready in re: scooping me up and taking me home whenever I decided I wanted to sleep at someone else’s house during my grade school years. Like many children, I loved having friends and wanted to be around them a lot, so I repeatedly miscalculated my ability to handle sleepovers. Here’s a little reproduction of the thought progressions that led me to shakily dial my home phone number from somebody’s kitchen cordless sometime near midnight on each failed attempt:

  • Fear of being the only awake person in a house full of sleeping peers and having to be alone in your weird head while everyone else is dreaming in their Beauty and the Beast sleeping bags, and they’re probably even together not only here but also in the dream, just high-fiving on a ring of Saturn or something amazing and just getting it—how to have fun, how to be effortlessly and appropriately part of a friendship pack and also just of life in general. Why aren’t you able to access this mass heavy-breathed peacefulness that they’re all sharing with one another instead of staring at the ceiling, which is invariably one of those horrible textured ones that looks like peaks of cream cheese, or maybe little craters on your own lonely-ass non-Saturn planet which is actually just this ominous, dark, foreign house? Furthermore, why didn’t you have the good taste to bring a sleeping bag with a rad movie thing on it instead of uncritically accepting this old green one from your parents? You are very strange and very stupid and this is not your place, and maybe nowhere is, because you are so bad at these simple, simple parts of being a person who knows how to exist with other people.
  • Fear of going to the bathroom and, with your absence, tacitly inviting everyone else in the room, which is basically half of everyone you know at that point (no boys, in my personal experience, but all your girl friends from school or wherever) to insult your lack of anything resembling style (see: green bedroll), your rabid and enthusiastic insistence on discussing your favorite animal, the zebra, and your overall inability to be among the rest of them, the real friends. At the time, you do not yet realize that everyone has this same fear, albeit in varying sizes and intensities. (You were sharing an experience with them after all!, you will realize as you write these words in the next decade, and then you immediately become very sad).
  • Fear of are you ever going to see your parents again? If yes, will it be three hours after the appointed pickup time for everyone, when the hostess and her family aren’t really sure how to proceed in trying to make you feel not-terrible because it’s been so long and it’s obvious your reluctant babysitters have other plans, or at least they did before your lesser-than upbringing, which is now clear to them, totally bulldozed their day? What are you willing to let people know about you and your life? About all your fear?

The answer to those last two questions was “nothing” for many years during this period and long afterward still, so I always made an excuse about stomach pain before rushing into the car of one of my parents, chanting the same apologies I reprised roughly biweekly at around 11:30 on weekend nights for years, sick with the shame of knowing how, just hours earlier, I had begged and insisted and bitched about how I wasn’t going to do it this time. I always did it that time. I didn’t start feeling comfortable sleeping at people’s houses until I started doing it drunk, which made it remarkably easier, if less memorable. In the interim period, I mostly took a break from sleeping on the floors of finished basements for a while.

Chalk, 1996–present.
I can’t touch chalk. The thought of having to, even as I write this, is making my fingernails itch and my teeth clamp together. Why would anyone be OK with a writing utensil that leaves such an excruciatingly unpleasant residue on their hands? How can anyone stand to scrape and grind a stick of it against the sidewalk, or, god forbid, a chalkboard,aka the world’s foremost sensory torture device? My muscles are clenched in fear after typing that sentence. Everything about chalk is wrong. It’s a tactile nightmare. I’m so glad I went to school in a time where marker boards were more common, because doing math problems at the board was horrible enough without my having to get my fingers all dusty in that singularly revolting way that felt like it would never wash off. Absolutely fuck chalk, you guys. It’s the world’s worst.

People thinking I’m stupid, 1998–present.
I like it when other people mispronounce words because I’m just squirming for the chance to tell others what LINGUISTICALLY-INHIBITED DUMMY-PEOPLE they are at every turn. Just kidding, that’s not why at all, but oh my god, can you imagine? Instead, I’m a fan of chainsawed-to-pieces pronunciations because they call this really endearing image to mind, of a person reading a new word in a book and then tentatively testing it out for the first time out loud EVEN THOUGH they weren’t sure if they were saying it right since they had never actually heard it said by a human voice before. I like that kind of tenacity! Save for, of course, in myself. I know it’s atomic-level dumb to be so vain about something so trivial, but yo! Your girl here is a total narcissist, and that’s how we tend to wiggle through life when we’re not busy in front of reflective surfaces.

While I think it’s cute when other people bungle the syllables of crepuscular or harpsichord, I remember how mortified I was when my high school boyfriend pointed out that the word facetious wasn’t actually pronounced “fuh-KETTY-us.” Ever since grade school I’ve felt this pachyderm-size (the “ch” there sounds like a “k,” by the by, which I also learned the hard way) pressure to demonstrate intelligence as much as possible as often as possible. Being around people I find interesting or smart feels like the biggest privilege to me, and sometimes I worry that I’m three seconds away from slipping up and revealing my true self—the LINGUISTICALLY-INHIBITED DUMMY PERSON I really am—when I’m in impressive company. And I can’t even TALK about the times when I accidentally misuse words and then I realize it a minute later, when it’s too late to correct myself without calling more attention to my mistake. Mispronouncing words in front of people I like is probably worse than just straight-up wetting myself would be, and I’m not being fuh-ketty-us in the slightest: I would actually prefer to misfire my urine than my words.