Living With Fear

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Image via Flickr by frankieleon.

The subway is cold and sparsely populated—ideal travel conditions—but I am still clawing at my keychain, struggling to unscrew the small cylinder that holds the chalky white pills that keep my heart from exploding. My throat’s already closing up, head so light it may actually float off my shoulders. I imagine it bobbing against the top of the subway car like a balloon. No one will probably even notice. This is, mercifully, New York City.

The attacks have assaulted me since I was a kid, wriggling out of car seats and pews and classroom chairs. Escape, in the beginning, is found atop a toilet, in the private cell of countless bathroom stalls in gas stations and church basements and school hallways, muffling gasps and tears until the waves of panic finally cease. The bathroom stall is safe because four walls protect me from anyone discovering my secret. Skillful at muting sobs in the cups of loosely clenched fists, I practice variations of the same lie: not feeling well, something I ate, a stomach bug; a migraine.

By the time I am in college, the attacks prohibit me from driving more than twenty minutes without pulling over to call 911. By the time the paramedics come, I am a mess of relief, all sloppy smiles and droopy arms. The blood pressure cuff feels like a cozy blanket. Once again, I am secure.

For a long time, I thought the attacks would go away, and sometimes they did—for years. But through some mysterious mix of genetic wiring and the slightest trigger: lack of sleep or food or a simple off day, they have, at times, left me incapacitated. It wasn’t until I stopped fearing them that I learned to live with a mind that can grow volatile, even uncontrollable, because I know, eventually, the danger will pass.

During my last spate of anxiety, I found myself writing a lot. Creativity was an escape from the fear I had of my anxiety, and by proxy, myself. But creativity itself takes courage, whether confronting the darkest parts of a mind unraveling or submitting, ironically, a piece on the empowerment of making the first move in relationships.

The more I accepted my anxiety, the easier life became. Instead of reaching for my antianxiety medication, I dug inward. After Googling “breathing exercises,” I found extensive research on “belly breathing:” deep breathing from the diaphragm. I bought a yoga mat and began regular sessions stretching while maintaining close awareness of my breath. At the gym I practiced my own version of cardio: a “soft” workout involving low intensity biking while listening to classical music. For the first time, old goals—writing more for the public purview, visiting more with friends—became possible again. By managing my anxiety in a unique, personal way, I reclaimed my old self.

My creativity is not yours. There is no correct path to becoming creative because, as humans, it is already an innate part of us. Breathe into it, accept it. Celebrate it. Most of all, accept the fear that comes with a life worthy of participation, a life bursting with possibilities—if you allow it.

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Inspiration: Fiction Flows from Reality

Thrill Kill by Brian ThiemBy Brian Thiem

I arrived at the city park just as the sun was rising, the mist still hanging low over the dew-covered grass. A uniformed officer in the parking lot pointed me toward a stand of trees at the back of the park where more patrol officers were clustered. Halfway there, I saw my homicide victim, hanging from a tree with a rope around her neck. One of her legs was suspended from the tree with another length of rope in what looked like a bizarre dance pose. As I got closer, I saw the woman was naked except for a piece of charred cloth stuck to her leg, which I later learned had been soaked in gasoline and lit on fire.

All fiction writers use real life experiences in their novels. It might be as simple as how a man’s voice sounded when overheard in a restaurant or the way a lover’s face looked before a kiss. After working a career with the Oakland police department, much of it in homicide, my experiences are a bit different from those of many writers.

I think the line that separates our real life experiences—those events writers draw upon in our writing—and the creative or made-up stuff is blurred. The farther back the memories are and the more we live in our fictional make-believe worlds, the fuzzier the line that separates the two becomes.

Thrill Kill, the second novel in my Detective Matt Sinclair series, opens with a fictional rendition of the scene I described above, which was a murder I investigated in 1989. That scene is permanently imprinted in my brain. Toward the end of the scene, my fictional detective fights to control his emotions—shock, anger, disgust, compassion. Did I experience similar feelings at that homicide scene years earlier? I don’t recall. Maybe I buried them to better do my job, just as my fictional detective was struggling to do, but when I wrote that passage in my novel inside the close point of view of Matt Sinclair, the emotions felt real.

As I wrote that opening scene in my novel, I set the story aside, tapped into the creative part of my writer’s brain, and created a fictional character with a rich backstory to inhabit the dead woman hanging from the tree. Still in my fictional mode, I got back into the story with the coroner’s deputies arriving and cutting the victim from the tree. My detective sees her face for the first time and my writer’s brain flips a switch.

I’m back in homicide more than twenty years ago. I was called to a motel that catered to drug dealers and hookers on a report of a dead woman in a room. She had no ID on her so I figured it would be twenty-four hours until the coroner could roll her prints and see if she was in the system. A dozen cops were there and canvasing the area for witnesses and information. They were apologetic about being unable to ID her, knowing that would delay my investigation a day. The coroner’s deputies flipped the body and I saw the face. I recognized her as Dawn Campadona, a street hooker I had arrested years earlier when I worked Vice.

I take that memory and fictionalize it so my detective recognizes her, the woman hanging from the tree, as someone he had arrested her years ago. I refer back to my character profile and change her first name to Dawn. All of a sudden, the darkness from the opening scene in the novel has a glimmer of light. Dawn was a pretty girl who had come to Oakland with a dream, only to die a death she didn’t deserve. In the novel, my detective is wondering—just as I possibly was when I saw the real Dawn lying there dead—if he might have done something differently when he arrested her years earlier that would’ve changed her fate. Real memory or fiction? I don’t know.

That is the way my novel takes form, flowing from memories of the past to make-believe—from the real world to fiction—from the familiar to the creative. As a writer, I’m successful when readers accept my make-believe story as something that feels real enough that it could have happened. Drawing on my past experiences and fictionalizing them gives my crime novels a level of authenticity—a sense of realism—that not many other crime writers can do.

You can learn more about Brian Thiem on his website brianthiem.com and his author pages on Amazon and Goodreads.

The first novel in his Detective Matt Sinclair series, Red Line, is available now from AmazonB&N, and IndieBound.

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