Fighting Through Fear

Fighting Through Fear
Written by Barb Thompson
Photography by Annie Louise Wilkins @annielouisewilkins

The strange one-piece suit envelopes my body to the point of suffocation as the water seeps into the cockpit drop by drop. 

The weight of it sucks me in deeper and deeper. Tight and bound, my heart begins to race. My mind and heart start their tug of war, each assuming they know what I need to survive. My heart is screaming, Fear!, while my mind is convincing me to abandon fear. Tingling from head to toe, I begin to feel a weightless calm. The water rises slowly past my legs to my waist. In just a few more breaths, I’ll be completely covered. 

There’s probably time to quit! My heart tries to overtake my mind. No! my mind pushes back. The cold fluid binds my body to the seat as it cascades up my chest, suffocatingly heavy. Hurry, there’s still one moment left! My thoughts yell loudly. I push through the panic,  No! The flooding against my neck causes me to breathe in quickly, one last time. 

Time stands still, seconds suspended in sensory deprivation as the top of my head submerges. Well, now I’m in this. I choose in the dark empty space to work one step at a time, using my hands as tools on the metal buckle. Click. The straps are my map as I blindly follow them to escape. Once out of their grip, my hands carefully hold on to one frigid steel point then another, tracing the course in my mind’s eye towards an opening, towards safety, towards freedom. 


I reminisce about a conversation with a mother figure from my childhood. We’re at her kitchen table, the same spot we’d already solved so many of the world's problems together in years prior, my regular seat prompting the pouring out of my heart. But this conversation wasn’t about my most recent breakup or combating cruel teenage self-esteem. “I think I have it all figured out,” I broadcasted, proud of how adult and put-together it sounded. Think she’ll buy it? Maybe she’ll smile and offer some kind of confirmation I’m on the right track

“Tell me more!” she said, her eyes lighting up as she looked straight into mine. 

“I’ve made up my mind,” I declared as a matter of fact, and I proceeded to lay out on her clean wooden table the logical plan for the next five or ten years of my life. No more painful life-math to do in my head, ever! I’m sure I’ll meet a safe and devoted man along the way. Done and done. What a life! Reliable, safe, and controlled

As I remember this casual table talk in the home I spent almost as much time in as my own, gratitude for her courage fills my eyes with dew. She was so wise and brave in that moment with me. She saw more capacity inside me at that moment than I saw in myself and she called me up to it. With love, she dashed my dreams of a safe life and set me back on track, chasing after the unknown. My secret longing for adventure seeped out onto the tablecloth somehow and she didn’t let me ignore it. 

I expected  to see her relieved that I wasn’t in crisis for this particular conversation, however, I was met with a familiar caring yet concerned expression as she spoke, “Is that really what you want?” She challenged me. 

I couldn’t lie to her as easily as I could lie to myself. She knew, and she knew I knew. 

“I don’t believe that’s the life you’ve been called to or the life you actually want,” she stated bluntly,  in a tender yet confident tone. 

I knew there was a reason to seek her out today. I thought it was more about wrapping my life up in a pretty little bow, a once-and-for-all solution. But she’s right; I can't honestly say that I want any of that.


The path ahead of me was instead a jagged one of more schooling, different towns, and soul-shaping experiences, but I committed to traveling it. A few years later,  it brought me to join the military, and I received mixed reviews depending on my audience; I had a hunch this was for several reasons. Some friends and family were against the philosophy of being part of an entity that exists to fight, the organization itself, and the political climate at the time; some didn’t like the idea of me moving away, going against the grain, doing something outside of the expected path; some were understanding, some were excited, and some were proud. 

I felt strongly about making a difference and positively impacting the world. I longed to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to serve, not just in the sense of being in the military, but to be a servant to others. What started with the reactions from my family and friends, was only the beginning of the surprises along the way. 

And so it went, one surprise after another. Each new challenge I overcame gave me newfound confidence. Challenges became invigorating rather than terrifying. My need for an equation to every problem began to dissolve as I embraced the complexities my experiences offered me. The military flooded me with opportunities to face the unknown through physically and mentally challenging training and assignments.  Diversity, risk, trust. This was becoming the new pattern of my life. Encounter something new and different, stay open through it, and keep the faith. 

I am surprised by how closely fear and freedom live in me- bound windingly in some kind of strange symbiotic relationship. Whether I’m tethered inside a helicopter sinking upside down beneath the water or awaiting another move, fear is there. Its force is violent and brute, loud and obnoxious. Fear is so confident it thinks it knows how the future will unfold. I imagine the conversation between us:

Fear speaks so clearly, “This will only end in pain, I know it.” 

I search for a clever response, “No!”  

“You’re not built for this and you won’t be able to keep up,” Fear touts. 

I scan through my past, see evidence to the contrary, and shout, “Liar!” 

“See, I told you so,” Fear brags. “Just go back, don’t move forward. Seek comfort, go for instant pleasure, that’s where you’ll be happy,” Fear advises. 

The pure Joy I’ve found in freedom fills my lungs, “Never.”  

Just like I did that day in the helo dunker, I continue to discover that fear constricts, binds, and holds. 

And yet, in the dark empty space, I choose to abandon it, find what was once heavy becoming weightless, and continue to swim up toward freedom. 

About the Author
Barb Thompson is an operational psychologist, host of In The Name of Service Podcast, US Army veteran, and military spouse. She is the mother of three, lives near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and is in the throes of learning a new pace of life outside the lines of the Special Operations community. She loves Crossfit, hiking, walks with her kids, and probably a bit too much coffee (cream, no sugar, please).
Connect with Barb on IG @barb.r.thompson

This piece was originally crafted in The Work of Words writing workshop. Within the course, you'll discover how to string words together with creativity and discernment in a creative non-fiction framework.

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