I recall it clearly. I was midway through my performance, executing a sissone leap – a routine element of most balance beam routines. I had completed it hundreds of times in my multi-year gymnastics career with little thought to its danger, except this time, I missed. Instead of landing hard and sure on my front right foot, my foot slipped off the side of the beam, and down I went, brutally. In a failed attempt to avoid falling straight onto the nexus of my legs, I squeezed them together, but that only resulted in my scraping off the skin running from the inside of my ankles all the way up to my inner thighs before I smashed into the beam. I tried to hold on, throwing my arms out to bear hug the apparatus, but I fell off sideways onto my head. The insides of my arms, my chest and under my neck were rubbed raw of their skin. I laid on the mat in shock.
In that one fall, my career as a gymnast was over. Sure, I applied ointments and ice packs for days after to hasten my healing, but they could not alleviate the fear that took hold in my brain. Once aware of how searing a pain was possible for so minor a transgression, I could not forget it. I stopped progressing – stopped moving; I had lost my nerve. And when that happens in gymnastics, you must leave the sport, because in all honesty, the sport has already left you. Seven years of training and dreams, and posters of Soviet gymnasts on my bedroom walls, had come to an abrupt end.
I think back on that pivotal moment in my childhood because it represents possibly the only time I have let fear consume me and alter my path permanently. I do this because the concept of fear has rattled about in my brain since my trip to Provence. Fear had kept me away from travel for years – ugly, all-consuming, steals-your-joy fear had taken hold – and it occurred to me how many times we let that happen over and over again throughout our lives, the narratives we play in our heads about why we can’t or shouldn’t do something. As I sit here, still smiling about my French excursion, it makes me wonder why the triumph and joy that always awaits us on the other side of fear is never as powerful as the paralysis of fear, or as convincing.
As I told a friend earlier this week, fear about the consequences of going pubic with my story was at one point, so intense, that I’d get cotton-mouthed and nauseated at the thought of how it would be used against me. Realistic or not, that fear was like a straight jacket. But I pushed through it probably because in the deepest parts of my psyche, I have learned the reality winds up being some sort of half measure of what I imagine and because of the calm knowledge that any time I’ve made decisions from a position of fear I have lost far more than my fears had ever conjured. With the benefit of age, I know that as long as I keep moving in the battle of attrition that is fear, I am rewarded. I am reminded of this with every wonderful, new person I come into contact with in the anti-sexual violence community and with every victim who trusts me enough to disclose to me. I revel in the ability I now have to connect with people on a far deeper level.
These thoughts revisit me as I read about the Jerry Sandusky trial. I think of his victims. I think about how fear and inexperience kept them silent and frozen. And I think about how they somehow found the strength to stare their fear down to come forward. I think of what the previous night’s sleep brought them before testifying the next morning and what they must have been thinking as they carefully selected each item of their wardrobes for court. I see them, as I myself once was, on the morning they were preparing to take the stand. They are in their bathroom mirrors searching their own eyes for reassurance, steeling themselves to be resolute and composed while their stomachs are churning cauldrons. I think of them now as they themselves wonder what the jury thought of them, if they’ll be believed and what’s next in a life that is possibly more upside down than it has ever been.
If I could tell them anything, it’s that I am rooting for them with my whole heart. I am cheering on each step they take to vanquish this demonic, monster of a man; I laud their onward march. In their moments of doubt, I’d clasp their hands and look them in the eyes and tell them to just keep moving – keep pushing – because there is a wide world of people waiting to open up their arms to them on the other side of fear.