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Harpaxophobia: Fears and almond blossoms

On the last day of summer break before my senior year at Harvard, I was sitting at my brother’s balcony, stroking his dog’s head with one hand and cradling a glass of wine with the other. “I think I am facing a quarter-life crisis,” I said in my best “My name is Roxanne and I am a 20-something” voice. My then sister-in-law tried to talk me through it, telling me that pre-graduation jitters are common and that I was sure to do great things in the world if only I believed it etc. etc. My brother, on the other hand, let out a guffaw. “A quarter-life crisis? For f&ck’s sake! They invent a term for everything. That’s made up sh*t. That doesn’t even exist. Goldman Sachs made it up to make money. A quarter-life crisis!” More guffawing.

As I was sitting on a different balcony last night, I could already hear my brother’s piercing laughter if I were to tell him this: My name is Roxanne and I am harpaxophobic.

Harpaxophobia is a term for which my brother can thank our fellow Greeks, not Goldman Sachs. Etymologically, it means “fear of being snatched.” The term refers to a fear of being mugged, robbed or otherwise witnessing or being part of violent wrongdoing. On Sunday, I stepped out of the Middle East to conduct a one-week workshop in the Balkans, renew my passport and get some siren-free sleep. Instead, I am practicing for my new career as a full-time Giant Shnauzer or Doberman or [insert guard dog of your choice here].

Around midnight the floor creaked. I fled the bed, flashlight in one hand, phone in the other, ready to report an intruder. At 1 AM I thought I heard the front door opening. At 1.20 I could have sworn there were footsteps. By 3 AM, I settled into the rocking chair on the balcony – there is no prettier sight than blossoming almond trees in the night and no greater vantage point from which to clarify that swooshing branches are not, in fact, thieves climbing a rope ladder.

When I tell stories of bomb shelters, ex-combatants, Colombia, or any aspect of conflict zone living, people always ask “are you not scared?” The truth is: All the time. Some of the first books I ever read as an English-as-a-second-Language learner were the Nancy Drew adventures. For a brief period at the age of nine, I wanted to be Nancy Drew: auburn-haired, shrewd, loved daughter, supportive friend, loving girlfriend. And she solved mysteries and fought crime and picked locks with bobby pins, people! I did not even know how to put bobby pins in my own hair at the time, but I lay awake at night thinking of Bad Bad People Evasion Plans nonetheless. I fell asleep with the bright yellow hardcover books on my nightstand and never truly encountered Bad Bad People for another decade and a half.

I have now lost sleep to an armed robbery and wailing sirens. I have heard shuffling in the night – real shuffling. I have fallen asleep to gunfire. Walking down the street in Guatemala, a friend remarked I am the most vigilant, paranoid night walker he has known. I mistook trash cans for drug gangs. I have become the girlfriend whose last words before “I love you” at night are “have we locked the door?”

I do not experience harpaxophobia or anythingphobia when I am knee-deep in conflict zone life and work. When I am doing the work I love, the work that brought me to the field of conflict management and gender-related development, armed rebels and robbers and snatchers are not on my mind. Immersion placates fear. It is only at night, in bed, in the quiet of an apartment at least a little separated from conflict or at a narrow cobblestone street that the fear manifests itself in footsteps heard and hushed voices.

It turns out my brother was right that summer before my senior year of college. I did not have a “quarter-life crisis”; I was a somewhat melodramatic immigrant who had not had enough wine, dreaming or confidence on a campus in which blades of ambition were always sharp. His then-wife was right too: Everything would be okay. Unlike the false alarm of the quarter-life crisis, I know the fears that have stemmed from one too many exposures to conflict to be real. In dealing with them, I have done away with the Nancy Drew fantasy and instead hope to learn something from the 20-year-old bundle of nerves stroking a dog’s head on a balcony all those years ago: Acknowledge the fear. Sit with it. Talk about it. Talk to both those who will listen and those who are qualified to help. Have some faith. Love and let others love you – nothing defeats fear quite like it.

And, if all else fails, sit on a balcony at 3 AM and look at the almond blossoms. Their unadulterated beauty cannot help but be a part of the cure.


  1. I really loved this post. Not just because I learned a new word 🙂 but how you sound – contradictory as it sounds – gentle in your courage, in recalling your younger self.

  2. Immersion placates fear.

    This is so true. Much the same as it placates everything else. The mind will concentrate on the most important thing at any one moment. As you say, your fears are based in reality. However, the wonderful thing about fears is that they can be dispersed by distracting the mind and making it think that something else is more important at that moment. And what better way to do that than by watching the beauty of the world around us?

  3. This was an excellent post…but then, they always are. You are truly gifted.

    I also love the references to Nancy Drew. I, too, read Nancy Drew when I was younger; that is part of what drove me toward being a lawyer. I still read (at least) one Nancy Drew book every time I have a couple of days to go visit my parents. As with most other things, the stories look quite a bit different at 25 than they did at 10…

    Love always,


  4. Roxanne,

    I can’t articulate the feelings I felt while reading this post. I have felt the same fears, and often find myself wandering from window to door as my family sleeps. Ironically, I live in a middle-class suburb, far from any sort of ongoing conflict or threat. I can’t even say that I deal witn any sort of dangerous weather, like Tracy & Kim do on a regular basis. To see things from your perspective, to realize that there are places in the world where a genuinely peaceful night’s sleep are the exception, for very good reasons, makes me feel silly. To know that in the midst of real danger, when even a walk down the street is at your peril, I am humbled to discover that I really have no basis for fear.

    I wish for peaceful sleep, almond blossoms scenting your dreams, with no danger to you and those that you love.

    For the record, add me to the list of Nancy Drew fans…I, too, had a collection of yellow books and imagined myself tooling around in a convertible, solving mysteries.

    Thank you for your kind words on my posts.

    Stay safe, my new friend!


  5. This post was excellent.

    I am going to put a little something out there — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear — as long as you’re using it to move you forward. Fear gets a bad rap because too many people let it control them, or let it paralyze them.

    I am afraid of a lot of things but it drives me.

  6. I am thrilled there are so many Nancy Drew fans among us!

    Noel, as I mentioned to you on Twitter, I think we should get back to our Nancy Drew reading soon! And thank you for pointing out the similarities between Nancy and me, but I am afraid they end with my auburn hair (which, given the right – or wrong- sunlight, actually veers toward eggplant!)

    Marianne, thank you for your kindness. It means a lot coming from someone whose own writing humbles, inspires and moves me. I am keeping you in my heart with all the developments in Afghanistan and am sending you all the compassion I can muster.

    Renee Martyna – Thank you. Aligning the realization that I need to “sit with the fear” with the actual practice of doing so is tricky, but I am committed to doing so. I do hope our paths cross as well!

    Rebecca, the photos of your dogs bring me peace as well. As does your beautiful blog!

    Michelle, I am so glad we share the Nancy Drew love. And I promise you to be careful and safe. Much love to you.

    Tracy, I already told Noel: We must get back to our Nancy Drew lists, find the books we have not read, and “fill in the gaps.” And thank you for keeping me in your prayers; it really means the world. I promise to do my best to stay safe — the good wishes and kind words certainly help every day pass more beautifully.

  7. Noel, I did the same thing with those lists! Great post Roxanne. I don’t know what it is like to live with the fear you are experiencing. I cannot imagine it. I think of you so often and pray you are safe always. THank you for your optimism and posts about your life. You always manage to see the happy in a less than savory situation. Those people you are helping – the things you are doing – God Bless you for it.

  8. I loved Nancy Drew, too. I most DEFINITELY wanted to be her! Roxanne, stay safe. And yes, your words about defeating fear ring very true, but I still can’t help but think that it’s better to err on the side of caution. I know you’re always careful : ) Take care of yourself!!


  9. Wow. What a beautiful piece. Dogs and nature are definitely my way to peace, so I am glad that they are yours as well. Be safe my friend. 🙂

  10. What a beautiful post, and how true the line which urges us to “Acknowledge the fear. Sit with it. Talk about it. Talk to both those who will listen and those who are qualified to help. Have some faith. Love and let others love you – nothing defeats fear quite like it.” A gem of wisdom that you are obviously living out well. Bravo, and hope to see you around sometime! 🙂

  11. I don’t think there are very many people writing with your skill and insight into these topics. I’m so grateful you are (grateful and humbled)

  12. First, I LOVED Nancy Drew! Do you remember those lists in the back of the book of all the titles? I kept one of those and proudly crossed off each title I read. I was determined to make it through the entire series … but that never happened.

    I love this post. You handle fear and what it requires of us with such grace, respect, and strength. And in case you didn’t realize it, you ARE like Nancy Drew, solving mysteries in a totally different (and much more meaningful) way.

  13. Thank you all for your kind words about the photos – I simply clicked away on a camera; it was the blossoms that did all the work.

    Katie and Andi, sitting with the fears is a challenge. Running away from them is always a temptation. Writing is certainly a form of contemplation and meditation and it helps the “sitting” process.

    Kim, “loving like a champion” is such a high compliment. I aspire to it. Maybe I will write it down on a post-it and stick it on the fridge. “Love like a champion”, right under “buy more sandwich bread.” Sleep is an uphill battle, but it is happening. Eyelids do have a way of drooping…

  14. Mostly, I hope you are getting your sleep, at some point. For the rest–I wish I had real wisdom to give you, something that would be more comfort. I do think that real, to-the-bone fear would be an expected companion with the life you’re living now, just like it is for people who don’t live in it voluntarily. So it doesn’t surprise me to know you feel this, but to read about it in such a way is an unexpected privilege. And if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that you love like a champion and are loved right back.

  15. You are so brave to acknowledge these fears – and to sit with them instead of running from them. I’m humbled by your courage, Roxanne. (And those blossoms are gorgeous.)

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