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.