Fear, Danger, and Illness: What We Can Learn From One Astronaut’s Experience

“What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Or another way to say is what’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done and why did you do it?”

That’s how Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield opens his TED Talk, during which he shares his harrowing tale of going temporarily blind while working outside the International Space Station. I don’t know about you, but I’d pee my pants. Space is terrifyingly awesome and the simple thought of being in such a situation makes my head spin. But, Hadfield made it through the entire extravehicular activity. How? He argues it’s because astronauts are drilled and trained to recognize the difference between perceived fear and danger.

I’d argue that illness has a similar effect. Most people can think about what it must be like to float weightlessly in space just as well as they can think about what it might be like to fall ill with something that you will never be cured of. It’s foreign, alien, and unknown. But, unlike finding yourself blind in space, illness can strike any family and any group of friends. It’s the big gorilla in every room that no one wants to ponder. Which is why Hadfield’s experience can help those facing illness tackle the fear they see in the mirror, and the danger lurking in their own DNA.

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I don’t think that any sick person can say they are the same person before and after diagnosis. I’ve always battled anxiety, but my journey to finding out my brain is malformed changed me in so many ways, some I’ve yet to discover. Knowing that you will forever battle your body can be a hopeless kind of situation; I remember the moment I realized that there would be many nights where I could not feed myself, could not walk under my own power, and would have to make sacrifices that others can never understand. I spent a good, long while being afraid of every headache and doctor’s visit, of being alone, going without medication…of simply being afraidย of everything. But, that’s not living. That’s wading and trudging, not living.ย This understanding is the line drawn between fear and danger

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