Place yourself behind a shatter proof helmet. Tear gas and pepper spray burning your skin, eyes, and lungs. Yelling and screaming as adrenaline gets dumped into your bloodstream. Sweat pouring down your back as the body armor you’re wearing feels like you’re trapped in a sauna. Your hands shaking, knowing that in the next few moments you or another could be potentially hurt or killed.
Fear: it’s a natural emotion that we all feel from time to time. What if, however, it was daily occurrence? How would you cope, or even thrive in such an environment, allowing it to mold you and elevate you? Here are some tips and lessons I learned on how to not only cope with fear, but use it as an advantage and mentor.
Firstly, fear allows us to avoid dangers and also stay away from actions that may bring about negative consequences. Fear, like many emotions, has the potential to consume and even destroy us if left unchecked. Emotions such as love, for example, have the same potential for either harm or benefit. How many individuals have we known who have been reduced to nothing due to the instability of these emotions? Learning to cope with fear, love, and stress are essential to good health and well being, physically and psychologically.
Fear is an intense emotion. There’s nothing like facing a fear that almost paralyzes you and triumphantly overcoming. For most of us it comes in short bursts, very abruptly and surprisingly. Getting into a car accident, having run-ins with a dangerous wild animal, or even being robbed strike almost without warning. They leave us stunned and reflective. What if I had died? What if someone else had died? These questions plague us, and leave us reflective. They have the potential to change our entire perspective on life.
For example, Ernest Hemingway was transformed after nearly being killed during the first world war. He was a volunteer ambulance driver, and while dispensing supplies, was wounded by Austrian mortar fire. Hemingway would later write about his experience, saying, “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you… Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.” For Hemingway, coming close to the jaws of death gave him a clear focus on mortality.
Placed on Death Ground
Imagine placing yourself into a war in which your brushes with death happened at an abysmal pace? Besides being a soldier in an actual war, there are few of us who have to face this reality. How would it mold you? If you don’t come from a military family, few know the personal struggle soldiers who suffer from PTSD deal with. It changes your attitude, the way to think, and act. Left unchecked, the trauma induced can cripple us and even be debilitating for the rest of our lives.
Instead of being on the front lines overseas, I was in another battle. A battle that took place everyday I clocked in. The conflict started the day I was hired as a Correctional Officer at a maximum security adult prison. Now I know what you’re thinking: Was it really like those shows on cable television, like Lock Down? The best answer is yes, sometimes. To give you a good analogy, if you ever watch the highlights of a football game and actually watch a football game, you have two different experiences. There is a lot of calmness inside most prisons, which is actually more terrifying than it being a highlight real. Just when you get comfortable, you almost get stabbed (I personally was attacked with a knife twice), or see a violent altercation. You know something bad is going to happen, you just don’t know when. Adrenaline gets dumped into your system, things happen in seconds that feel like a lifetime, people get hurt or die in front of you, and you get a permanent event burned into your memory for the rest of your life.
Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I am no longer a Correctional Officer but the events I endured changed my life in almost every way. Friends and family conveyed to me that I walked and talked differently. My behavior became more serious and reflective. The fear I felt when first entering into a prison was overwhelming. Witnessing episodes of violence that seemed cut from a clip of OZ tended to have a jarring effect to say the least. Sitting in my car every day outside the prison building, just staring at the walls and barbed wire, building the courage to clock in took its toll not only on my mind, but also on my body. Sleepless nights pouring over the violence witnessed earlier, casting an almost debilitating cloud upon my every waking moment. Yet, I fought on and challenged myself to another day inside. I looked up to veterans who thrived in that environment and was amazed. I knew that if I gave up and didn’t face my fears, it would haunt me for the rest of my days.
The breaking point came when I was transferred inside the prison to the most dangerous unit — a unit some of the most violent offenders in the state called home. This was a place where inmates were locked in a cell 23 hours a day and only went outside to exercise in a cage, a unit where there was constant violence and almost never a dull moment. It was either make or break. I had to not only control my fear, but also not show it.
Everyone in that environment could smell fear, even fellow officers, and knew when you were weak. I have seen men twice my size intimidated by men of small stature. They lost the respect of fellow officers and became targets. I knew I had to dive in with everything I had, or else I might be killed. The day I started to thrive was the day a fellow officer was stabbed in the jaw with a 8-inch metal blade. I instantly changed into someone who was always terrified to a man who had no fear of death. Something sublime clicked in my head, and I rushed in and resolved the situation. My eyes burned from the pepper spray but I felt no pain and looked the attacker in the eyes and saw fear. The fear of me.
I was attacked several times after that incident and never flinched. I handled the situation and never felt fear, panic, or nervousness. My confidence skyrocketed, and the feeling of transcendence enveloped my every waking moment. I learned to thrive in chaos and make it my comfort zone. I noticed toward the end of my time as a Correctional Officer my hands wouldn’t shake anymore. Usually due to the adrenaline after an event, I would get the shakes that could be most felt in the hands. The first time I noticed the shaking was gone was the last time I was attacked. After the incident I calmly wrote a summary of the incident with a pen and paper — even writing cursive my penmanship was as good as ever. I had become so used to violence and stress that even a tolerance to adrenaline developed.
I am no longer a Correctional Officer, but am a professional that still sees a fair share of danger. I react coolly, calmly, and collectedly in almost every situation, as I did in the prison. Due to that experience, my social intelligence became one of my strongest assets, and my confidence has remained high. Overcoming my crippling fears allowed me to develop into the man I am today. Here are 3 lessons I learned from my experience that have been invaluable:
- Never give up in the face of adversity. Life and its endless struggles hit hard, but overcoming challenges results in invaluable gratitude and strength.
- Remind yourself every day that there is a lesson to be learned. Life is our mentor, we are its students. Never stop finding the gems of experience and knowledge each day hides.
- Place yourself on death ground — a place where you are forced to rise to the occasion and overcome. It will not only increase your confidence, but force you to improve. There is no improvement without change.