What am I afraid of?

Illustration: Dustin Klare

11 of 20
It's pitch-dark on this western edge of Costa Rica, and I'm in a car with my husband and our 2½-year-old daughter, creeping along an unpaved road with steep angles and blind curves, our tires grinding against an axle-snapping mixture of rock and dirt. I can sense the drop-off only inches to my right. And I'm afraid. It's suddenly clear to me that this was all a mistake, and we should never have come here on vacation: This is the wrong country, the wrong car, and what seems to be the wrong road, because we can't find our rental house. Any minute we are going to flip over and plunge down the side of this mountain.

And then, as we reach a particularly steep spot, I see a sign for a bar.

When my husband was still drinking, he barely made it home most nights. During those hours I called his cell compulsively, or waited by my phone, terrified it wouldn't ring, terrified it would. Some of what I dreaded came true—a policeman would answer the cell phone, or my caller ID would show the name of a hospital. That was a long time ago, and what calms me now in the face of my most profound fears is not reassurance that nothing bad will happen, but that some of it has, and here we still are. You do not self-destruct when your fears come to pass. Things are replenishable that you thought were not: your savings, your opportunities, your pride. Your life can be stripped very close to the bone, and you can begin again.

My husband has been sober for nearly a decade, and while I count us lucky, I know bad things can still happen—like a missed hairpin turn in the darkest part of the night. Surviving fear does not make one immune to fear. Even on my best days there are times when I think, When you're as happy as this is when you lose it all. Who doesn't look at her husband's neck or her daughter's curls and wonder at how the human body—these bodies, the ones you love the most—can ever be kept safe? They can't. Things befall us, worse things than have yet befallen me, things we can't imagine. But we survive. We awaken from the bad dream of crisis, rise and keep moving. We learn to live not with a loss, as if we accept or welcome it, but alongside it.

I believe in preventing what I can, in life insurance and seat belts. But I also believe there's life to be found on the other side of fear. I believe in continuing up the mountain, petrifying though it is, until you see the lights of the rental house. I believe in getting some sleep once you arrive, so that in the morning you can see the view you could not see in the dark: the coconut trees that blanket the mountainside, the coves beyond the cliff, the mist above the shining green agate of the ocean. The peaceful place you didn't know was waiting.
Michelle Wildgen, author, most recently, of the novel Bread & Butter (Doubleday).