I’m not talking about the ‘girl has exited the tv and is puking goo while crab-walking backward down the stairs’ kind of haunted. And I doubt there’s a monster lurking in the darkness with a machete (although tomorrow is Halloween and the universe may still surprise us).
What I find genuinely haunting is the past — and all the painful, upsetting memories that help piece together our understanding of the world. Personal demons, foot-in-mouth moments, ghosts of humiliation; whatever you call them, each of us carries our own baggage lodged deep within our souls. These ghosts alter our perception of the world and often fill us with a super delightful array of emotions: dread. Anxiety. Regret. Shame. And, most often, fear.
Fear has a purpose. It longs to keep us safe, regardless of the cost. It’s main job is to remind us of our vulnerabilities and the need to protect ourselves. What a nifty warning mechanism!
But being safe and feeling safe are two separate things, and sometimes we develop a fear with no discernible difference.
Have you ever been alone at home and unable to sleep, because despite double-checking the locked doors and windows, you were still convinced a stranger could break in? Welcome to my occasional paranoia and our house, just five driveways down from the neighbourhood graveyard!
In moments where we’re actually safe but still feel fear, our fear becomes less helpful and more paralyzing. Irrational, even. (Although we can easily find ways to rationalize why the fear is legit. Like, would Hitchcock really make a movie about birds if he didn’t somewhat believe they were more sentient and potentially murderous than we currently give them credit for?!)
Often, in our quest to feel safe from those less helpful fear responses, we start to avoid anything that may trigger the fear. We miss out on potential opportunities, experiences, and enjoyment to avoid reawakening our ghosts.
I’ve got that t-shirt! My poor daughters… all those years of bouncy castles and carnival rides, and I never went in one. They’d grab me by their eager hands, urging I partake in all the frolic, only to be met with an emphatic, hard pass. See, once upon a time, I was locked in an attic above a garage by some asshole boys. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old? Left alone in that tight, dark space for more than an hour morphed into a classic case of Claustrophobia. Cue the years of avoiding anything I believed I could become trapped in — elevators, roller coasters, caves, and, bouncy castles! To this day, my husband has been dubbed the ‘fun parent’ (since I was too chickenshit to engage in half the things), and I? Well, I’m just the ‘hard worker.’
Skirting past all the uncomfortable feelings that come with being scared can evolve into a fully-bloomed avoidance of living the life you imagine. I think it’s important to know the difference between the healthy fears and those less helpful. It’s good to be frightened of the bear you stumble across on that hike, but you’ll limit your growth if you turn down the chance to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. The truth is, both situations may be terrifying. But one has the potential to tear you to shreds (unlikely, but possible) while the other is not going to kill you, even though you may feel like you’ll die over the matter!
So how do we go from living in fear to living with or despite the less helpful fear?
Sometimes befriending your ghost is a good option; leaning into the fear and exploring its roots can help you to pursue healing and develop safety. It’s a journey that can be done on your own, with friends, or with a therapist (therapy can be life-changing, I’ve been in and out of it my whole life!). And never forget that you have a choice. Whether you avoid the fear or lean into it, you get to decide how you respond.
Trying to manage your fear doesn’t mean it will completely evaporate — there’s a chance you’ll be somewhat haunted for a long time, and that’s okay. But it may mean that you can co-exist peacefully with your pal Casper instead of constantly waiting for him to pop out and scare you senseless.
We all deserve a life that is the fullest expression of ourselves — unhampered, and free. Not one governed by the things that haunt us. If you find you’re limiting your life to avoid fear, you aren’t alone. Be patient. Be strategic. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. You developed these fears because something scared you enough to feel unsafe; even if it’s worth facing your fears and moving forward, it’s still damn hard. Give yourself space to feel that.
Here’s hoping we’re haunted only by actual ghosts and goblins this Halloween instead of the ones we carry with us! (Just jokes… remember, I live by a graveyard?!)
PS: if you’re a trauma survivor and are able to access resources, please engage with a therapist or professional before you work on any trauma-related fear you have. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has put together an excellent list of resources we’re attaching below. Re-exposure can be triggering and having appropriate support available is important.
A collaboration between Sam Plavins & Melissa Dafoe, BSW
Brea Griffith’s knew how to win. From the classroom to the soccer field, most everything she pursued was met with gold stars. She was continually rewarded for her efforts. Full-ride scholarship to an Ivy-League university in the States? Check. Twice-named Captain of her NCAA women’s soccer team at Princeton? Yup. Boston Marathoner? Indeed.
You get the picture. She was the kind of girl we all admire, but also resent, just a teeny tiny bit. Crazy intelligence. A natural beauty. Also, an all-round kind human being.
It goes on from here. Brea married her college sweetheart, became a mother and even spent a year living on a sustainability farm in Venezuela. Eventually, she added to her Degree in Evolutionary Biology & Ecology with a Masters in Forestry from Yale.
I know, right? Dang.
But nobody knocks it out of the park forever.
Brea’s story would soon evolve into a tale of homelessness. Into months of surviving alone in the desert as a single woman… sleeping outside and trying not to let the howling of nearby coyotes thwart her resolve. She’d face physical pain beyond any capacity to describe. Frustration and depression. And fear, real fear. (Imagine yourself backed into a corner while an unsavoury looking man approaches you with a very large and very pointy hunting knife.) At some point, Brea contemplated her best option to end this suffering.
She didn’t want to live. Not this way.
So, how did Brea fall so far from all that success? And why did she go from seeming to have it all, to condensing her world down to a literal trash bag and committing to living alone in the desert for six months? Away from her children, as one last-ditch effort to try and heal from crushing pain? How can this be?
The answer starts with how Brea’s doing now: she’s thriving.
Today, Brea is an entirely different woman. Her smile is radiant. Her confidence, contagious. She no longer derives her worth from any accomplishments. She’s learned that she is already deserving of love and acceptance. Just as she is, full stop. Her physical limitations and all that misery, gone. She’s back with her children and living a new, God-filled life.
Yes, I did just bring up the good man Himself. God. Which raises another curious question: how does a science-trained, atheist come to a place of faith? (Note: this is not a piece about religious doctrine. It’s about conquering fear with faith. And it’s also about surrender, leading to ultimate transformation.)
Brea vividly remembers that moment her world imploded.
She’d just completed the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 35 minutes, but following what seemed an impossibly long period of recovery, found she couldn’t run a single 400M lap around the track in her neighbourhood.
She became — at times — bedridden, struggling to care for herself and her children. Nevertheless, Brea soldiered along, drawing on her training as an elite athlete. But she did everything she could to avoid turning inward, and instead sought her answers from all sorts of external sources. Anyone plugged into the medical community. Anyone who could resolve her slew of debilitating symptoms… Headaches. Chronic pain. Face swelling. Muscle weakness. You name it, she had it. She plunged deep into an unending rabbit hole, searching for the elusive diagnosis and what would hopefully be a corresponding treatment. Her life had shifted from an idyllic dream to a living nightmare.
“Still, I just kept pushing, because nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. I couldn’t understand how I’d gone from being so carefree and successful — being able to do anything I put my mind to — to this person who couldn’t even get out of bed.”
Eventually, Brea was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), a serious, long-term illness that affects multiple body systems. She describes how it manifested in an interview with Princeton University.
“It’s like living with severe, severe flu 24/7,” she says. “You have vertigo, weakness, pain. You can’t eat. It’s like a five-alarm fire that’s going off in your body at all times. Then you push yourself because you want to do something, you want to live, and you pay the price. You crash. It’s debilitating. I got to points where I didn’t even have the strength to speak.”
As Brea will attest, when you’re facing these kinds of challenges, you become your own worst enemy, and the drama tends to intensify. Cue the next bullet to try and dodge. Following the birth of her third child, daughter Lynleigh, thousands of gallons of water flooded into her basement, morphing into a severe mold situation. You can imagine how this disaster exacerbated her existing symptoms. Among all the other physical challenges, Brea temporarily lost hearing in her right ear and began to contend with extreme nausea.
She sought relief from Western to Alternative treatments, from Functional medicine to experimenting with a graveyard of supplements. In fact, Brea Griffiths spent a small fortune on treatments! Her journey ultimately led to working with a mold specialist, who informed her that exposure to the dangerous toxins in her basement had switched on a particular mold gene in her body. And once switched on, it could not be switched off. This was not good.
She was angry. So very angry. And refused to buy into that belief system.
But in 2017, a defeated and disillusioned Brea was forced to move out of her house due to the intensity of her illness. Even her possessions had begun to make her sick. She began protocols to help her body detox the dangerous biological pathogens replicating inside her. And while she saw some improvement, she found herself on a teeter-totter. There was never any lasting relief. Her body and brain only become more sensitive. At one point, she was experiencing over 82 different symptoms.
Brea’s journey would eventually lead to a strategy she read about online. It offered her renewed hope. It was also… the last straw.
Extreme Mold Avoidance Journey
Brea had learned that some people with similar conditions had seen tremendous impact by living outside in the pristine desert air. As unorthodox as this sounded, she saw no other choice in the matter and decided to give it a go. She committed to a trial of three months and, miraculously, saw some real changes from being out in the wild.
But when she returned home, all her progress unravelled. What’s more, her husband had had enough and decided to end their marriage. It was all too painful. Brea tried to rebuild and moved into a brand new townhouse; only to plummet once again into a battery of discouraging symptoms. Even when placed on a strict liver detox protocol, she found herself dysfunctional. Her face was on fire — puffed up and burning. Her headaches — splitting. She wound up losing ten pounds that week.
So Brea moved out onto the balcony of her home and saw some gradual improvement. As a Canadian girl, however, she knew this would not be a permanent strategy. It was getting colder and winter loomed near. How would she hang onto her tenuous functionality, when going back inside only triggered her physical symptoms again?
Family and friends came to the house to clean with antimicrobial products. “Sam, they scrubbed every square inch with that stuff!” Unfortunately, it didn’t help. She felt herself sinking into deep despair, as she faced the dreaded likelihood of having to go back out to the desert. She simply had to get well. For her children. For herself. For life. She didn’t have any other cards to play.
“You’re only working six inches in front of you. Just trying to survive this moment. I thought it was my best chance to try and calm my immune system down.”
Wearing her crocks and with just one set of clothes shoved into a plastic garbage bag, Brea set out for Death Valley in California. She recalls feeling ashamed of her “freakish” appearance; but it didn’t matter, because she believed it would work, if only she could stick it out long enough.
“I was in five states,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in Death Valley in California. I was in New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It was pretty heinous. I couldn’t be in a campground, because I couldn’t be around people. I had no cell phone service because I was far away from any towers. I was stuck alone, living outside. The chemicals in a tent or a rental car were too much. I had to sleep outside on a cot under the stars in the middle of nowhere, through the winter. I froze my butt off. I had multiple sleeping bags and winter coats. If it rained or snowed, I had to find someplace else to go. I couldn’t tolerate anything by that point. I’m talking about having significant reactions. You start to feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. You’re in complete survival mode from moment to moment.”
But something extraordinary would soon happen.
It was January, 2019, when Brea was living in the desert for the second time. She had befriended a man who was on his own healing journey in the wilderness, and could not get over the strength of his faith. She became curious about his relationship with God, and how leaning on him seemed to bring him so much peace. Brea would listen to the courage of his convictions and found herself craving that kind of impassioned knowing. So, despite the continued madness of living alone in the desert, she made a conscious choice not to feel alone anymore. She wanted to believe someone could love her enough to care about the mess she was in, and before long, Brea became drawn into a spiritual relationship that knocked her atheist views upside down.
Her friend introduced her to a few sections in the Bible, and while she felt some initial resistance, she once again decided it couldn’t hurt to try something new. The stories would wash over her and fuel a growing appetite to understand more. This led to her first efforts at praying. Brea admits it felt completely foreign at first, lying on her cot under the stars, asking for a sign from someone she couldn’t see. She’d simply ask, “God, if you’re here for me, please just let me know.” Almost immediately, she’d felt something change. A light and warmth filled her entire body.
She began to ask questions everyday, like, why she was created? What did He have in store for her? And what should she do to really get better? She started looking for signs of what steps to take next. Inexplicably, Brea felt herself being pulled onto a new path. Admittedly, she labels this a “legit 180.”
“Growing up I had zero interest [nor belief] in the spiritual realm. But all of a sudden, I felt I was being led. I began to believe that I could actually heal. That I’d been through enough, and living in this extreme way of isolation and avoidance was not serving me.”
Her budding faith led her to discover an innovative program called the Dynamic Neural Retraining System — where she’d learn to retrain her brain and ultimately reclaim her life. (This, of course, is a massive over-simplification.) She began to learn she’d been seeking her sense of worthiness from the value society placed on all her accomplishments. She realized she’d been constantly trying to earn people’s love, the effects of which had depleted her completely. She also recognized she’d taken no responsibility for any part of her body breaking down.
Through the neural plasticity brain retraining, and her faith in God, Brea woke up to the realization that she no longer needed to push so hard. She surrendered into a new way of being. She also stopped comparing herself to others, and worrying if they liked her or not. Her mission became, “What am I meant to be doing? How can I serve in the world?” And with each new epiphany, she felt her body and mind growing stronger.
She began to function again. This was a complete transformation. A miracle.
Today, Brea is certain that if she’d not endured such a physically painful journey — one fraught with isolation and fear — she’d not have tapped into the thing she claims is the greatest gift available to us all: faith. With unwavering confidence, Brea will tell anyone willing to listen that having a little faith does not make you weak. That you are not meant to go it alone in this world. That your pride should not keep you from surrendering to that which we can’t explain.
I asked Brea to comment on the fear that keeps so many of us stuck in limiting beliefs, unable to move courageously through change. Her response was so… so Brea.
“There is always this resistance to change. I don’t know what this is going to look like. Is this right? Is this really what I need to do? But I find the more I practise faith, the easier it is to do. Why would I just stay where I am right now? Because that’s not serving anybody. I’m not going to live in fear anymore.”
Brea has discovered that every obstacle we face comes down to fear. In tandem with this is a whole pile of stress we bring on ourselves — the root of which? You’ve got it: fear. She’ll tell you that trying to do things all on your own may net you the same old results.
“I say, step back, get out of your own way and allow yourself to be led. Take just one step of faith. For me, that means God. He shows me which way to go. I don’t want to go back. Why would I ever live any other way? The world tells us to be strong and independent. But I rely on my faith and that has transformed me.”
Today, Brea is focussed on helping people reclaim their lives through her robust coaching/brain retraining practise. Coming from a place of love, she uses the principles of things we already know — like mindfulness, gratitude — and amplifies them in a way that brings about real change. Many of her clients are very sick. Some, even bedbound (like she was). They struggle with anxiety and depression, both of which she can relate to. She works with believers and non-believers alike.
And her candle does not burn down by being there for others. As a mother. A daughter. A coach. Her days of just trying to survive… a distant memory in her rearview mirror. For Brea, this is thriving.
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