Fear Factor

by Bill Brenner on December 23, 2009

In this installment, the author describes years of living in a cell built by fear, how he broke free and why there’s no turning back.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

This morning I led a meeting of Over-eaters Anonymous, a task that included standing before a room of people for 30 minutes to tell my story of OCD, addiction and recovery.

It was my third time “qualifying” at an OA meeting this past year. Meanwhile, I did a fair amount of public speaking for my day job as senior editor of CSO Magazine. I sat on panels at security conferences and did solo presentations in front of various information security groups around the country.

Five or so years ago, the notion of me getting up to speak in front of people would have been laughable.

I was too busy hiding in my cage of fear to do such things. Fear will rob you blind, forcing you to avoid life and retreat into the sinister world of addiction.

Breaking free of it was a gift from God. But it took a long time to figure out how to unwrap it and realize my potential.

For me, fear was one of the many byproducts of OCD, something that went hand in hand with anxiety. It kept me away from parties. It scared me out of traveling. I turned down a lot of living in favor of lying in my bedroom watching TV. There are a couple examples in particular that I’m not proud of.


One summer night I was hanging with two friends in front of Kelly’s Roast Beef, a popular eatery on Revere Beach. As we started walking the mile back to my house, we noticed we were being followed by some 15 punks. It was clear they were looking for trouble. I panicked and ran to a nearby bar. As I looked back, I couldn’t see my friends.

The punks had circled them and started kicking and punching their guts in. I called the police and the beatings ended quickly, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I ran away. Worse, it marked the end of my walking along the beach at night for many years to come.

It was a huge fear-inflicted injustice. I grew up on that beach and loved the place. I walked its entire length daily. It gave me peace and clarity. And I allowed some punks to scare me away.


A week after the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington, Erin and I were scheduled to fly to Arizona to attend a cousin’s wedding. The night before were were supposed to leave, I gave in to my terror at the prospect of getting on a plane and we didn’t go. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.

There are smaller examples in between and in the years after, but those are two of the more vivid memories.

Fear also fueled the binge eating and kept me from standing up for things that were right in the family and workplace. It was better to keep my trap shut, I thought. To do otherwise would put my job in danger or have me blackballed.

Then there was the fear of loss I wrote about a few blog posts back — fear that if I didn’t overprotect my kids I might lose them to some imagined beast; that if I spoke my mind during a spousal spat my wife might walk out on me. In hindsight, these were foolish ideas. But in the grip of fear, you think this way and act on it even though you really know better.

When I began getting treatment for the OCD the fear actually accelerated for a while. If a toe went a little numb I’d think I was suffering from a blood clot. A headache would leave me wondering if a tumor was growing inside my skull. A pain in the chest became fear of a heart attack.

I can’t remember when the fear finally began to lift. I think it was in early 2007, shortly after I began taking Prozac. Once the medicine untangled the chemical imbalances in the brain, situations I had feared suddenly seemed manageable. It was pretty weird, actually. I didn’t know what to do with this new feeling. Or maybe it was the year before, when I converted to the Catholic Faith and increasingly let God into my life. When you have God on your side, there’s really nothing to fear, right?

Then little milestones came along. There was a business trip to California that would have consumed me with worry a few years before. There was the first time giving a presentation in front of a room full of security people who were almost certainly smarter than me. The computer holding my PowerPoint presentation went on the fritz and I was forced to present sans slides. I told the audience that I was just going to wing it and that broke the ice.

Today, I look for opportunities to give talks in front of crowded rooms. I have work to do on my speaking skills, but I want more. The more I do, the more my confidence grows and the smoother and more organized the presentations get.

I look for opportunities to fly as well. And though I work hard on the business at hand, I ALWAYS make a point of building in a day to go out and explore, especially if there’s a piece of history to see up close. I want to see it all. Staring at the hotel room TV will no longer do.

Sometimes I worry that the fear will return and I’ll again retreat to my old cage. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though, for one simple reason — the world has been opened up to me. I’ve experienced too much joy these last couple years to go back to the way I was.

I couldn’t go back if I tried. Not that I would want to try.

To be clear, I still worry about things. But I don’t let it shut down the rest of my life. Instead of being engulfed, I can put the concern in its proper mental compartment and move along with my life.

There will be difficulties ahead, I’m sure. That’s life. But I feel more ready to deal with what may come than I’ve ever been before.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christy May 6, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Just some findings I have recently discovered (with help). Fear is not of God. If we are not in joy or peace then we have fear. FEAR (False evidence appearing real) is from satan himself. If you can think of faith and love as a seed planted by God, FEAR is a seed planted by the evil one at some point in our lives. We have the choice to continue to FEAR it or we can recognize where it came from and ask God to remove it. This takes lots of practice because we are working against the evil one and we like to obsess and continue to carry the burden even after we think we have “given it up to God”.

Hope that wasn’t too much for you but it was very helpful to me and I was hoping it would be helpful to you or others.

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