Fear Circuitry

By Deb Werrlein
May 17th, 2016

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The dizzying sun sucks moisture out of me in great rivulets of sweat that pool between my breasts and soak my back as I hunch over my handlebars and pedal my bike up the hill. I can feel my blood pulsing in my face; it contrasts the sudden cold clunking of my heart.

I don’t usually ride alone.

With my eyes trained on the orange line that marks the edge of the road, I will myself not to look at the old farmhouse that stands, resolute, on the bend at the top of the hill. The grade steepens and my speed drops from 15 mph to 9mph. This is too slow, but I have to get up this hill and past that farmhouse. There’s no other way back to my car.

Against my will, my eyes flicker back to the white two-story structure undulating in the August heat. The front yard, unkempt and indifferent, slopes down to the baking road.

No fence.

My tires whisper shish-shosh as I push them ever closer up the hill while cicadas whir a maddening refrain. I see an old red tricycle rusting in tall grass. My eyes find the walk and follow it up to the dilapidated porch. A green couch hunkers, piled with white plastic buckets. A crooked chair rests next to a warped but still upright piano. A snow shovel leans against a railing hung with a dirty red towel. I don’t see what I’m looking for, which makes the anticipation worse.

The only movement, a rainbow-colored pinwheel twisting in the yard.

 

My friends have played body guard for me ever since the dog attack several years ago. But I know I can’t rely on them forever. I have to do this if I want to beat back the fear and regain my ability to roam freely through an unfamiliar pastoral landscape like this one.

 

***

 

Three years prior, I tutored a young student in her basement twice a week. At the end of each lesson, she would race up the stairs before me and put her beloved German shepherd in his crate. He and I had met several times before without incident, but he could be unpredictable, so the family’s dog trainer recommended caution.

On this day, my student hung behind with her toys, so I lugged my heavy tutoring bag up the steps without her. Dog tags jangled as I approached the door at the top of the stairs, but I didn’t worry. I had overcome my fear of shepherds. That was history.

When I opened the door to the foyer and emerged from the basement, I noticed the dog standing ten feet away, waiting for me next to the front door. I told myself everything was fine but as the latch clicked on the basement door behind me, his body language said differently.

Tail like a spike. Eyes fixed and black. One hundred pounds of shepherd squared and frozen. Ears. Cocked into great triangles of adrenaline and trained on me like sonar.

I knew not to move, so I stared at the ceiling and held my breath. Where was the mom?

You’d think the scary part of an animal attack would be the violence, but it’s not. It’s the moment before. In the stillness, fear and aggression charge the air, railing against one another with the high-pitched chafing of sharpening knives. This is the moment in a horror movie when the girl notices the killer staring at her through the window. It’s so much more terrifying than the moment when he grabs her.

Unable to contain my breathing any longer, I took quick shallow puffs. I hoped the dog couldn’t see my rising chest or hear the great whooshing of my blood through my body, but it didn’t really matter, the smell of fear came off me like a siren.

The dog stood to my right, so I trained my peripheral vision on the black muzzle he pointed at my side, waist high. When the air conditioner came on with a rumble, I saw the sudden burst of air from the floor vent shift the hair on the dog’s neck, just below the rigid triangle of his ear. Neither that ear, nor the rest of him flinched. I could hear the mom around the corner typing on her computer. Clickety, click, click. The awful sound of oblivion.

If I could just get her to wheel around in her office chair, she’d see the stance of her dog and I’d be saved.

I decided to venture a word. “Meg?”

I said it with the voice of a child, and the dog exploded on cue. Later, the family’s dog trainer would say it’s rare for a dog to interpret voice as movement. But rare isn’t the same thing as never.

The snarling of an attacking dog is a hysterical and violent sound that has terrorized me since childhood. As one hundred pounds of screaming teeth, muscle and fur catapulted into action, I stood frozen, staring at the ceiling and praying for a false charge.

 

I’ve heard shark attack victims say they felt pressure instead of pain in the moment of contact. But maybe that’s the shock of amputation. When the dog’s jaw closed on a chunk of my upper right thigh, molten pain shot to my core. It pushed a guttural groan out of me—a sound I’d never made before.

There was an instant of whiteness before I realized I had to fight back. I didn’t have time to look at my leg or feel for the damage because the dog lunged again. I turned to face him and screamed, “Fuck!” as I blocked him with the heavy canvas L.L. Bean bag I used to carry my tutoring supplies.

As I fought for my life, I heard the mom yelling from around the corner. My bag, usually too heavy for me to swing with one hand, zigzagged wildly as I blocked my groin and chest from the dog’s lunges. With my other hand, I fumbled behind me for the basement door. Somehow, I opened it enough to squeeze my body through while still shrieking obscenities and battling the dog with my bag.

Once on the top step to the basement, I pulled the door closed with my left hand while trying to pull my bag through it with my right hand. In the second when the bag held the door open, I looked through the gap into the dog’s maw, his jaw working, his exposed gums and teeth gnashing wildly under drawn lips, his toe nails racing at the wood frame next to my head. Our two crazed and contorted faces were so close I felt his hot breath hit my cheek. Then the bag popped free, its heavy canvas scraping against the jam. When I pulled the door closed, I held fast to the knob to prevent myself from falling backwards down the basement stairs. Below me, my student crouched, screeching into the palms of her hands while her mother yelled CRATE! CRATE! on the other side of the door. I sunk onto the top step, one hand still on the knob, the other still gripping my bag. The tough old thing had been my grandmother’s beach bag decades before. As I looked at her name, still visible in faded iron-on letters, I whimpered to myself, “holy mother fucking shit.”

Thank God for L. L. Bean.

 

***

On my bike, I tell myself not to look at the house as the grade steepens further, dragging me down to a vulnerable 7mph and forcing me to downshift to relieve my burning legs. I think of my childhood family dog. When I was a kid, she used to close her eyes as she inched her way into the living room where she didn’t belong. I suppose she thought if she couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see her. We used to laugh at her, but now, approaching this farmhouse with my eyes glued to the steaming asphalt, I get it.

I had planned to downshift to the cyclist’s shameful “granny gear” but instead I pedal harder to maintain my pace. My breath comes heavy and fast. The house looms. As I approach, I can’t help but look. I let my eyes dart about the yard, searching. The porch. The shed. The broken swing set. All melting under the August sun. What would I do if I saw triangles? I imagine them rising up out of the grass by the front stoop and feel a dull ache blossom on my right thigh. It’s been three years since the scars healed, but the nerves in my leg still remember.

 

***

 

My student’s dog punctured my outer thigh in three places—one top incisor cut deep into my flesh while his two bottom teeth made smaller punctures below. The constellation of the three scars surrounds an area that still bulges in the middle. My thick denim shorts held my skin intact so the external damage was unimpressive, but the power of the bite crushed the underlying flesh with such force it tore an internal chunk from its moorings. The wound bled under the skin until it formed a purple hematoma the size of a grapefruit on my leg. Over the coming weeks, the bruise seeped down my thigh, reaching its dark fingers into the flesh behind my knee. It poked out of my longest pair of shorts, prompting strangers to ask what had happened.

Later, when I told the dog trainer how lucky I felt that the dog hadn’t torn up my right arm, she shook her head and said, “He knew exactly what he was doing. He was going for an artery.”

I had nightmares after the attack. Sometimes I woke with a start in a cold sweat. Other times I woke up crying. In the dreams, I stood in the aisle of an airplane. At the other end of the aisle stood a German shepherd, tail like a spike. Ears erect triangles. The dreams were prompted by the attack at my student’s house, but this image had a different origin. One that long preceded my student and her dog.

 

***

 

As I pedal, I look at the white slat fence that has come into view on the side yard of the farmhouse and note the two-track dirt road that leads away from it to the field beyond. I grew up among country houses like this one. I have the type on file, catalogued, tight. In a scene like this the copper pathway of fear first laid itself across the synapses of my brain. A hotline from triangles to panic I thought I’d overcome. Until my student’s dog lit it up again.

I’ve heard post-traumatic stress speaks in pictures. My dreams know this language. They use it to parade variations on a theme before my mind’s eye without distinguishing between what was then and what is now.

When my bike nears the place where the front walk meets the road, I take a calming breath, but it doesn’t help. This is the real danger zone: the house’s point of entry. This is the place that needs defending.

The fear circuitry in my head kicks into high gear. The process begins with the amygdala, a small almond shaped region of the brain that alerts the rest of the brain and then the body to danger. Mine knows what to do. It pulls the alarm with no regard for whether the threat to me is real. As epinephrine floods my system, a different kind of sweat erupts on my scalp. It’s cold and tingly and feels almost like relief. It runs down my nape in a rush then is gone. Bright beads of it form and roll off the backs of my hands. A chill shudders through me and my heart flips. I exhale in what’s almost a sob, but I calm it before it can come out that way. Like catching a cat before it runs out the door.

 

***

 

When I was nine I took horseback riding lessons on a small unpretentious farm. We learned Western saddle, took trail rides, and rode bare back. I used to dream about the white fence that enclosed the riding ring, the lush green grass around it, the warm smell of hay and horse dung, and the feel of the horse underneath me. When I went there for lessons each Saturday, I’d scrape my boots in the gravelly dirt and feel like I was home.

Then one day after lessons, I fell behind the group as we walked our horses from the ring to the grooming area. To rejoin my classmates, I needed to lead my horse through a six-foot wide space between the corner of the barn and the corner of a small building we used as a tack room. But as I approached this space, a German shepherd who belonged to one of the farmhands stepped into it and blocked my path. I was still 20 feet away, so I kept walking, talking to my horse and lamenting the end of the lesson, but then something about the dog’s body told me to stop. His tail, his ears, his everything, taut like a bow.

I’d been coming to this farm for almost two years and this dog had never bothered me. But I’d also never interacted with him. If I knew his name I don’t remember it. Logic told me he posed no threat, but for the first time in my life I felt the air around me charge with that self-fulfilling amalgamation of fear and aggression. My instincts told me to walk away. I knew I could get to the grooming area through the barn, so I turned my horse and led him around to a pair of wide double doors and stepped into the cool darkness. A long line of stalls stretched out before me to the bright sunny exit at the far end of the building. My teacher and classmates would be brushing down their horses just outside that door.

But seconds after I entered the barn, the shepherd appeared at the other end. He blocked my exit to the grooming area with the same erect posture he’d taken before, now a silhouette surrounded by white sunlight at the end of the corridor. I stared down the dim line of stalls that separated us, my body turning cold at the sight of his unmoving shadow. The smell of horse and sweat and straw turned sour in the back of my throat. A fly landed on my forehead, but I didn’t move to swat it away.

Not knowing what else to do, I turned my horse again and walked out of the barn the way I’d come in. When I rounded the corner outside the building, I didn’t need to look at the entrance to the grooming area to know the dog would be waiting there. When we squared off again, my heart pounding, I tightened my child’s grip on the worn leather reins and pressed my small body into the flank of the horse that towered over me. I couldn’t see a way out of my situation, so I reminded myself again that this dog had never bothered me before. I had no reason to fear him. And besides, I wasn’t afraid of dogs. That was my sister’s thing.

So I took a step forward.

When I did, he erupted into action, growling and barking as he charged. To protect myself, I pulled my horse in front of me, curling his neck around me and cowering under his shoulder. Somehow, the dog flew by us in the air, a tangle of snarls and teeth and fur. After he passed, I ran through the entryway to the grooming area with my horse. I don’t know why the dog didn’t follow. In my memory, he just disappeared. For the next ten minutes, I brushed my horse in silence, my hands trembling, my body thumping.

I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about the incident at first. People who live and work on farms are not supposed to be afraid of animals, and I wanted to be like them. But then the dog barked and growled at me again the next week—this time in front of everyone. When the owner grabbed his collar and forced me to pet his head to prove we were friends, the dog responded with a mean and low rumble that vibrated through the tips of my fingers.

My mother had to ask the farm owner to tie him up when I arrived for my lessons after that. They did it to keep me safe, but I saw the instructors exchange disapproving glances as the dog’s owner snapped the chain onto his collar each Saturday. The dog hadn’t bitten me, but this was worse. He’d stalked me, humiliated me, and made me an outsider in this place I had loved.

 

***

 

On my bike, I put a boot heel on the image of a German shepherd silhouetted at the end of a barn—at the top of the basement stairs—at the end of the aisle on an airplane. But when I do, a new image appears in my mind. I imagine a shepherd standing at the end of a long walkway in front of a broken down porch.

If he would just come I could fight. I see myself pushing my fingers into the softness of his eyes or performing Herculean feats where I crush his skull with a rock, strangle him, or grab him by his scruff and fling him in a great arc over my head. My nightmares are about waiting, but my fantasies are about fighting.

When my bike finally labors past the entrance to the front walk, nothing happens. I pedal past the front yard, then the side yard with its white fence without incident. There are no triangles here. When I crest the hill, I shift up and stand in my pedals to regain momentum. Still standing, I fly down the other side of the hill and let the house fall out behind me, my cold sweat drying as I lift my chin, inhale deeply, then exhale into the wind. I wait until I hit 20 mph then I crouch into my saddle to maximize my speed.

When I round a corner at the bottom of the hill, I gear myself up for another climb, searching for the next house in the distance.