Ed Stafford: what fear has taught me, from childhood to today

By Ed Stafford

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In his monthly Flash Pack column, adventurer Ed Stafford reflects on the lessons about fear he’s learnt throughout his life; from being adopted as a baby to the dad-turned-pioneer we see today

No healthy adult is fearless. My little boy is fearless – but he is two years old. Without me realising what is going on, he’ll throw himself down a steep slide as my pounding heart slams into my unsuspecting throat. He’ll launch himself off a table top at me when I’m only half paying attention because, fortuitously, I’ve managed to catch him every time he’s done it previously. Such bravery when your skull isn’t even properly formed makes me wonder how the human race has even survived to this day – but they have. And the reason they have is because we rightly learn to fear.

I get scared all the time. In fact I find I have a fairly low tolerance for “tough guys” who pretend that nothing frightens them. To me if you’re trying to hide a portion of your emotions in order that you come across as stronger, then you can’t actually be that tough. Grow up and start developing the courage to be honest about your vulnerabilities I say.

It’s definitely true that fear cripples some people and holds them back so I’ll take you on a journey of how I’ve got to ten successive series on Discovery Channel without fear derailing my adventures and smashing them into the rocks. So let’s start at the very beginning…

Arriving in the world

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[This is pre-memory so please forgive the artistic licence]. The blinding light at the end of the birthing tunnel caused me to screw my face up tight. I choked and gasped in my first ever lungful of air and immediately I knew something was very wrong. With a giddy disorientation I felt a physical tear and the sensation that I was falling, like a spacewalking astronaut who’s just been severed from the mothership and is plummeting into deep space with zero chance of survival. I was utterly terrified.

A newborn baby is completely helpless and has one instinctual way of ensuring it survives: forming a bond with its mother. There is a theory that adopted kids suffer a life-threatening trauma at birth from which their whole personality develops. Castaway from Plan A, he or she quickly switches to Plan B: adapt yourself to be likeable by whoever you may need help from.

The difference between babies that stay with their natural parents and those that are adopted is like night and day. One develops self-esteem and a loving sense that they are safe in the world – the other is chronically scared of being abandoned and consequently morphs themselves to such an extent that they have no idea who they are. Interestingly, similar adult behavioural disorders are found in incubator babies.

Starting school

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The last few minutes of the car journey to school every day caused rising panic. For some reason I was sent to a predominantly girls’ private school and the institution filled me with dread. With hindsight I wonder whether the strict teachers who showed little emotion or kindness exaggerated my own inherent fears of being lonely and unloved. My five-year-old survival strategy in an overwhelming world of potential rejection was to extract myself and minimise the risks.

I found a thick bush that I could crawl inside every day at break time which gave me a good view of the playground. From my little den I could watch the other kids run and play and interact. I envied them, their laughter, but I had the quiet satisfaction that I now had zero chance of getting rejected. This was child survival in action.

Sports and teamwork

As a nine-year-old I started playing rugby, and my life began to alter for the better. There were many fears to be conquered: fear of getting hurt, fear of losing – but by training hard and sticking at it I found in rugby a crucible in which I could develop as a boy. I learned discipline, honesty, teamwork, sacrifice. By not turning away from the fears initially, I found a sport that allowed me to develop confidence and belief in myself for the first time.

Trials of teendom

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Just as life started to get better I was sent away to boarding school. As proud as I was that I was the only boy in my year not to cry when I was left by my parents for the first time, the school was old and had a dark energy. A boy called Brooks (who I never met) had been expelled the term prior to my arrival for having intercourse with another boy. Somewhat unfortunately for me I looked like Brooks and consequently became known as Brooks by the upper years and bullied relentlessly.

They say its the tough times in life that make you who you are and these initial years boarding were certainly formative. As I write I’m trying to remember how I coped with the barrage of abuse and I think the honest answer is that I had no response – I just absorbed it. Knowing full well that in this environment the upper years were like Gods and there was no consideration of fighting back or reporting them to the house master, I just soaked up the hate like a sponge.

Rugby was still my saviour and, now captain of my year, I would vent my rage at the world by smashing the opposition. It may have given me an edge.

Army calling

What does a young man who has struggled through stuffy old institutions then decide to do for a career? Join the Army of course. Why wouldn’t you? The same fear that I’d felt arriving at school still caused me to shiver every time I drove up to the barbed wire of a military camp. Even when my rank was captain.

I was afraid of being late, of messing up, of failing, of so many things. It’s extraordinary that I volunteered for it, but again I think I subconsciously knew that by facing all these fears, by throwing myself into this world, I would adapt and get stronger. I was still in survival mode and the Army both taught me skills that I could use. It gave me a rigid structure within I could exist without really yet knowing who I was or what I wanted out of life.

Walking the Amazon

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Fast forward a decade and I was flying over the Amazon rainforest looking out of the window on my way to the source high in the Peruvian Andes. I’d told the world I was going to walk the whole length of the longest river in the world, and now I was seeing it for the first time. Hour after hour of endless trees meant my stomach was so twisted I couldn’t eat. I felt physically sick with apprehension and the only way I could even begin to get my head around what I was going to attempt was to break the journey down into individual days.

Which one of the 365 days walking (my initial estimate of the expedition duration) was going to be impossible? “None of them!” I told myself. Luckily it turns out I was right – after being held up at gunpoint by drugs traffickers; arrow-point by indigenous tribes; and even after being arrested and imprisoned for suspected murder at one point – I flopped into the ocean 860 days after I started.

Identity crisis

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But I hadn’t put myself through enough self-inflicted fear yet. I still inherently knew that there were chinks in my armour that needed addressing. I knew who I was in a rugby team. I knew who I was leading an expedition. But who would I be if I abandoned myself alone on an uninhabited tropical island naked for two months? The answer was excruciatingly uncomfortable to address as, whilst trying to self-film my first ever survival experiment for Discovery Channel, I started to mentally unravel.

In the context of others I had identity. I could tell a joke and make people laugh to reassure myself I was funny; I could walk the Amazon and listen to people’s praise to reassure myself I was capable. But now, when no-one was watching or listening, I was almost physically sick at the overwhelming concept that, without other people, “Who the fuck was I?”

Search for the soul

Psychotherapy from a breakdown takes many guises. The honesty required to embrace working through your own issues requires courage, as these are generally the very things that you’ve avoided thinking about your entire life. But sitting in a forest clearing in the Amazon knowing that in a few hours I’m going to drink the plant medicine Ayahuasca and enter a spiritual dimension has to be quite up there with the pinnacle of all fears. In a mountain range of fear-facing, this was my Everest.

As a control freak, the concept of drinking a medicine that would induce visions and delve into the darkest parts of my soul was causing nausea and making my heart pound in my chest. Like boarding school I just knew I had to show up, take what was coming on the chin, and I would come out the other side. Hopefully the better for the experience.

Becoming a parent

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Fast forward a further decade and I’m in a birthing pool in our bedroom and my wife is on all fours making guttural noises. I’d never allowed myself the luxury of believing that I could become a dad because a) I’d not had the emotional stability required until recently, and b) I’d simply not imagined it was possible for a survivor like me to have a normal family and be truly happy.

So the sadness that filled me when the head came out and it was blue and appeared not to be breathing (under water) was perversely almost expected. But then my wife screamed again and the rest of the baby’s body slipped out into the water like a newborn lamb and I gathered it up and brought it up above the surface. As my son started to cry so did I. Harder than I have ever cried before. So hard that the midwives who were respectfully standing back looked concerned.

The best I can explain it was that at a cellular level I was healing. The cycle of life-long fear was being broken and replaced, at long last, by one of love. It probably took me ten minutes to stop crying and there are tears rolling down my cheeks as I write this. Somehow life and circumstances had taken me on a healing journey. And somehow each lesson had brought me closer to a place where I could mend. I knew at my deepest level that I would be a good dad, and that my boy would grow up with self-esteem and a safe sense of worthiness and being loved. And in that moment everything I had gone through had been worth it.

Fear, focus and fatherhood

Any husband or father will tell you that with family comes a whole new set of fears and responsibilities for people who you now care about more than yourself. But somehow these fears are the wholesome, practical fears that I referred to at the start that are designed to keep everyone safe and alive.

Do I still personally get scared? In my work in my current series, I compete against other survival experts. And so yes, there is fear of the unknown, fear of losing, fear of loss of reputation. But the truth is now that these fears are manageable, because I now know who I am and I understand that the opinions of others are not what define me. And I know that I’m not an abandoned baby anymore, and can look after myself and others.

Fear is a healthy part of who we are. It heightens our senses, it gives us focus when we need it. It’s how you deal with fear that brands you fearless or not. Let fear make you drop out and you’ve lost. Let fear discourage you to follow your path and you’ve failed. But just keep walking and the feeling will dissipate. In the words of Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through Hell – keep going.” By doing so, you’ll become a more evolved version of yourself.

Images: Ed Stafford, Vanessa Bumbeers, Carlo Navarro, Geronimo Giqueaux, Liane Metzler and Hudson Roseboom on Unsplash

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