Photo by Buchen Wang on Unsplash

Fear: Stuck in a Stall

Ah, change. Many of us want it—myself included. But yet we dread the process. Again, guilty. This is probably because change ultimately comes down to three different things: work, stepping into the unknown, and a loss of control. Ick. Ugh. Yuck. And all three of these can incite one very powerful emotion: fear.

Fear is powerful. It can freeze us to the spot or motivate us to get our butts in gear. But there’s no escaping it. Fear will forever be a part of our lives. I’ve found, though, that the key to a healthy relationship with fear is two-fold: Strive to become resilient to its negative impact while capitalizing on its positive potential. In other words, take what’s good and leave the rest.

And no one has taught me more about the importance of doing this than my youngest son, Mark.

Mark has many special needs, including an intellectual disability (low IQ) and a processing disorder. So, as you can imagine, it took quite a while before I felt comfortable sending Mark in to use a public restroom alone. Though, to his credit, he desperately wanted the freedom to try. Even though he was physically small and could pass for much younger, it was still hard on his ego to head into the women’s restroom every time with mom. So, when he was about ten years old, I decided to give in to his request.

But after a good ten or fifteen minutes, I knew something was up.

“Hey, Nate,” I said to my other son. “Mind going in and checking on Mark?”

Quick to help, Nate ran inside, and I stood patiently beside the door and waited. Another five minutes or so passed before Nate came back out.

“Mom, it’s not good,” he said. “Mark’s stuck.”

“What do you mean he’s stuck?”

“I mean, he’s stuck,” Nate said. “Really stuck!”

“Wait here,” I said as I went into the men’s room myself. In Mark’s world, “stuck” could have meant any number of things: He could’ve gotten his zipper stuck. He could’ve clogged the toilet and stopped that up. He could’ve fallen into the toilet and literally been stuck in the bowl. I know all of these were possibilities because all of these had already happened before to poor Mark.

“Mark?” I called out. “It’s Momma.”

There was no intelligible response. But the sounds of uncontrollable sobs lead me to his location inside one of the locked stalls.

“Mark, look at me,” I said. I pushed my face against the cold metal door and peered through the tiny crack. “I’m here. It’s me.”

“Momma, Momma,” he said between big gasps of air, spit and tears flying everywhere.

“Look at me. I’m here,” I continued. “Now, what’s wrong?”

“Momma, I stuck! I stuck!” he managed to say.

“Are you okay? How are you stuck?”

“I not get out,” Mark said.

“Well, you got in there,” I said. Honestly, I was perturbed. Mark had indeed gotten in there just fine—and locked the door. The problem was, though, he’d completely forgotten how to unlock it. He couldn’t reverse engineer his steps on his own. On top of his low IQ, his short-term memory loss was to blame. And now, utter panic and complete fear were holding him hostage.

I looked down and briefly considered crawling on the floor into the stall myself. But the thick stench of urine and dried yellow stains quickly talked me out of it. Yeah, no, I wasn’t going to do that, and neither were either of my boys.

“Look at me,” I said. “Just look at me and calm down. You’re gonna be fine. We’re going to get you out. But I need you to calm down.”

Mark took a few deep breaths through his mouth and managed to stop sobbing. Though silent tears still streamed down his face, he managed to make eye contact with me.

“Now, you’re gonna listen to my words and do them,” I said. “Don’t think. Just do what I say.” I knew that if he allowed his thoughts to run ahead untethered, he’d allow fear to run away with him again.

“Find the little metal knob, the handle,” I said as I tapped on the other side of the door, approximating where it should be. “I want you to put your fingers on it.”

“I not find it!” Mark cried out. “I not find it.”

“You don’t have to find it,” I assured him. It’s right there. Just look down. Put your fingers on it.”

But Mark’s panic still had him blind to the obvious.

“Mark, follow me. Follow my eyes. Look at Momma,” I said. Then, I slowly slid my face down the door, making sure my eyes stared right at him the entire time, all the while praying that no men would need to use the bathroom anytime soon.

“Good!” I said, genuinely relieved. “Now, look down. There’s the knob. Put your fingers on it. Don’t think. Just do it. Do it now.”

“I got it,” he replied as I felt the door jiggle a bit. He had a death grip on that tiny metal knob. Now that he’d finally found it, he was going to make darn sure he didn’t lose it again!

“Now, don’t let go,” I continued. “Look down at my feet. I want you to push the knob this way.”

Mark didn’t know left or right. Nor could I appeal to any kind of logic. I couldn’t just say, “Move it to the other side, so it unlocks.” He wouldn’t understand that. So, instead, I shoved my foot under the stall door and slid it over to the side repeatedly.

Finally, Mark was free, and we went back out to find Nate.

“See? I told you Mark was stuck,” Nate said. He wasn’t wrong.

Fear is ultimately what kept Mark stuck in that stinky stall. And it can keep us stuck, seeking to avoid change, too. While an extreme example, for sure, fear can have a similar effect on us. It can take over our thoughts, lie to us, and even make us doubt our own strengths and abilities. Fear is sneaky, and it can snowball quickly. For all these reasons, fear can incorrectly color our perspective on change. Sure, change is rarely easy. But let’s not kid ourselves. Stuck isn’t a great alternative.


Dealing with fear isn’t fun. But it’s so important to not let fear freeze us up and keep us stuck.

Fear can snowball quickly. But remember that you can, too! You can be bigger and stronger than the fear you feel.

You know and can do a lot—even when fear makes you feel otherwise.

You already know what fear tells you. What are some specific things you can tell yourself—and remember when you need to—that will remind you that you are capable and don’t have to remain stuck where you are?

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