Growing up in Hawaii, I never imagined it would be possible to fear an inanimate object, or to fear losing or damaging that object. Fifteen years ago I lost my leg to a tiger shark. Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The dependence on a prosthetic leg, fashioned from molded plastic, metal bolts, and a rubber foot: That was a different animal. I am blessed to still walk, but that same prosthetic has filled me with more fear than a shark ever could.
Phantom pain is very real. It kept me awake many nights; I would be flinching from a burning ache I could never escape. I feared it would never stop. Thankfully, that fear was erased over time. I am no longer fearful that my leg will get stolen on the beach while I'm out swimming (it has happened). Nor am I fearful that it will get caught on a coral reef (this has also happened). Once, I lost my leg while out surfing. My friend and I dove for hours looking for it. Luckily, we found it a day later. But what was really scary -- what would send sweat down my neck and a churning in my guts-- was the thought that something so essential to my life could break down and virtually cripple me. Murphy's Law is cruelly true. If something can break, it will break, and at the worst possible time.
Several years ago I traveled to Mexico, the first time I had gone out of the country with my prosthetic. Of course the damn thing snapped in half the day I got there. Typically, when my prosthetic would break, I would find my way to the nearest hardware store and figure out a method of jerry-rigging it, but this time I was in a foreign country, and the damage was beyond the scope of my skill set. I had to put my trust in a kind man to fix it. The helpless fear that trickled through my body as I handed over a vital part of myself (a $25,000 part!) to a total stranger, essentially putting my fate in his hands, that's something I never thought I would have the guts to do. But I swallowed my fear and put my faith in humanity. I didn't have health insurance at the time (or until very recently, if we're being honest) so a lot was on the line. Miraculously, he fixed it!
I read a survey once that said one of the most common fears is being attacked by a shark. Well, been there, done that, and I survived. Even though everything afterward was worse than the actual attack, it was just another fear I had to face, and even embrace. You can face your fears and still be standing at the end. I have had to look fear square in the face, accept it, embrace it, and learn the lessons it had to teach me. I could say that I conquered all of my fears, that I drove them back into a space in my mind I never visit. But that would be padding the truth. A little fear will always remain, but I've come to a place where I don't let it control me. If I scrape against a reef, sure I might flinch. But I move on. A tiny bit of fear keeps me cognizant and careful. From my surfing to my shark advocacy to my bold photography, there isn't room in my life to be afraid all the time.
Watch Mike's story as it appeared on "Shark Fight," part of the Discovery Channel's 25th anniversary of Shark Week programming:
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