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June 19, 2011 / missmarymax

Let’s Get Dangerous: On Claiming My Bravery

It’s possible that you haven’t been following Self-Discovery: Word by Word since Ashley launched it last October.  Or maybe you’re like me and know there’s a rad blog carnival that allows people to write whatever the frak they want about one little word, once a month — and just never quite manage it.  In the latter case, I think you should take a note from my book, and let this be the month that changes.  Because this month, Dana at Body and Brood has chosen the word “bravery.”  And bravery, people, is a pretty phenomenal word.  Brave is, like, my middle name. 

Well, — my surname, if you want to get technical.

Regardless, this word and I have a long history.  Granted, not all of it’s positive.  When I was young ,”brave” was a challenge that petrified me: the “we’ll see how brave you are” dare that reads as threat. It was the lingering doubt of my own worth, everything I did not have to offer: Would I be saved if I were brave and just tried harder? Brave was an expectation I couldn’t meet, a question I couldn’t answer.  As a kid, I had a lot of things going for me: I was smart, I was kind, I was creative; I could even have told you as much.  But I would never have called myself brave.

The first time I remember someone else describing me that way, I was on the ropes course at Rogers, the treatment facility I entered at 16. My fellow residents and I spent a few mornings each week climbing forty feet into the air, walking across stationary logs (or swinging ones),  and flying down zip lines. Dwight, the beyond-incredible counselor who led us through these activities, alternated between shaman and sports coach. One moment, he’d be sitting with us in the woods, lighting sage and talking about how we might learn–from the deer–to be gentle. The next, he’d be calling at the top of his voice, “You are dangerous!” — a phrase I never knew I could love until I met him.  Dangerous, for the first time outside of a Darkwing Duck episode, didn’t mean recklessness or the situation’s inevitable explosion in my face. It meant my willingness to risk as hard as the circumstance demanded, to tiptoe off a platform forty feet in the air and trust that the cord would hold.

At Rogers, I learned to think of myself as brave for those moments I jumped from my comfort zone — sometimes literally, at crazy heights, and sometimes more softly, subtly, as I risked on the ground. I learned to think of myself as brave for voicing my shame, for fighting back against it, for eating meals, for weeping (openly), for getting angry, for having opinions and feelings that were mine alone. I learned to do all the things I’d thought would break the world, to risk them, and teach myself that the world — and I — would remain intact. Grow stronger even.  The more I risked — the braver I allowed myself to be — the less afraid I became of each impending challenge.

I’ve long considered my stint in residential as a second upbringing, an alternate view to the one I attacked life with for those first sixteen years. When I left Rogers, I clung to that upbringing with everything I had, and I looked for ways to remain close to it, despite the distance. I bought a sketchbook and dedicated a page to each of the people I’d met and the gifts they had given me. Dwight’s page — not surprisingly — had many of the elements I’ve already mentioned: the sage, the deer, the danger, and the Brave.


I drew in that sketchbook, maintained contact with the people I could from the hospital, and held fast to the practices I’d learned at Rogers– because I wanted to live out the alternate life promised by that alternate upbringing.  As difficult as I (rightfully) expected recovery would be after discharge, I wanted to continue claiming the life I’d begun — ever so barely — to believe was possible. I thought hard about how to hold onto “the Mary” from Rogers, the one who’d been able to take those risks, who’d been able to develop a sense of self, an identity that allowed some peace in the midst of the struggle, connection over the isolation of the past. I wanted to keep being “their Mary,” the Mary who had felt at home there, and the Mary who had started — impossibly — to surface in that world.

I finally decided to take a new last name, in honor of what truly felt like an experience of family.  After a hell of a lot of deliberation, (I do basically nothing spontaneously), I did what any proto-blogger would have done in the early years of the new millennium:  I announced the decision at my diaryland journal.

I’d decided on Brave.

The name meant a lot to me.  It was steeped in meaning — one of those rare words that’s simultaneously adjective, verb, and noun. It was an identity — the warrior who would not keep fighting — and the practices that would allow her (me) to win that fight.  It was the risks I still needed to take, and the girl I could be if I took them, the girl I could become if I kept doubting what it no longer served me to believe.

I went by Mary Brave for years.

I gathered a family of close friends and would lovingly apply it to them as well.  It became a sort of inside shorthand for I love you, I’m here, I believe you can do this.  Internally, I used Brave for similar purposes.  In my most terrified moments (which occurred roughly daily), I would call that stronger part of me forward by name. I would proclaim it in triumph at the end of celebratory journal entries; on my best days I was– Mary [all-caps] BRAVE.  I was also, eventually, Mary Maxfield, the name I’d been given at birth.  But the new name gave the old one new meaning.

Brave, too, began to take on new meanings. It became a practice instead of a goal, the willingness to risk as opposed to the outcome. It became a point of pride rather than a point of shame; I was brave — not crazy — for taking the risks I took. It gave me an alternate origin, and in doing so, a new future. I also, eventually, found a new song:

I want to be strong but I never know where to begin/ and the light from the window is making me want to stay in/ but darling, you free me/ and I’m brave, I’m brave…

“Darling” in that context has meant an infinite number of people over the years.  But most consistently, it’s meant me — the most daring and dangerous me, the self most willing to relentlessly pursue her next right choice.  It’s meant believing the rope will not snap if I let myself fly on that zip line, that the world will not end if I let myself trust, matter, or live.

It’s a single syllable immersed in meaning.  A simple equation for an incredibly difficult process: Be dangerous. Be brave.  Be free.



Leave a Comment
  1. Kat / Jun 19 2011 3:23 pm

    the fact that it was the word brave (interestingly enough) is why I didn’t really participate this month – choosing to write about brave’s cousin “fear” instead

    Also, I love “I’ve long considered my stint in residential as a second upbringing, an alternate view to the one I attacked life with for those first sixteen years.” — I can relate to it quite readily

    • missmarymax / Jun 19 2011 5:51 pm

      Fear and bravery; they’re like conjoined twins, aren’t they? I don’t know when, exactly, my response to fear started to veer away from “avoid! avoid!” toward “what the hell is this? I’m afraid! must attack the thing inspiring fear!” — but it’s a pretty marvelous shift. I see you working your way from the one word to the other, and I promise it’s not as far a trek as it seems. …Also, yeah. Residential was family. And I would not be who I am without that upbringing. Took me a long time to be comfortable saying that — and comfortable letting it co-exist w/ the trauma of being sick, being hospitalized. But yeah. I’m grateful for them and “their Mary” every day.

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