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Overcoming fear

Overcoming fear (Genes and memes)

     One of the biggest psychological triumphs of my adult life –  which I’m convinced helped propel me toward finding love – was learning to eat sushi.

     All my life I had a love/hate, fascination/terror relationship with sushi.

     In the pre-globalization Dominican Republic, where I grew up, sushi was a joke. It proved that people in rich countries who didn’t have to worry about hunger, water-borne epidemics, craters on the roads and lack of electricity eventually got so bored they lost their minds. 

     Obviously, you had to be crazy to want to put raw fish in your mouth. We’d all heard horror stories about people who nearly died from neurotoxin poison “ciguatera” for eating fish in the wrong time of year, or got salmonella or cerebral cisticercosis from an undercooked meal (let alone raw!). In my opinion, eating sushi was in the same category as playing Russian Roulette. 

     Overcoming fear had been the foundation of my journey to becoming a a physician.  I was no longer afraid of blood, I wasn’t afraid of corpses, I wasn’t afraid of watching scalpels cut through bodies in surgery…yet I was afraid of sushi.

     But then, one day, sushi got linked in my mind with the concept of “Cool, Fearless Women.” All because of Kate and Kulsoom. 

     Kate and Kulsoom were the PhD students working at the research lab in which I rotated as a hematology-oncology fellow.

     I loved that research lab! A place where everybody was a brainiac, so I didn’t have to apologize for being a nerd. I was in heaven, surrounded by heavy-duty lab equipment. My favorite items were the smokey, vault-like, minus-70-degree freezer and the cell culture incubator where we grew cancer cells to later extract and analyze their DNA (it was like playing with an Army of little mutants).  Also, being at the famous Northwestern University, in the gorgeous city of Chicago, steps away from the high-end shopping district of Michigan Avenue made for one of the few times in my life when I felt almost cool. 

     Kate and Kulsoom were an unlikely combination of brains and beauty. In addition to being geniuses researching innovative treatments for Multiple Myeloma (the same cancer which had taken my mother’s life), they had complementing looks which seemed extracted from a Benetton ad. 

     Kate was, in my mind, the quintessential American girl – blond, cute, no-non-sense and carrying that self-confidence you can only have when you grew up hearing that your country put people on the moon. Kulsoom’s self-assurance, on the other hand, was a mystery that fascinated me. Like me, she came from a male-dominated culture with misogynistic tendencies (she was Pakistani), yet she had a force-of-nature, joyful personality and an unapologetic attitude of success which were unbelievable. It helped that she was as gorgeous as an exotic model – with her dark hair and eyes and tanned skin, which complimented Kate’s blond beauty. With them I should have felt like the unpopular girl watching the cheerleaders from a distance – except for the wonderful detail that we were all nerds and proud of it! So, unlike cheerleaders, they treated me kindly. They both were an unusual combination of coolness and warmth. 

     And they loved to order sushi for lunch.

     With caution and longing, I used to watch them eat their fancy-looking sushi rolls, using chopsticks (another notch of coolness I’d never been able to master). I sighed, envying their braveness, while I’d go for not-so-glamorous chicken sandwich and potato wedges. 

     I wished I weren’t so squeamish and cowardly. I wished I were more sophisticated and world-wise like them and able to overcome my fear of sushi.

     But I couldn’t. 

     Why was that?

     It was all about memes (and I don’t mean internet images). 

     What are memes? If genes are the way we inherit our parents’ physical traits, memes are the way our parents pass to us a way of thinking. The online Oxford dictionary defines meme as “An element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” I define memes as parasite ideas which latch on our brains, infected from others, and act as the filter or tinted glass through which we see the world. Two people with different memes can see the same scene and interpret something different – Yes, different memes are the root of that recurrent theme that fascinates me: why people can inhabit the same space, yet live in parallel dimensions.

     So it didn’t matter that my brain knew that now I lived in a country where the Health Department actually did something and where restaurants did get inspected for cleanliness, making sushi safe. For every conscious thought saying that sushi looked attractive, there were 1000 unconscious thoughts (meme-generated) running in my brain’s background, reminding me that my life was in danger if I ate it.

     So, the first step in overcoming fear was acknowledging that it was originating not from my rational brain, but from a parasite meme someone had once passed to me.

      The second step was questioning my source. Realizing that the same people who taught me that sushi was disgusting were happily eating morcilla (blood-stuffed pork intestine) for dinner — I bet many people with a different meme would find that treat slightly unappealing.

     Now that I knew they were irrational, was there something I could do to re-shape those thoughts? 

     In my medical training I hadn’t learned much about memes. But could I extrapolate what I’d learned about genes?

     Most people believe that we’re powerless against our genes, but one of my favorite concepts in genetics is “variable penetrance.” It means that two people may carry the exact same gene, yet one of them may develop the trait (or the disease) and the other one doesn’t. Environment can shape gene expression. For someone like me, whose mother was diagnosed with cancer at an unfair young age and worries about carrying bad genes around, it’s refreshing to think that DNA doesn’t equate with destiny. 

     That was, by the way, the research project on which I was working that time at the lab at Northwestern – methylation of genes. When a gene is methylated, it doesn’t matter if it’s physically present, it can’t be transcribed. The concept fascinated me. We all could have the oncogenes present in us, but our body could choose to render them inactive.

     Call me delusional, but I decided long ago that I won’t let my family genetics get me. It’s not only cancer, my family history also includes obesity, hypertension and heart disease. By committing to a healthy lifestyle and tending to the body-mind-spirit connection, I choose each day to rebel against my genes. And so far it’s working.

     Could I also rebel against the equivalents of genes for the mind and the soul –  The memes?

     Maybe the next step was making that decision.

     And the next one was: taking baby steps. Making the first stretch a small one.

     Years after my time at the research lab, already a practicing hematologist-oncologist, Vincent, one of the medical reps catering lunch for my office, started bringing sushi for lunch. One day he caught me nibbling on fully-cooked imitation crab (my first baby step) and called me on my cowardice.  “You’re just pretending to eat sushi!” I confessed my taboos and he suggested,  “The tuna is the safest bet. You won’t even notice it’s raw.” 

     That happened to be the time in my life when I was gathering the strength to ask for a divorce. So a week later, in a Thai restaurant, in an exercise of challenging myself to be bold, I decided to take a jump into the void.

     I ordered the ahi-tuna appetizer.

     The waiter returned shortly after with an amorphous pile of pink colored shavings twirled in the center of a square plate. 

     I considered running in the opposite direction. I could only imagine how slimy a piece of raw fish must feel in my mouth.

     Bracing myself, with shaky hands and a cold sweat, I forked a bit so small it could have barely covered one molar crevice, and put it in my mouth. When the taste didn’t make me dry-heave and the texture didn’t make me squirm, I tried a bigger bite.

     And then it hit me.

     To my biggest surprise I found out that I did not like sushi.

     No. I didn’t.


     Loved as in inhaling the rest of the plate and then asking for a second tuna appetizer as my main meal. Loved as in the next time I saw Vincent the medical rep, I begged him to bring sushi for lunch. Loved as in, I almost tracked down Kulsoom and Kate just to tell them “You’re never going to believe this! I’m a cool, fearless woman like you now!” 

     (Later on I learned that ahi-Tuna is not technically sushi, but instead sashimi. Thank God I didn’t know that back then!)

     Over the following months I tried more and more varieties of sushi – even eel! I couldn’t believe the options for sushi rolls. Some covered in avocado, some covered in tempura flakes, some covered with sweet eel sauce, some to dip in salty soy sauce.  I was proud of myself (a new concept, since I’d always been an over-achiever, self-flagellator, never satisfied with anything I did). 

     I had proved to myself that memes could be broken. 

     And then overcoming fear — even such a silly one — came with the unexpected bonus of a chain reaction against my other memes and fears. If what I’d heard all my life about sushi – how disgusting and unhealthy it had to be –  wasn’t right, how many other beliefs I’d accepted as truths could be wrong?

     Maybe then, it wasn’t true that women were weak and powerless. Or that a working mother could never succeed as much as her male counterpart. Maybe it wasn’t true what I’ve heard that third-world-country born people could never catch up with people born in developed countries. 

     Or that all men were hopeless and there was no point in looking for a good one.

     But the biggest lesson I learned was one that I’d heard many times before, but only now assimilated – that what made you succeed was not being fearless, but taking the step in spite of being fearful

     That ability of pushing through the fear allowed me soon after that to get a better job. It lead me to calmly ask my ex for a separation and later on for the divorce, to start writing, to travel to Europe for the first time in my life – and do it alone. It allowed me later on to face the world of dating. 

     And then I met that man who was the brainiac-and-proud-of-it other half of my soul – the man who made my mind soar and and my heart sing. And when it terrified me that he looked “too-good-to-be-true,” and I was tempted to run away, I knew I could push through the fear. 

     And I did.

     Until one day when he said. “I hate sushi. It tastes like licking the table where they gut the fish.” 


     That meant I had to break up with him.

     Just kidding.

     I actually ended up marrying him.

     But that’s another story.




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