SHORTLISTED for the 2021 BC and Yukon Book Prizes' Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
A personal story about not only facing but conquering fears.
In 2015, Eva Holland was forced to confront her greatest fear when her mother had a stroke and suddenly passed away. After the shock and grief subsided, Holland began to examine the extent to which her many fears had limited her, and wondered whether or not it was possible to move past them.
This sent Holland on a deep dive into the science of fear, digging into an array of universal and personal questions: Why do we feel fear? Where do phobias come from and how are they related to anxiety disorders and trauma? Can you really smell fear? (Yes.) What would it be like to feel no fear? Is there a cure for fear? Or, put differently, is there a better way to feel afraid?
On her journey, Holland meets with scientists who are working to eliminate phobias with a single pill, she explores the lives of the few individuals who suffer from a rare disease that prevents them from ever feeling fear, and she immerses herself in her own fears including hurling herself out of a plane for her first skydive (and in the process, learns that there are right and wrong ways to face your fears).
Fear is a universal human experience, and Nerve answers these questions in a refreshingly accessible way, offering readers an often personal, sometimes funny, and always rigorously researched journey through the science of facing our fears.
About the author
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
EVA HOLLAND is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse, Yukon. She is currently a correspondent at the magazine Outside, and has had her work published in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, National Geographic News, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and many more.
Excerpt: Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear (by (author) Eva Holland)
We started the day with strong coffee and a short drive south on the Alaska Highway, from a remote lodge to an even emptier stretch of snowy pavement. As the dark February day grew lighter, we laced up heavy ice-climbing boots, buckled on packs loaded with ropes and gear and food and water, and began our ascent into the mountains.
It was February 2016, and our group of a dozen or so had come from our home in Whitehorse, the small capital city of the Yukon, a few hours away, for an extended weekend of ice climbing in far northern British Columbia. My friends Ryan and Carrie, and their crew of climbing pals, had been making this trip annually for several years. This was my first time tagging along.
Ryan and Carrie are natural teachers and leaders, people who genuinely enjoy passing on their skills and knowledge to others, and for the past few winters, they had been making occasional efforts to teach me how to ice climb: to ascend frozen waterfalls using crampons, axes, and rope. I was a poor student. I liked the thunk of my axe sinking solidly into thick ice, the soreness in my shoulders and calves as I moved up a route, step by step. I loved the glow of satisfaction when I reached the top of a climb. But I was afraid of heights—specifically, I was afraid of falling from exposed heights. Climbing, then, was hard for me. Ryan and Carrie had both seen me cry, more than once. They’d heard me beg to be allowed back down to the ground; they’d heard me announce, loud and flat and on the verge of losing control, that I was “not having fun anymore.”
I had kept at it because, some of the time at least, I was having fun—and because I wanted to learn to master my fear. But my progress had been slow, and this winter I had hardly climbed at all. My mom had died suddenly the previous summer, and I had largely let sports and socializing slip away in the months afterward.
It was about an hour’s uphill hike, alongside a creek bed through the snow, before we paused to strap on our crampons and then carried on up the frozen creek itself, the steel spikes offering us traction. The creek rose in slow increments: an easy step up, then a flat surface for a few steps, then a longer step up, and so on. Sometimes an icy rise would be too much to clear in a single step, and we’d kick the toe spikes of our crampons into its sloped surface and climb up that way.
Eventually we came to the true start of the climb, a route known as the Usual. One by one, we tied a rope to our harnesses and then ascended the first short wall. After that came another, longer, section of steep climbing, and then another.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, with the temperature hovering around freezing. I was nervous, as usual—especially since there were members of the group that I barely knew. I was always even more mortified to show my fear in front of strangers. But I was handling the climbing just fine, with no tears or pleas for mercy. I was even managing, as I sometimes did, to enjoy it.
When I made it to the top, I popped out onto an open, frozen plateau with a sweeping view all the way back to the highway. I took a selfie with the vista behind me and then sat down in the sun to eat my lunch, feeling proud and satisfied.
Around two o’clock, Carrie found me and suggested that I be one of the first to start making my way back down. I would likely be among the slowest. I agreed. Descending involved a series of rappels: tying in to a secured rope and then lowering myself by hand down the ice walls.
I had never tried rappelling. The gang had taught me the basics the night before, in the hotel. They’d hitched me to a rope tied to a post in the hallway, and I’d walked backwards across the linoleum, feeding the rope through my harness as I went. Of course, that lesson had taken place on a horizontal surface.
Still, I was feeling good, feeling ready. Carrie got me set up, and I steeled myself to walk backwards off the edge of the plateau and down the icy face of my most recent climb.
The first rappel went well. I was able to laugh after I lost my balance, failed to brace myself with feet wide, and swung sideways into the ice. The second one was okay too. The third was trickier: I had to make my way along a curving tunnel of ice, and again I lost my footing and swung hard into an ice wall, dangling helplessly on the rope, banging my elbows and knees. I swung and fell again as I neared the bottom of that rappel, and I slid down the rope and landed in a heap, the ice axes I’d hung on my harness digging hard into my sides.
Now I was embarrassed and in pain. I had a quick little cry there, tangled in my gear at the bottom of the rope, and then I picked myself up and moved out of the way so someone else could follow me down.
I struggled through two more short rappels, but my mood had become grim, and my control only deteriorated further as I descended. The afternoon was cooling off as sunset approached, and all that swinging and slamming had soaked me with water from the sun melting the ice through the day. I was cold, hungry, and exhausted. I was not having fun anymore. At the bottom of the last rappel, I sat down off to one side, away from the others, and cried, trying to hide my face. I ate a Snickers bar I’d been saving—chocolate almost never fails to cheer me up—but it only helped a little. We still had a long way to go to reach the cars.
When everyone had arrived at the bottom of the last rappel, we bunched together to head down the walkable, unroped portion of the route, along the frozen creek. As the group began to head down in twos and threes, I stood on the edge of one of the low ice bulges I’d stepped up without difficulty that morning. There was maybe a foot, a foot and a half, between the flat surface I stood on and the next flat section of ice. All I had to do was reach out with my boot and step down. I stared at my feet, but I couldn’t make them move. I kept picturing myself stepping down and my crampons failing to catch in the ice, my foot flying forward like I’d stepped on a banana peel in a cartoon. From there, I watched my body collapse, slide down the first ice bump and then the next, picking up speed, sliding and sliding down every frozen rise, all the way to the bottom. I couldn’t do it, said a voice in my head. I would fall. I would die.
Some irrational force had taken over my body. I couldn’t breathe properly, couldn’t move my limbs. A tiny part of me knew I just needed to take one step down, that everything would be fine if I could only move my feet, but that voice of reason had been shoved into a corner at the back of my brain. Another voice was in control now.
Ryan noticed my distress and circled back to reassure me. I heard myself tell him that I couldn’t come down the mountain, unfortunately. The group would just have to leave me there, I said. I couldn’t walk down, so they would all have to go on. I would stay right where I was.
My flat tone said my plan was reasonable. But staying where I was, as the temperature plunged and darkness came on and I stood shivering in my wet Gore-Tex, would be suicide. Still, my feet refused to move. I watched Ryan confer with the others and send Carrie and the rest of the group on ahead, so they could make it to the cars before dark. Ryan, his friend Joel, and a third guy I barely knew, Nic, stayed behind.
Joel stood on one side of me and grabbed my left hand. Nic took hold of my right. Ryan stepped down to the next ledge and turned to face me, pointing with his ice axe at the spot where I needed to put my foot. Slowly, taking deep breaths and clutching Joel’s and Nic’s hands hard, I forced my right foot down. My crampons caught. I did not slide to my death. Then we repeated the process with my left foot.
The light dimmed, and the night got cold. We inched down the mountain, Ryan pointing out every step, promising me that it was safe. Right foot. Left foot. I think I cried quietly, some of the time, from fear and frustration at the extent to which my body and mind had betrayed me. I was still halfway convinced that if I took one wrong step, it would be the step that killed me. It felt like the descent took hours. Eventually we pulled out our headlamps and carried on downhill in the dark.
Once we made it off the ice and onto the snowy trail for the last part of the hike down, I was finally able to let go of Joel’s and Nic’s hands. We tramped to the highway mostly in silence, and my fear receded enough for me to wonder how angry they were. Did Ryan wish he’d never invited me on this trip? Surely he must. By the time we were in the car, the four of us piled into the single remaining vehicle, my lingering fear had been eclipsed by the most powerful feeling of humiliation I have ever experienced. I sat in the back seat, trying to shrink into nothing, unable even to enjoy Ryan’s traditional post-climb bag of dill-pickle-flavoured potato chips. I was utterly mortified.
Back at the hotel, I did the best I could. I forced myself to socialize with the group over cards and drinks instead of hiding myself away. I offered beers to the guys who’d peeled me off the mountain. At some point, I asked Ryan what he would have done if I hadn’t voluntarily taken that first downward step. “You wouldn’t have liked it,” he said. I had a vision of Ryan and Joel hog-tying me and dragging me down the frozen creek, bump by bump, in a slow-motion version of my imagined death-by-sliding. He was right. I wouldn’t have liked it.
The next day, when the rest of the group went climbing again, I stayed at the hotel. I went for a long run along the highway. I read a book. I tried to relax and enjoy my weekend, tried to appreciate the blue sky and the white mountains all around the lodge. But I kept thinking back to my behaviour the day before.
It was unacceptable, I decided. I’d tried half-heartedly to work on my fear of heights over the years, but the matter had never seemed urgent. I had never before put my own life, and the safety of others, in danger because of it. I could hardly believe the lunatic on the mountain had been me, declaring that I would die from exposure rather than walk down a frozen creek. What was the matter with me?
I tried not to let myself dwell on it, but my collapse on the Usual was a setback when I had only just begun to put myself together again. For much of my life, I had feared my mom’s death. Her own mother had died when she was a child, and growing up, I had become intimately aware of the devastation the loss had left in its wake. I had dreaded living through the same loss, and when my turn did come, I had fallen apart. In the months after, I had retreated completely from my life: from friends, from exercise, from the things I normally did to challenge and amuse myself. For too long, I felt like I had forgotten how to smile or laugh, like the muscles in my face had stiffened up and no longer knew how to perform those simple acts.
It had only been a few weeks since I’d started to re-engage socially. I had started running, started feeding myself properly again, stopped living on my couch in a blur of binge-watched TV shows.
I didn’t want my setback on the mountain to derail my slow, hard-earned return to normal life. I didn’t want my terror to control me that way ever again. I decided, sitting alone in that hotel by the side of a lonely highway, that I would figure out what had happened in my brain on the mountain that day. And then, I decided, I would figure out how to fix it.
Over the next few weeks and months, I began what I would think of as my fear project. I checked out books from the library, clearing the self-help section of its various inspirational face-your-fears titles, and picking up everything I could find about the science of fear and phobias. I started talking to my friends and family about their own fears—everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell about the things that terrified them, and theories about why, and how, and hearing those stories helped expand my understanding of just how big a role fear can play in all our lives. Most importantly, I started plotting ways to try to conquer, or overcome—or at the very least renegotiate my relationship with—my fears.
I came up with three broad categories of fear to pursue. The groupings were imperfect, sometimes bleeding into one another and by necessity not encompassing every flavour of fear, but I figured they were a starting point for understanding.
First, and most obvious, are phobias: clinical, seemingly irrational fears, mostly connected to elements in the world outside ourselves. In my case, they are represented by a potent but narrowly focused fear of exposed heights. Then there is trauma, phobia’s more concrete cousin—the fear that lingers in our bodies and minds after bad things happen, driven at least as much by our fear-filled memories as by a fear of our possible future. Trauma is most closely associated in the popular imagination with personal exposure to violence, but for me, trauma was a legacy from a series of car accidents.
Lastly, there is the ephemeral, hardest-to-pin-down suite of existential fears that seem to come as part of a package deal with our human consciousness: our fear of dying, our fears of loss, our uncertainties about the world and our place in it. This tangled mess of fears is most prominently represented in my own life by my fear of my mother’s death—and it was her death, my worst fear come true, that sent me off in search of a greater understanding of all my fears, and the fears we all carry.
Understanding the ways that fear had threaded its way through my own life also meant learning about how fear acts and reacts in our bodies and minds. It meant trying to trace the connections between phobias, anxiety, and trauma, and the ways our society has responded to each one over time. It meant examining all the times in my life when I’ve felt truly, deeply afraid, dusting off old memories and trying to parse them. Had my fear been rational, a justifiable response to a threat? Or was it overblown and even toxic, like my reaction on the Usual? If fear was an essential survival tool, why did mine sometimes seem to lead me into greater danger?
Every answer I found brought new questions. And as I threw myself into various treatments for fear, both medically sanctioned and home-grown, every solution I tried brought new insights—even if they didn’t always bring me relief.
This book is the end result of all those questions and answers. After everything, I can’t say that I am now in perfect control over my fears. I can’t even promise that my breakdown on the Usual will never occur again. But I can say that my relationship with fear will never be the same.
SHORTLISTED for the 2021 BC and Yukon Book Prizes' Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
CBC’s “20 moving Canadian memoirs to read right now”
CBC’s “best Canadian nonfiction of 2020”
TIME Magazine's “Must-Read” books of 2020
Praise for Nerve:
“Eva Holland put herself on the line to probe what makes us cower, and the result is this brave and emboldening book. Weaving memoir with science research and reportage, Nerve exposes fear for what it really is: a flush of chemicals, an evolutionary instinct, a mirror to the self—sometimes a liability, but often a guide.”
—Kate Harris, author of Lands of Lost Borders
“Nerve is a white-knuckle journey into extreme states of terror and grief, but it does more than merely evoke those feelings. It also illuminates them. It’s a gift for all of us who are fated to live with fear and sorrow—that is, for human beings.”
—Brian Phillips, author of the bestselling Impossible Owls
“I really enjoyed Nerve—it has a good balance of personal story and actual science. And I appreciated the clarity with which Holland describes her experiences. Nerve gave me a lot to think about.”
—Alex Honnold, professional rock climber, author of Alone on the Wall, and star of Free Solo
“An intimate and wide-ranging look at fears and how we overcome them.”
—The New York Times
“The publication of Nerve could be one of the most germane and significant books to help people navigate through our current dark and unfamiliar emotional and physical territory. With acuity of purpose, author Holland demonstrates to her audience that armed with a baseline of knowledge, fear is an emotion that can be experienced, examined, and conquered, thereby strengthening the human psyche and its ability to deal with future catastrophes.”
—New York Journal of Books
“Holland’s narration is friendly and easygoing, and she is wryly self-observant . . . laugh-out-loud moments. . . . What really makes the book is Holland’s cinematic scene setting. Her ability to vividly recall details illuminates every scrape with death, heart-wrenching episode of fear-induced panic, and instance of Holland avoiding danger by trusting her gut. The result makes for an enjoyable read. When, at the end of her journey, she finds herself able to zip line over large, deep gorges and drive in the winter without feeling like her chest is about to explode, we can’t help but cheer.”
—Quill and Quire
“A harmonious blend of memoir and science reporting . . . [Holland] makes her story both specific and universal.”
“[In Nerve,] Holland’s engaging, accessible writing brings the science to life, and her sure-footedness when writing about her inner life propels the narrative. She’s a likable protagonist, easy to root for as she tries to make sense of her various fears. . .”
“A moving, groundbreaking look at how we can live in a world filled with dangers, both real and perceived, by one of the most talented writers working today.”
—Frank Bures, author of The Geography of Madness.
“Holland presents us with a raw, intimate account of her deepest terrors, then invites us along as she fights to overcome them, embarking on a globe-trotting journey of self-discovery and scientific exploration. This book about fear is scarily good and profoundly brave.”
—Luke Dittrich, author of Patient HM
“An enlightening intellectual road trip across the vast and seldom-explored science of fear. On this journey, Holland is an ideal companion—warm and intelligent, open-hearted and clear-eyed. But more than anything, she is a person who has felt, and conquered—and then captured and made sense of—fears so intense that they made me wince just reading about them.”
—Rob Moor, author of On Trails
“Brave, surprising, and gorgeous, Nerve plunges into some dark territory—fear, loss, trauma—and shines a lovely light. Holland is a gifted storyteller, and by using science to understand and confront her own worst fears, she shows us how to find peace with our own.”
—Jason Fagone, author of the bestselling The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies
“Nerve’s smooth interweaving of memoir and science—the human ability to smell fear is explored during Holland’s account of her skydiving experience—is what makes it so compelling.”
“A readable overview of what happens when human beings lose their nerve, author Holland employs relatable life experiences to explore multiple facets of fear. . . . Readers share in the journey as Holland confronts her fears and comes to successfully manage them. . . . This might encourage readers to identify, examine, and tackle fears of their own.”
“Nerve is a gorgeous journey . . . a love letter to life itself: to the instincts and relationships that sustain us, to all the ways we find to push through.”
—Blair Braverman, Iditarod racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube
“Eva Holland’s brisk Nerve is proof of how fruitful it can be when a reporter takes her risks thoughtfully. . . . she writes with appealing vulnerability and wistfulness . . . Nerve is brave and tender, and an example of why journalists treating themselves as guinea pigs should never completely go out of style.”
“[Nerve weaves] together a deeply personal narrative with hard science, the rightful place of fear in our lives, and the meta-ness of how scary it is to write about fear—especially your own.”
—The Open Notebook
“In Nerve . . . the grieving writer takes a deeply personal and wide-ranging scientific look at how fear, in its infinite forms and layers, shapes our lives and even our brains. The result is a journey well worth sharing.”
—Chatelaine, “12 Books We Can't Wait To Read This Spring”
“Think of this deeply personal book as self-help for the pandemic era. Journey with Holland as she harnesses the latest science to face her fears.”
“Holland’s adventure is a white-knuckle ride, but she remains analytical and introspective, carefully collecting the knowledge she needs to come to terms with what haunts her.”
“A timely memoir. . . . Holland is an observant, entertaining, honest guide . . . "
“Holland writes about her fears and the shame they engender with vivid precision, and her account of her attempts to cure herself and the science informing those cures is no less informative. . . . Most instructive and most heartening is the way that Holland's definition of overcoming her fears changes over the course of the book.”
—The Winnipeg Free Press
“[W]ith accessible science writing, [Holland] eases us into centuries of research on fear. . . . [Nerve] is a salve for our scary, lonely times.”
“Nerve . . . is an accomplished debut full of strong images and clear-headed discussion.”
—The Saturday Paper
“[C]onfessional and analytic . . . It’s a weighty subject, but [Holland] has a light, sometimes ironic touch, that makes her exploration of the subject engaging, frank and instructive.”
—The Sydney Morning Herald