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Cynthia Gallagher

VP and Deputy Controller

Dulles, VA

Don’t wait for a life altering consequence of fear to define who you are. Instead reframe your fear and draw strength from its power.

Fear is something we can’t live without; it is a feeling we all experience at one time or another in our daily lives. I think as a society we live with fear in the wrong way, and after many years, I’m ready to share the story of how I turned fear into a source of inner strength.

When I was 18 years old and a freshman in college, I encountered a situation I never thought was possible. I never thought I would find myself as a victim of domestic violence. While only an hour from where I grew up, and still very close to family and friends, I was stubborn and wanted to be on my own. Little did I know how much that decision would change the course my life.

I was working at a restaurant to put myself through school when I met a guy who I thought was great. He had an education, a steady job in a field he was passionate about, and he knew the right things to say to make me trust him. After about a year I moved in with him, and that’s when things started to change. The mental abuse started first, making me believe I wasn’t good enough for anything. My grades started to slip, I stopped exercising and I didn’t talk to my family and friends as much as I used to.

Then the drinking, his drinking, got worse. I soon found myself being stalked during the middle of the day. If I spoke to or walked to class with anyone he didn’t know, I would be put in my place that night. I knew it was wrong. I knew there had to be something better; life shouldn’t be about being afraid. But for those few years it was. I was afraid to make a move, afraid to say anything, afraid of what the next day would bring. I distanced myself from my family and friends because I was ashamed. I wanted them to be proud of me, and I was afraid they would be disappointed in the choice I had made.

The night the police were called to his apartment I knew I had to find a way out. The police asked me if the actions they saw were typical and if I wanted to file a domestic violence report. I said no, simply because I was afraid. I knew I had to get out but didn’t know how.

Finally an opportunity presented itself – a crack in the door of opportunity that I had been waiting for. I chose to lean in.

I was asked to watch a friend’s house while they were on vacation for two weeks. The only: I could be the only one in the house during my stay. For me that meant two weeks of freedom. Two weeks with my own thoughts to figure out my next move. To my surprise, when I went home that night and said that I had to housesit, I didn’t receive any push back. I didn’t ask what he planned to do with the two weeks, nor did I care. During that time I thought about what I needed to take with me when I left and how that last conversation would go. I visualized the setting and the feeling of relief I would have once I left his apartment for the last time.

At the end of the two weeks, I went back to his apartment, packed my few things while he was at work and waited. As soon as he arrived home I delivered the simple message – I’m leaving, don’t try to find me, I’m not coming back. With that I jumped in my car and never looked back.

I consider myself very lucky for having achieved the outcome I wanted. There are times I still want to look over my shoulder just to be sure there’s no one there; times when I still want to sleep with the lights on. But I’m stronger than that now. The fear he created in me over a two-year period, I’ve turned into a source of strength.

It took me two years to understand how to face my fear, to understand that I could control the situation. While the fear I faced was one based on reality, I realized I had the power to change that reality.

My simple advice - don’t wait for a life altering consequence of fear to define who you are. Instead reframe your fear and draw strength from its power.

Imagine what would happen if you Lean In and push through the barriers before you. Imagine if you Lean In and face every challenge you’re presented with, even if you don’t know exactly what approach you’re going to take. Imagine if you Lean In even after falling down once or twice, choosing to stand up strong, dust yourself off and try again.

Having reached the other side of my journey I know many will say – well that’s easy for her to write about, she doesn’t know what it’s like in my situation. True. I don’t. But I do know what it’s like to live through something horrifying; to think there isn’t a light. Every situation is different, every person is unique, but I know each and every one of us have the power to define our own lives. It’s a matter of wanting to make the change, finding the inner strength to take the leap and being willing to ask for help if needed.

To answer an often-asked question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” – I say I’m doing it. I’ve transformed the power of fear into creating new, exciting opportunities every day. As a Vice President at AOL and a mother of two, with an amazing husband and career – I’m living every day unafraid.