Gutsy Goddess—Tessa

Swallowing swords is scary—a wrong wrist twitch, and the blade my knick your lungs, or pierce your heart. There is no reason not to be afraid. But you do the act anyway. You practice. You breathe.

“Sometimes what we fear is exactly what we have to do.”

In 2010, when I was 26, my mom suffered the biggest and baddest stroke you can have and still survive. She was in the hospital for a year, and then in and out for several more. She lost her ability to communicate, was fully paralyzed on her right side, and cognitively very changed. At the same time, my family lost their house. Between hospital visits, we slept on friend’s couches. It was all heartbreaking–we didn’t know what my mom could understand, or how present she still was in her body. Instead of resigning their life to at-home care, though, my stepdad planned a trip for them–a long-delayed journey to Italy, a trip they’d always dreamed of, but never been able to take. They’d have to journey via trains and boats, since my mom couldn’t fly without the parts of her skull that were never reattached. They were going to go. Nobody thought they’d return. 

I was completely panicked, afraid of what would happen so far away from medical care, terrified that my brother and I no longer fit into their plans. But it also changed something in me. When I was young, I was a very fearful kid. And then as they were planning their trip, I learned that there was one remaining traveling sideshow in the US, a traditional show with knife-throwers and fire-eaters and snake-charmers and sword-swallowers, a place where people stood in front of an audience and rebuked fear. Where they transcended the limits of their fragile human bodies. Where they performed fearlessness.

Credit: Joel Brouwer

I joined.

While my parents began their journey around the world, I learned to charm an eight-foot boa constrictor, lived in the back of a semi-truck as we traveled the country, and stood on stage and thought: what would my mom do?

She was, and continued to be, a wild, adventurous woman. The thing that kept me going, as I put a flaming torch deep into my mouth, and sat in an electric chair, lighting lightbulbs off my tongue, was knowing that my mom always, always chose the bold thing. And that sometimes – in both grief and sideshow acts – the trick is there is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.

I believed for a long time that there were two kinds of people – those who were brave, and those who weren’t. And that which one you were was some kind of predetermined role. 

Credit: Zane Cash Photography

When I had to face the slow, debilitating loss of the person I was closest to in the world, and the person to whom I had the most complicated relationship, I felt great fear. I stood sometimes in the hospital bathrooms, just shaking and trying to talk myself out of what I felt. But there was no choice – I was still going to spend time with my mom, and help how I could. I still had to show up alongside the fear. The same was true as I learned how to perform all the acts in the sideshow. Swallowing swords, for example, is scary – a wrong wrist twitch, and the blade may knick your lungs, or pierce your heart. There is no reason not to be afraid. But you do the act anyway. You practice. You breathe. You learn that fear does not always mean the thing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Sometimes what we fear is exactly what we have to do. There aren’t special people who can face something scary and not feel fear. There are just us throngs of regular humans who mess up and get heartbroken and feel fear, and then do the thing anyway.

For more about Tessa please click here.

For more about Tessa’s courageous book, The Electric Woman please click here.

To read about other Gutsy Goddesses please click here.

To nominate a Gutsy Goddess please click here.

Please join the conversation. If you have questions or comments for Tessa, inspiration for others, or you’d be so kind to let us know we aren’t writing alone, we hope you will do so below. Welcome to the tribe. You never know whom you might inspire or where your inspiration might lead.

75 Comments

  1. Amazing story!

    • Coming from one who makes death-defying bungie jumps, and paraglides over the alps, Dennis, I’d say that’s quite the comment. Thanks!

      • Thanks, Dennis! I’ve sure loved reading about other gutsy goddesses on here. It’s quite an honor to be included!

      • I am reminded of my aunt who had a stroke and partial skull removal. It was at the time of my mother’s last dying days. Fear is something that I face daily and know that it harms me. Most important is educating myself, about me. Thank you for this wonderful story. Losing one parent is one thing, but it was losing my second parent that put life into perspective.

        • Mary, I remember reading about your mother’s death and its impact on you. I wasn’t aware that your aunt was suffering at the time. Thank you for sharing. I’m sending a virtual hug and energy. You have faced your fear with such courage.
          Tessa, Mary is a writer too. Her brave book, “The Shadows in My Heart” is a gripping memoir. I am touched to know both of you.

  2. I can’t wait to read this book! Thank you so much for the preview and recommendation!

  3. Such a great story! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great to hear from you Lynn. Perhaps we can go to an author reading for this someday!

  5. Wow! Very amazing stuff! Unbelievable! I look forward to reading the book!

  6. I’ve read that fear is a liar. Good job for recognizing that, Tessa!

  7. Wow, Tessa. What incredible determination you have, and what a wonderful story you tell. Those who simply do what must be done appear brave to others because to them, there is no choice but to go on. Quitting or giving up is not an option. Very impressive! I’m glad Heidi featured you this week.

  8. Wow, Tessa! What am incredible story you have to tell. I love that you tackled fear, and then more, at your most vulnerable time. Definitely a Gutsy Goddess. xx

    • Thank you, Erin. I appreciate the comment. It seems true that it’s sometimes our most vulnerable moments that require the most courage – perhaps because we have no other choice. I love reading about the other Gutsy Goddesses on here, too! 🙂

    • Erin, Thanks for joining the conversation. I love seeing your smiling face here. Her story really is incredible, especially when you read the details of what it’s like to be on fire or try to swallow a sword.

  9. Tessa, your book sounds electrifying! (Drum roll, cymbal crash). Rolled eyes at my poor pun. 🙂

    But, really. What a fascinating story! I love all the Gutsy Goddesses Heidi features, and I count myself lucky to be among such courageous, inspiring company!

    Congrats on your publication! So .. are you still touring?

    ~Ann

  10. Very insightful about courage! Great story!

  11. What an incredible story…thank you so much for sharing!!

  12. WOW. I do believe we have untapped strength that we can if we work at it and are open tap into when things are bad. I guess a resource to pull from.

  13. You both sound like amazingly strong ladies. I too cannot fly, have very limited mobility. I dream of visiting Italy. Maybe I should just go for it!

    • Oh Gemma, I so hope you do “just go for it!” Italy is wonderful. I highly recommend Tessa’s book “The Electric Woman” as you will have a deeper sense of how her mother traveled. It may inspire you. Also know my brother and his wife did a cruise from Venice to one of the Greek islands, and a friend did a river trip on the Rhone. There are certainly ways you could make it work with limited mobility. Please, please let us know if you do! Best of luck! Following my dream was the hardest and best thing I ever did next to having my son that is.

      • Hi Gemma. For my parents, limited mobility was a really hard challenge at first, something to learn and relearn all the time. They found some amazing online resources for travelers in wheelchairs, and then thought through the trip – making sure there were taxis that could accomodate the chair, etc. But everywhere, there were. And most amazingly, whenever they got into a bind – needing to go up stairs, for example, people would just show up and help carry her. I think it kind of refreshed their belief in humans. Anyway, all of this is to say that I hope you go for it, whatever it is for you. And then I hope you tell us all about it. <3

  14. So awesome! This interview really inspired me today, at a time when I’m making big scary changes towards my dreams while also going through some tough fucking shit. This really put it into perspective for me. Thank you for this, everyone behind it!

    • Hi Krysten, Kudo’s for making “big scary changes” toward following your dreams. As you may know, following my dream was the scariest thing I ever did and also the very best. It took such courage and determination. From what I’ve read of your writing I believe you are filled with both—plus a bit of moxie. I stand with you. Really glad this helped to put things in perspective. Hang in there and let us know if we can help.

    • Hi Kyrsten. Here’s to the big scary changes, and also love and grit for the hard shit. It’s so often both, isn’t it? So here’s love for both.

  15. Just wow…Amazing how much can be overcome just by sheer will power…An awesome read 🙂

    • Hi Carol,
      So glad to hear from you. Great to know that you found this an awesome read. I was blown away by Tessa’s book, starting with the initial fire-eating scene right through to her final acts; glad she agreed to offer her insight. Anyway Carol, welcome to our tribe. We hope you return!

    • Hi Carol! Thanks so much. I was totally amazed by how much will power let happen. I hope you find it, whenever you need it most. <3

  16. Tessa,
    Your story is so unique and original…and inspiring. I can’t wait to read your book. Are you still eating fire??

  17. I just love this series and this post really touched me – in fact I feel a bit feeble after reading this! I hope you don’t mind but I shared it on my PainPalsBlog regular feature Monday Magic – Inspiring Blogs for You! Claire x

    • What an awesome note to wake up to, to read that you were really touched and are sharing the post on your blog! Thanks so much!. I hope you have moved beyond your feelings of feebleness as you have truly gone far. For me, I believe what I focus on expands, and while I’m not eating fire or swallowing swords there are a few tricks up my own sleeve that I’m working on—fingers crossed.

    • Thanks so much for writing those kind words! Very happy to have you share it anywhere you think folks might be interested. 🙂

  18. So glad a friend suggested that I read this post. (Thanks, Heidi!) This is an amazing website, and I look forward to reading more! Now I have another book on my “must read” list: The Electric Woman. Tessa’s story is inspiring, and I love her advice on facing fears. “Sometimes what we fear is exactly what we have to do.” Thanks for sharing!

    • So great to hear from you Cindy; welcome to the tribe! I had incredible support from courageous women to inspire and encourage me through my journey. When we need inspiration if we just look it can be all around us. It felt serendipitous for me to meet you and to meet Tessa— what remarkable stories you have to share. I do hope you will read more and leave some of your own advice on facing fear. Wishing you both the best of luck.

  19. Amazing story. Such courage. Sometimes I face the fear and do it anyway, but I’m certainly no daredevil. This is definitely food for thought.

  20. That was an unbelievable story – you and your Mum are both so courageous and you both went so far out of MY comfort zone that just reading this astounded me! Good on you for seizing life and shaking it to get even more out of it – I want to be that kind of woman!

    • Hi Leanne, Seizing life—I love that. From reading your blog you are well on your way, living it every day. Thanks so much for the comment and welcome to the tribe!

    • Thanks so much for writing that, Leanne. I’m really lucky to have a mom who showed me the way, even if I couldn’t see it for a long time. I hope you have your own adventures soon, as whatever wonderful kind of woman you are!

  21. Such an amazing story!! Really gutsy woman 😊

  22. I LOVE this and your “wild” spirit. I thought I was brave when I volunteered to stand underneath a sword juggler. LOL! What you went through with your mom and stepdad must have been super traumatic, but the way you reacted is amazing.
    I’m all about facing fear and have experienced all sorts of stress in the last five years. It has made me stronger although, I still quake under stress like when my husband fell getting out of the hot tub a few weeks ago. The doctor glued his cheek back together, but I was the one in shock. Ha!

    • Hi Susie – wow! Sending healing vibes to your husband. I also still quake under stress sometimes – lots of times – but try to press on anyway. Isn’t that the secret to all this? Not that we don’t feel afraid, just that we do the thing anyway. Sounds like you’ve been doing that the last few years yourself. Here’s to it continuing!

    • I definitely “quake” under stress. I also hyperventilate. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t volunteer to stand under a sword juggler or swallow fire … but then again I wouldn’t have volunteered to sail in sixteen-foot breaking waves. Sometimes standing up to the fear is better than the alternative, which in my case may have been going underwater a very long way from any shore. Suzie, thanks for joining the conversation. I love both your wild spirits—may they continue to lead you to bold places!

  23. I look forward to ordering and reading your book!

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