Counting my fears

Today, I headed out on a hiking journey in Scotland but instead of counting sheep, I ended counting my fears.

Part of the reason to sign up for this week-long hiking trip was to face a challenge. To stretch my body and my mind and to experience new adventures. But today was far more challenging than I ever expected.

We hiked an area of the Island of Skye called the Quiraing. A giant landslip in the northeast part of the island, the Quiraing has large jagged cliffs with a slope that falls away into the green valley below. Our path wound is way up and through the cliffs, rocky face on one side and steep drop off on the other. Rocky and muddy, the path topped out at a windy and misty summit.


While I knew some of the hiking trip would be difficult, I was not expecting the steep slope or the rocky terrain. It was probably the scariest thing I have done in a long time and most of the four hour hike was spent battling the trail and my fears.

Some of the fears were easily dismissed. The fear of not keeping up? Whatever. The terrain was a challenge and was going at my own speed. The rest of the group could deal.

Fear of physically being able to complete the hike? Well, I could stop and rest when needed. After all, frequent stops for photos was clearly warranted and gave a good chance to catch my breath.

But the one fear that left me paralyzed and struggling to breathe was the fear of falling. About a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with a type of vertigo and while I have had a few bouts of room-spinning, this was entirely different.

My body physically felt like it was about to fall. Panic flooded my systems, I couldn’t breathe and my body would not move. Not a step. It was like my body was saying, “we are about to fall to our death, so I’m not moving from this spot in order to save us from that”.

What is frustrating is that my mind knew better. I knew I was okay. There were other people on the trail, I had a climbing pole and I could go as slowly as needed. But my body was not listening.

But since I couldn’t stand on that hillside forever, somehow I had to figure out how to go forwards, despite that fact that it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had no choice but to try and unparalyze myself from the fear.

Since I’m back at the hotel room writing this, you will know that somehow I made it. I talked gently and lovingly to my body, respecting how it felt while trying to keep it moving forwards. My sister helped me, talking to me the whole way, telling jokes and stories to keep me distracted and she even took my camera and took photos so I could see them later. I watched only the path in front of me although I did manage to look up a few times, if rarely down.

This was my second experience with whatever you call this kind of vertigo panic attack. The first was on Glastonbury Tor last year. From that experience, I learned that sometimes you just have to move forwards through the fear because there is no other choice.

What struck me this time, once the adrenaline had cleared from my system and I was having a nice cup of tea at the end of the walk, was that people say that one of the worst fears is the fear of the unknown.

I’m not sure about that. If I had known at the first upward turn of the path today what was ahead of me, I would not have continued. After struggling through the first of river crossings and down-up that first slippery slope, if I had known that it was but the first of many heart-pounding, breath stealing, panicky stretches of trail then I would not have been able to continue. Hell, if I’d known what that hike was like, I would not have left the carpark!

Perhaps when we face our fears, it’s best not to know what is ahead so we can do it one tiny step at a time. Focus just on the challenge in front of us and not worry about what is next. Perhaps the whole path ahead is too intimidating to think of in its entirety. It can only be traversed one challenge at a time.

Did I have fun? No. Would I ever do it again? Not willingly. Am I glad I did it? Meh, maybe give me a few more days to recover. Am I proud of myself? Hell yes!!!! And I am grateful for everything that my fears and that path taught me today.

And as I take my tired body to bed, I’ll be happy with just counting sheep.


A gift of fear and joy

Last night the fear that comes with vulnerability and the opportunity for connection came smack up against each other.

As part of my efforts to bring joy back into my life, I have started singing again in a band. A duo this time.  And last night we performed some of our new songs in front of an audience.  Dressed in costume.

I get nervous when we play gigs. Which is okay. I’m nervous because I care. Because it matters to me. It matters to put on a good show. To do justice to the music. To be solid for my fellow musician in the band.

Nervous is different from fear.  Nervous can take your breath away but fear takes your voice away.

And singing is one of the most vulnerable things that I do. The most exposed. Emotionally risky. But one of the things that allows for the deepest connections and the most body-filling joy of breath and sound and sharing.

Peter Sellars (the theatre producer, not the comedic actor) said,

Vocal music is an attempt to take the whole human being and project it into space.  It is the ultimate gesture of getting out of yourself.  You take a part of you that is most private, most personal, most inward, and you hurl it out into space—you project it as far as you can. That gesture of opening this whole region of the body results in an enormous spiritual release, and is felt by other people with tremendous impact.

So I was nervous last night. Not unusual. I was dressed up, too, which I always find stressful. Also not unusual. But, I was also feeling hugely vulnerable about one particular song. It is a slow song which relies a lot on the vocals. It’s high in my range of singing which requires a steady reservoir of breath. The lyrics are beautiful and emotionally evocative  and were written and gifted to the band by a dear friend.  And, I was singing into a mic in a small room where every note seemed louder and bigger than usual.

I sang the first line of the lyrics and it comes out as wobbly and insecure as I feel.  And I am immediately thrown back into a childhood memory. Except that the emotional state feels exactly the same; as though no time at all had passed.

I used to sing in church when I was little. My Mom and I were usually the only ones in my family who regularly attended services. But, one Sunday I was scheduled to sing a solo and my older sister and her boyfriend came to hear me sing. This was a big deal. Well, it was a big deal to me.

It must have been the first time I got nervous singing.  And I got really nervous. My heart was pounding so hard that it shook my whole chest. And my throat. And my voice. My singing was wobbly and shaky and I remember being completely confused about this new experience. But I knew it wasn’t good. And I didn’t know how to make it stop.

No one talked to me about it afterwards. But I knew it was bad because no one complimented my singing like they usually did.  It was clear to me that people were disappointed. And because no one said anything I never got to ask “what happened?”, “is that normal?”, “how do I stop it next time?”. And no one ever said “it’s okay, it wasn’t perfect but that’s okay, you did your best and we love you”. Instead, what I learned was that if it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t okay.  That if I wasn’t perfect, that I wasn’t okay.

So there I stood last night, feeling nervous and vulnerable yes, but it was that emotional flashback, that flashnow,  that took away my breath and voice and left me with a first line that was as shaky and insecure as that little girl who didn’t understand what had happened. Who only understood that she wasn’t good enough.

And this is where the gift comes in. I am not that little girl anymore but I have the chance to change her story. My story. Because the opportunity in being vulnerable is to allow myself to be seen. With authenticity and honesty. With my very human imperfections. To be connected. With others and with myself. To release part of my spirit and let it be seen and heard. To know that I am enough.

And with that in mind, I found my breath and my courage and a little more of my voice and the second line came out a little stronger. And the third a little stronger after that.  It may not have been perfect – whatever that is! – but it connected.  And there was joy in that.

And, I think, a gift of healing for that little girl.


No choice but fear

Sometimes the Universe waits patiently while you gather your courage to face your fear. Other times it sneaks up on you and shoves you from behind.

Yesterday, C and S and I headed to Glastonbury to check out the Abbey, the Chalice Well and the Glastonbury Tor. The Tor is a big steep-sided hill, jutting up from the English countryside in a defiant juxtaposition to the gentle, rolling landscape around it.

I was looking forward to the view from the top, especially with my new camera in hand. I was even looking forward to the climb up. In the past, such a climb would have been beyond me but the last 5 years of hard work to get healthier meant that I was sure I could climb the Tor, even if I had to stop a few times along the way.

What I did not expect was the heart-stopping, limb paralyzing fear of falling that hit me like a ton of bricks when I was almost to the top.

I have never been afraid of heights so I’m not sure why I was suddenly gripped with the irrational fear that I was going to fall down the steep slope of the Tor and completely lose control of my bearings. Or, given how strong the wind was, just be blown right off into empty air.

I sometimes have claustrophobia and anxiety attacks and what was amazing to me was that this feeling and the response of my body was exactly the same. Racing heart, shortness of breath, constricted chest, a little voice in my head crescendoing “no, no, no” and that sense that everything was spinning completely out of control, no matter how hard I tried to hold it together.

I know it’s not rational, which I find really annoying. But it is still very real. And as little as I understand the why’s and how’s of it, one thing I have learned is to stop and deal with it.

Step One – acknowledge the feeling no matter how silly/stupid/ridiculous I think it is. So, I tell C and S that I’ve having problems with being up that high, and the steep slope and that I’m not sure how I am going to get back down. I am trying not to cry.

S very helpfully says, “Well, you don’t really have a choice.”

While part of me wants to smack him for pointing out that I have to do what every cell in my body is screaming I can’t do, the small rational part of my brain still left recognizes that he is, of course, right.

I have no choice. I am going to have to do this so I’d better figure out how.

Step Two – ask for help. Ever am I grateful for my true friends. The ones who bring out the best in me but who also stand steadfast beside me when I am, ahem, less than my best. Including the times when I’m a total mess. So, C ran around with my camera and took some pics since my back was glued to the building at the top. Then, she walked in front of me holding my hand while I made my way back down the path to the safety of level ground.

Step Three – be gentle with myself. I don’t know why I reacted the way I did. But one thing I do know is that beating myself up about it doesn’t help. It is love and acceptance and forgiveness and understanding that defeats fear. Not anger. Whether it is directed inward or outward. I don’t care what anyone thought of we two 40+ women holding hands as we slowly walked down the hill. Together, we did it.

I’m not sure if the time that the Universe gives us is a gift or a barrier. In this case, I was forced to walk off the edge of that steep hill of fear because I had no choice. I had to get moving forward.

I wonder how much time we waste in that place of constricted hearts, feeling like things are spinning out of control, trying to catch our breaths before we accept that have no choice but to face toward the fear and then head straight into it. Otherwise, we’re just stuck on a hill. Or, in a rut.

Perhaps the hardest thing might be that sometimes we do have a choice.