50 Stories, Week 9: Things That I’m Unreasonably Afraid Of (aka Anxiety 101)

How I’m coping during the pandemic…

This week of pandemic was rough. Maybe I needed a glass of wine to get those words down, but so be it. I’m not sleeping much. My dreams, like many of yours, have been absolute batshit crazy – like last night’s combo of befriending Kelly Clarkson while working at a dress shop and never being able to catch a sunset, no matter how fast I ran toward the horizon. I could analyze these dreams but most of them make zero sense other than to say my general free-floating anxiety has been amped up past 1000% and needed an outlet, so dreams it is.

In the spirit of staying vulnerable and meeting myself where I am – my story this week is more of a present tense unpolished brain dump…

I usually take pride in facing my fears. A welling up of crippling anxiety would be just the thing to get me going on my next adventure, my next bit of growth. But lately, I’ve felt paralyzed. Oh sure, I keep busy trying to make sourdough bread (four recipes down, a bajillion to go!) but when I get like this, I don’t recognize myself.

When I was a teenager, I had massive panic attacks, convinced that I would die every night. I could feel my heart beating and racing and was convinced it would stop. Just stop because how could it keep pumping so hard and fast while I was laying still? As an adult, all through my 20’s and early 30’s, I taught myself some coping mechanisms. I can say with clarity that finding yoga saved my literal life. Things became slightly more manageable. When I was convinced that stepping on a crack would, in fact, break my mother’s back, I would take a long, slow inhale and tell myself “Don’t be a crazy person. That is not based in truth.” Now, I know, we shouldn’t say that anymore – ‘crazy person’ – but back then, and even now at times, it is the difference between me being paralyzed on a sidewalk until someone bumps into me and being able to keep walking.

So, I felt some level of progress. But that didn’t always work and my racing heart or monkey mind would compel me to head to the closest hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. I cannot accurately convey how many times I went to the ER in the middle of the night – when everyone is sleeping and I couldn’t possibly wake up a friend or lover or child (!) to tell them what was going on. I was almost always dehydrated, had a racing heart and diarrhea. The nurses would dismissively tell me I’m just stressed out and usher me off, since they could be treating someone with a real emergency. At one point, a doctor just gave me a handful of Valium. I didn’t want to take it but I hadn’t slept in days. When I did, I thought “Ohhhhhh this is why people do drugs.” I wanted that feeling forever. And ever. So I’ve never done it again.

In my mid-30’s, long after my Dad died and I left my son’s father, I found a therapist who gave me words for what I was experiencing. Anxiety, OCD, possibly brought on from some trauma as a child (oh right, my brother died right before I was born!) or funky brain chemistry. I’m guessing we all have a combo but it manifests differently. Some better than others.

Here’s how my anxiety still shows up, on the daily:

I’m in Hawaii in a beautiful location, with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the waves, the breeze, the perfect temperature, fully fed and clothed and having the love of an incredible man, and still thinking ‘Well, when I go volunteer with at the horse shed, maybe a power tool is going to fly off the shelf and stab me in the leg, right where there is a main artery and since we’re on a tiny island with only clinics, I won’t be able to get help in time and I’ll bleed out alone on a farm. Or that the water I’m drinking from the water purifier is actually poison since they probably don’t change the filters and it’s so humid here I’m sure some crazy ass bacteria has been sitting around waiting to manifest in my stomach and kill me.’

I’m not afraid of things like kayaking or hiking anymore because I’ve already assumed I’ll be capsized and the kayak will hit my head and drown or I’ll be blown off a cliff when hiking. I’ve thought those scenarios through a million times in the past, while simultaneously doing those activities. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I get to be bombarded with a thousand new, tiny and enormous worries. 

Most of the time, it’s like having a constant fear that all the fire escapes in Manhattan are going to fall on my head the second I walk under them. That someone will have sneezed in my salad and they have tuberculosis and my immunity is gone and well, TB. That if I don’t touch the outside of the plane and write during takeoff and landing, we will fall from the sky. That if I don’t count to an even number while I put on my mascara or while the water is running, I will cease to exist.

Other things I’m unreasonably afraid of in no particular order: Caves. Bats. Snakes. Hiking very high, like Kilimanjaro. Did I mention caves? The Amazon. Antarctica. Helicopters. Flying inter India and inter African flights. Plane crashes in general. Heart attacks and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. The color yellow.

Being underground. Being understood. Being buried alive. Being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Being pushed out of a car but then caught on something and just dragged along the road for miles. 

What else? Oh right, I sneezed earlier and thought I had a mini stroke. 

So, I have to laugh at myself because otherwise, I will drive myself, and everyone around me, totally crazy. (Can I reclaim the word crazy? Please?) 

For the most part, my anxiety is generally unfounded. I’m not being chased by a damned bear, after all. Except right now… maybe I am. And I don’t have bear spray, I only have a mask and hand sanitizer and the hope that my fellow hikers believe in community over self. 

50 Stories, Week 2: Costa Rican Independence

Jason CR shoe wash

No one was listening when Vlad told us what to do if it started raining. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in and I ran with an urgency I hadn’t felt since I was a child being chased on the playground. Behind me, I could hear a combination of nervous laughter, cursing, and Vlad yelling instructions in his heavily accented, affable voice.

“You wan be careful in stream now. You don want tha snakes angry, ha!”

Poisonous snakes. In the water that I was running through.

The day before, when Jason had suggested we do a tour during our Costa Rican getaway, I thought it all sounded lame. I didn’t usually opt-in for tours. Our relationship was still new, though, and I didn’t want to seem like a snob, so I agreed.

Jason and I had met five months earlier on a blind date. I’d moved to NYC for a job after 20 years in California, raising my then 13-year-old son. I wanted to shake up my life, to have a fresh start. I hadn’t had a truly intimate relationship in almost ten years and I was ready to be vulnerable again. The challenge was that I’d been on my own for so long that I had a fiercely independent attitude that could come across as, well, prickly.

Jason was not who I imagined I’d fall in love with. Not because of his choice in restaurants on our first date (Dos Caminos) or what he was wearing (an oversized suit with shoulder pads, with a funny briefcase and granddad shoes.) It was the fact that he is a more conservative minded, practicing Catholic and moderate Republican, while I am a tree-hugging, hippie-liberal-spiritual Democrat. Despite those differences, we fell in love quickly and deeply. And after a few months, we were planning our first real getaway.

I was thinking somewhere in South America like Nicaragua. I’d been to Brazil and Mexico, and I wanted to show Jason that I was adventurous. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself in a potentially crazy situation. Maybe I even wanted him to think that I was cool. Jason, however, was thinking of the well-known confines of tourist-safe Costa Rica. It seemed everyone I knew had already been there, as it was the safest of the Central American countries.

So I read up on Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised to discover its history. According to my internet searches, Costa Rica developed independently, which resulted in an individualistic, egalitarian society. They decided their own fate. Apparently, there was even a point when the governor tended to his own farm, with his own hands! I felt this was a country I could get behind.

Jason found us a boutique resort on a cliff in Jaco. While there was a part of me that hoped to be roughing it with locals, I decided not to complain when I saw our very own infinity pool overlooking the ocean. I instinctively reached out to try and touch the ocean but was snapped back to reality by a squawking parrot. We were constantly surrounded by movement and noise… the ocean, monkeys, birds, frogs, and other critters I couldn’t identify. Yet amidst the environmental chaos, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t known before.

That being said, I was starting to feel a little blue about not experiencing the ‘real’ Costa Rica. We spent our time close to the resort and had all of our meals there.  I think Jason sensed my restlessness and told me about a flyer he’d seen at the concierge desk for a waterfall hike. It was a 30-minute mellow hike through the rainforest to a waterfall that you can jump into from the top. The brochure looked Disney-tame but I went along because Jason was excited to have a little adventure and I didn’t want to push him out of his comfort zone too quickly.

Our fellow tour-mates and resort-goers were four young women from the southeast U.S., sorority sisters a few years out of college, and another American, a big guy who we kindly referred to the whole time as Sad Jim. Not to his face, of course. Although, that was sad, too. Jim wasn’t sad for traveling alone or even for signing up for a tour. Jim was built for sad. We discovered only that he was from the Midwest and was single, but he didn’t say anything else for hours. He was about 6’ and 250 pounds, had short, thinning brown hair, and a few days worth of facial hair growth. What was most distinct about him was the weight of his unhappiness. That guy didn’t crack a smile. Jim’s polar opposite, our guide Vlad, had been born and raised in Costa Rica. He considered college, then began helping a family friend with his hiking/tour company. His love for all things pura vida, toothy grin, and warm personality made him a natural.

On our way to the waterfall, Vlad pulled the old Land Rover off to a dirt road lined with trees and low hanging fruit. We stopped and all hopped out. From a tree, he pulled off a piece of orange fruit that looked like a bell pepper.

 “You know nut? You like nut? E’rybody like nut! You take one.”

We all did as we were told and picked this mysterious nut fruit. Vlad took a big bite out of the fleshy fruit and everyone followed suit. I admit my anxious survival instinct prohibits me from fully embracing these types of scenarios so I only took a small bite. It was sweet and tangy.

 “Now, don touch tha thing dat look like a nut! Shape like a nut, on top. Watch. I do it first.”

He proceeded to rip off the stem of the fruit, rub it on his arm, and then peel it open to expose a cashew that he dropped into his mouth. A few seconds later, we all watched as Vlad’s arm developed a hive the circumference of the fruit itself. 

“Urushiol oil! Madre Naturaleza made cashew fruit like so – poison ‘round nut, grey, no good to eat! Orange flesh, a-ok!”

He calmly walked to the truck and got out some Costa Rican version of calamine lotion, dabbed it on his arm, and hollered at us to “Vamanos!” Jason stared at him like he was crazy, and possibly his new hero.

We drove south another 20 minutes or so on the single-lane paved highway, then pulled off on a bumpy red dirt road. We must have stayed on that, driving through farmland and low jungle, for another 15 minutes until we turned off at a tiny waterfall sign that could easily be missed. A few minutes further down a narrow road, passing a shack here and there, I began to ask Vlad why the dirt was so red. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he hopped out enthusiastically and told us to “Vamanos!” again.

It was a hot, sweaty 30-minute hike. Vlad said we were taking the long way, through farmland and forest, to avoid walking through the streams that ran parallel to us. Didn’t make much sense to me, since the water would have cooled us off, but he was the boss.

Once we arrived, I realized that the brochure did not do this waterfall justice. Jumping off into the pool meant climbing up a 25 foot rocky cliff.

“Oh, when you jump in, swim, kick your feet ‘round because tha fish, dey bite.”

Conveniently, I’d been blessed with my period that morning, so the idea of plunging rapidly into a pool of water with biting fish didn’t sound appealing. I was hot, crampy, and now that we were in the jungle, slightly nervous. 

Jason, however, joined the ladies in climbing to the top. It required hoisting themselves on a branch that acted like a bridge across the pool. Once on the other side, they began the climb by using the roots on the ground as ropes. The options were jump off the waterfall into the pool or slide down a cascade of rocks into the pool. Jason did both with enthusiasm, which left me surprised, and strangely proud of him. So cautious in his day to day, and then, there he was, jumping into a waterfall with a bunch of strangers, while Sad Jim and I took turns standing in the shade.

And then it came. It was violent and sudden and loud. Puddles enveloped my feet in seconds. If I think back now, I recall Vlad saying something about how it felt like it might rain, how we might have to cut our trip short, and then maybe something important about what to do in such a scenario. At the time, however, my instinct was to get out, pronto. 

As soon as I heard Vlad say we needed to move quickly, I was first in line and took off through the jungle, a steady run in the direction of the car. About twenty feet in, I looked down and saw that I had a passenger on my leg – one of the green and blue poisonous frogs we’d read about. I shook my leg like a mad woman and made a mental note not to touch that spot before taking a shower.

I heard Jason behind me, telling me to wait up, but I had a good clip going. My self-preservation was strong. And then I heard what sounded like cracking baseball bats that was actually breaking bamboo falling from the sky. I turned around in time to see a branch land on Jason’s forehead. I felt a wave of conflict within me – do I go back and check on him or keep high-tailing it for the car? I kept thinking of the airline safety videos where they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. I looked back again and saw that the hollow bamboo only left a small scratch so I felt ok moving on. But I paused long enough to hear Vlad say something about not pissing off the snakes at which point I jumped into the twisted branches running alongside the rising stream.

When we got back to the Rover, we all jumped inside quickly as we were soaked to the bone. When Vlad stepped on the gas, the engine revved but we stood still. Apparently, Costa Rica’s red dirt turns to red clay when it’s raining and the Rover, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Vlad instructed us all to get out, gather the ropes in the trunk and help him tie them to a neighboring tree. We’d use the winch to pull while we pushed from behind. Vlad, Jason, the four girls, and I were all ready to push when we realized that Sad Jim hadn’t moved from his seat. We asked him if he was getting out to help and he just looked at us blankly before turning his head and casting his eyes down. The rain poured, a new bucket of water dropping directly on our heads every second. Irritation mounting, I leaned into the back seat next to Jim and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me and I could see that Jim had no intention, no ability to force himself out of his comfort zone. His idea of self-preservation was to stay in the car and let others bring him to safety. He was both motivated and crippled by his own fear. So we shared his weight and began pushing. After a few minutes of getting sprayed by chunks of red mud, the Rover began to move forward and Vlad directed her slightly off-road toward brush. We all hopped back in and kept quiet until Vlad pulled over in front of what looked like someone’s carport. 

“And now, we drink!” 

It was a bar owned by a nice lady named Priscilla, who graciously let us use her hose to spray off our coats of clay. We sat down with our bottles of Imperial and started to recount the day’s events, reimagining bits and pieces for dramatic effect, though the day certainly didn’t need any. Even Jim, who finally felt safe back in civilization, let himself smile at our survival tales.

I have a video from that day of Jason washing off his sneakers, recounting the falling bamboo incident, deliriously happy. He thanked me, then Vlad, then everyone. I decided right then that I would marry him. I didn’t need to prove anything to Jason. He didn’t need me to depend on him, he only wanted to be my witness, my partner, my equal. He wanted to run with me through the jungle, to get unstuck from the mud together. I realized that Jason had seen my independence and my fear, and still said OK, do what you have to do, I’m not going anywhere

And he hasn’t yet.

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

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