“Ironically, the quest for aliveness can sometimes put one in closer proximity to death…” Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie.
See where the Fear-o-Meter is registering? It’s slightly past the middle, which means that I struggle to stay in touch with my rational mind on this one. Why? Because I’ve learned through experience, that’s why. Some of us were born curious about the world and ready for adventure, but not very good at realizing how limited we really are while living in a human body. That tends to get us into trouble. I’m not naming any names here.
In spite of never in my life being what you might call ‘sporty’, in that actual ‘sports’ are of absolutely no interest whatever to me, I have frequently found myself answering physical challenges in the outdoors by just going for it and dealing with the consequences later. Sometimes those consequences are pretty scary. Like climbing up a rock side and not being sure how to get down. Or hiking a bit too far because I forget that I also have to hike back. Or paddling my kayak too far, and then having to paddle against current to get back. (Sun going down, miles to go, all that.) On the whole, that has worked okay for me. After all, I’m still here with all 4 limbs and I get a sense of accomplishment when I survive in one piece. But as I get older, my body betrays me more frequently.
I often seem to go just a little too far. I always want to see what is just around that next corner. I can’t tell you how hard it is for me to resist this stuff. Where is my anxiety when I really need it? That’s what I want to know. Why doesn’t Amy G. Dala warn me in advance about what could be real dangers, not dangers that don’t even exist. (Mom, seriously you should probably stop reading this right now. Please do not call me to scold. I promise I’m typing this safely from my home.)
I think it’s great to be curious about the world and I don’t understand people who are not. The problem is that sometimes I can get so caught up in what I am doing that I actually can put myself in danger. It’s not that I mean to. It’s just that the world is so interesting, so entertaining. I forget to be cautious and my anxiety doesn’t seem to kick in when it could actually be helpful. Or even when I think I AM being cautious, I am not cautious ENOUGH. No, it’s as though Amy G. Dala is asleep on the job, and this causes me grave concern. I kind of don’t trust myself.
Here’s a classic, if dramatic, example: in 2010 I almost got eaten by a sea cave on Tzartus Island. Why? I just really wanted to explore inside there. Caves are so cool! Never mind that the sea is a wild beast. Never mind that I probably should have asked local people about it first. I mean, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, apparently I could die. That would probably be pretty bad. But I didn’t actually entertain that thought. I figured if I just went when the sea was calm and serene, it would be OK. And that’s where I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Even though I knew to be very cautious, I underestimated the sea, and I over estimated me. That’s a bad combination. Don’t even bother chastising me. I already know.
The story is a cautionary tale, but it’s also an excellent example of Post Traumatic memory and how to get over it.
I first approached the cave at high tide. The sea was too rough and I turned back. Not to be beaten I approached at low tide. Still too rough. So I figured that slack tide would be the best bet. At this point I had a ‘thing’ going with this cave. It seemed like maybe the cave was telling me ‘no’. I’ve never been good about taking ‘no’ and moving on gently.
I approached at slack tide. It seemed fine. The swells were gentle and regular. I floated outside the entrance paying attention to the waves and getting a general feel for the situation. Really, I did think I was being careful! I entered the cave and it seemed fine. The walls were covered with sea stars, the ceiling like a vault reaching to the heavens.
Then, very suddenly, a big swell came up behind me and pushed me deeper into the cave, fast. The walls were too narrow to turn the kayak around. The water thundered on the sides of the cave, white water everywhere. I was terrified and back paddled furiously. Cormorants were screaming and diving at me. I could see a light at the far end of the cave, but it was down pretty low and it looked altogether like the light at the end of the kind of tunnel I wasn’t quite ready for. The last thing I really remember is screaming out for divine intervention, something I rely on fairly regularly. I believe I screamed something on the order of, “Angels! Get me out of here right now!”. Belief is a good thing at times like that.
The next minute, I was out of the cave and truly, I’m not sure how. It’s not the only time my butt has been saved by the hand of the Great Unknowable. All I know is that one minute I was terrified, the next I was floating gently on the approach to the cave, catching my breath, looking at it with great loathing and awe. I actually felt as though the hand of God had reached down through the rock, grabbed the back of my kayak, and pulled me out in one swift motion. Damn. My heart starts beating hard just thinking about it.
I floated outside the entrance for a minute, catching my breath and counting limbs. Then I turned the kayak around and paddled out beyond the rocks and sat there on the peaceful sea, just looking at the place.
Of course, the first thing I wanted to do was hear Mike’s voice. He’s truly my anchor in this life. I radioed him, safe and secure aboard Moonrise, at the next cove.
Me: “Paddler to Moonrise. Paddler to Moonrise.”
Mike: “Moonrise here”
Me: “I just wanted you to know that I am OK.”
VERY SERIOUSLY LONG PAUSE.
Mike: “What did you do?”
Me: “Nothing. I’m fine. I just wanted to hear your voice and let you know I was OK.”
Mike: “What did you do?”
Me: (jabbering) “Well, there is this sea cave, see, and I was very curious and, and, there were cormorants diving and screaming at me and it was dark and I yelled for angels to rescue me and I’m fine. Really. Not a scratch. And hey! Did I tell you there was also a humpback whale right behind me?”
Yeah. That’s his special name for me when I’ve done something really dumb and he’s pretty irritated. Too bad he doesn’t play the bongos. We could have our own show.
I went back to the boat, mad at the cave for being uncooperative. Mad at me for knowing better but doing it anyhow. Still mad at the cave and telling it in no uncertain terms that it and I were not done yet. I was too busy being grateful to be paddling back to the boat to really let sink in what a narrow escape that was.
So let’s fast forward from this little fun party time to a vacation in the Gulf Islands. I’m thinking probably 2012ish, a couple of years later. We were at Cabbage Island and I was going to go kayaking. Cabbage Island faces the Strait of Georgia. There is excellent, protected kayaking there on the inside of the island, but it can get rough when the tide comes in and over the rock reefs. Slack at high tide is a great time to kayak there. You can skim over the rocks, which are underwater, and see crabs and all kinds of little fish. I love it. I’ve kayaked around the island many times and find it to be a wonderful combination of peaceful and exhilarating. You may see grey whales feeding close by.
So I get out my kayak and I’m padding peacefully approaching the reefs, which are under water at this point. As I approach the reefs, I realize my body is getting anxious. I am uncomfortable over the rocks, preferring to stay in the deeper water, which means I can’t really see much. My heart is pounding, every muscle is tense. I’m kind of not having a good time. At all.
I try paddling over the reef again, and the tip of my kayak gently touches one of the rocks. It was nothing at all to be alarmed about, but my body instantly reacted by panicking. I’m thinking, ‘Huh! That’s a strange reaction.’. I am almost having a full blown panic attack. I check all the logical things. Tide is almost slack. Rocks under water by a couple of feet or more, waves are gentle. No problem. Should be fine. I’ve done this many times! But I am definitely afraid. Actually, I am close to being terrified.
Soon I am making plans for what I can do to save myself if my kayak suddenly gets a mind of its own and dumps me into the water. I reassure myself that the water is actually pretty shallow and that I can hang onto the rocks if I had to. Sure, I would get cut up on the barnacles, but if I had to crawl over rocks to get to shore, I could do it. There were people on shore. Surely they would see me.
Now let me reiterate. There was really no possible way I would dump my kayak unless I did something like try to get out of it in the middle of the water. The water was calm. Tiny swells. We are talking perfect kayaking conditions, no danger. None. And yet, I was actually terrified.
This is not an enjoyable way to go kayaking. I wanted to go home. I knew tears were going to be next.
It struck me like a bolt that what I was experiencing was a true post traumatic response. At first my mind was not afraid, but my body was terrified. Soon my mind caught up. It took me awhile, but I finally realized it had to be caused by the sea cave encounter and that just made me plenty mad. At myself, my brain, and at Amy G. Dala for doing her job just a little too well. I determined that I would reteach my body that kayaking was safe and fun. I made a point to go out in the kayak even though I found many reasons not to. That helped marginally. But the fear didn’t go away. And I really did not enjoy kayaking. I worried that I had ruined kayaking forever.
The following year I took a professional training in EFT, the tapping technique that is useful for anxiety. This technique, which uses accupressure points, is a treatment modality for anxiety, similar to EMDR. I took a two day seminar that had been approved by the American Psychological Association and Washington State for continuing education units to keep my professional license. I put that in here because if you look up the technique, it looks like some woowoo metaphysical stuff. I want you to know that it isn’t. (Not that I wouldn’t use woowoo metaphysical stuff, because I totally would and have. I use whatever works.) I have actually used this technique with clients and found it overall to be effective. I’m not sure, exactly, why it works, but I suspect it has something to do with refocusing the mind and forming new neuronal connections when remembering traumatic events.
During the class we divided into groups to practice the technique. After much internal arguing, I allowed myself to work through the trauma associated with my sea cave experience. What I had not realized (it’s hard to analyze one’s self) was that the reason I could not remember getting out of the cave was that I had dissociated that particular part of the experience. Remember how I referred to that part of the story? “The next minute, I was out of the cave and truly, I’m not sure how.” I literally could not remember the sequence of events between the white water crashing around me and being outside of the entrance. That is common in trauma. The moment where you believe death is eminent is frequently ‘forgotten’ because it is lodged in memory in a different way, apart from the rest of the experience.
By going through the process, I was able to pinpoint the exact moment when the fear that I might not get out of there alive happened. It was a emotional and difficult session, but it helped enormously and while I am certainly more cautious now, it’s out of a sense that I need to recognize my own limits and be a little less curious, not out of fear. I don’t want to put my family in a position where they have to recover my body from a sea cave. That’s just not fair.
Let’s be clear that there are any number of ways to psychologically process a traumatic event. EMDR is one. EFT is one. There are other, what I call ‘doing it the old fashioned way’ techniques that work with the traumatic memory bit by bit until there is a complete narrative that is coherent and doesn’t trigger extreme fear. These all work. Some take more time than others. And it’s very important, when doing trauma work, to get to that moment when the fear of death crystalizes. Most people skim over that. This type of trauma is, at its core, a spiritual experience. The take home is that if you have experienced a traumatic event, and it is compromising your enjoyment of life by creating anxiety, working through it by bringing all the memories together in one place may be in your best interest.
I’m relieved to report that I really enjoyed kayaking this summer when we were in Barkley and Clayoquot sounds. I wasn’t the least bit anxious about it. But I also did not have the least desire to enter that sea cave again, even though I had the opportunity. I kayaked in that same area and was not triggered by it. I actually saw the cave again and made peace with it by remaining outside. And remember, I actually had a ton of anxiety during that trip because this was before I went on medication. So I’m pretty impressed with the outcome of that EFT session.
I tested my new found rational thinking about my own limits by allowing myself to say ‘no’ to kayaking through a hole in the rocks that I happen to know lots of people kayak through. I was by myself, though, and decided it would be safer if I had a companion. (We’ll be getting Mike a kayak before we leave the dock.) The challenge just wasn’t worth it. In a way, that makes me a little sad. It feels a little bit like a loss.
On the other hand, I had actually just finished exploring an abandoned house on the island. By myself. Maybe that was enough excitement for one day.
Just joined us for the A to Z Challenge and want to read from the beginning? Here’s a link to the first post. Just click on ‘next’ to go to the next post.