2 years ago, I went on a date to do some indoor rock climbing. Did I mention that at the time, I was terrified of heights.
Looking back, I can see the fear was clearly in my head. Going up a 25 foot wall would cause all kinds of anxiety, sweating, fight/flight responses going off in my body and mind. It was all consuming. It was a microcosm of what my experience of social anxiety growing up was like. A constant fear of what was coming next, feeling like everything was out of my control, lacking confidence and being in a constant state of dread.
Living in this state, causes one to run from challenges, run from risk and ways that we grow. Ways that we can heal and transform. Ways that we can discover who we are and what we are capable of.
The journey I went to get here is a longer story. I think what is important for now, is what I discovered in facing my fear. In testing the unknown, step by step, seeing how it goes and how I feel. Where I arrived is a place where I’m living with a lot less fear, my mind and heart are open and I can hear my soul and feel it guiding me. My own growth has accelerated tremendously. I attribute a great portion of that growth to this practice of facing my fears, working through those feelings and even creating an identity built upon old fears. As if to say, don’t even think about coming back. Door closed.
Like many things in my life, at least, I went from one extreme to what feels like the other. I found myself testing the boundaries of fear by laughing in the face of danger. Free climbing rock areas I wasn’t familiar with, climbing at night, swimming in an area with massive waves. My life is a pretty open book. If anyone is willing to ask and sit with me, I will tell them about the challenges I bested, proudly. I will talk about the fear being replaced by a deep confidence. Feeling high for days after a successful climb. The deep meditation I fall into that can last for hours while I’m focused on the climb, what feels like the first time in my life that my mind is calm and empty. And afterward, the sense of calm that I carry with me long after. The experience is a part of me, one more reminder that I can achieve something. I can do things that I didn’t believe and others may not believe were possible.
I was originally getting off at seeing the fear it strikes in others and I’m calmly on the other side. But slowly, I’ve felt the weight of that worry, especially with those that love me. My family and close friends. Family meetings and conversations were held without me there. Interventions and attempts to curb my behaviour were planned. I heard them out. I felt the “us vs them” orientation emerge thinking that no one understands me. That they struggle to see the growth I’ve achieved, clouded by the worries. Their worries, not mine.
I was on the highest of highs, feeling like I was on top of the world. I was strong and capable of going through fear and chaos, when needed, to help others. My work around emotional and body awareness started to grow as well. I felt more present when connecting with others. More clear on seeing them and not my own clouded filters. And then, one day, my strong armor got cracked.
I was on the north shore of Hawaii, a well known place for the world’s best and most dangerous surfing. Powerful waves near the shore and at the time of year where they are at their peak strength. I drove to a beach nearby Pipeline, which I knew to be the area to avoid. I pulled off just down the beach and got out of my car and entered the beach from a public access area. The first thing I saw was a “No Swimming” sign. I asked some surfers, is that for real? They said, you can swim but just be careful. That was it. I sat down on the beach and watched the waves. They were strong but not too bad. I didn’t see any rip current areas, as I had learned about in Portugal. I figured I would go in and wash off. It was a hot day.
The next part is hazy in my memory so I will do my best. I remember going into the waves a few feet, then a few more. Then swimming under a big wave that came in and quickly my feet were in deep water, unable to touch the bottom. I remember thinking how shallow I was but couldn’t touch. Then, a swell of waves began coming in. I was forced to dive under one, then another, then another. Quickly I was moving outward with my dives and the rapid waves coming in and pulling me out. I was shocked at the speed, the size and the force at which I was getting pulled out. I started to panic, I went under water and I remember thinking I can’t believe I’m going to die now when I have all of this in my life. I thought of my mom and those close to me. I felt their sadness and how I had let them down. It was hard to escape that feeling that everything was out of my control and I was taking in water, in my mouth and running low on breath. The waves kept coming, even bigger now. I kept diving under, coming up for a quick breathe before diving back under. Panicking. Out of air. Breathing fast. Heart racing. I turned to look back to shore. I was really far away, and could barely see anyone people on the beach. I was shocked at how far out I was, it was unbelievable. I turned to the surfers far away to my right. I yelled but the incredibly loud sounds of the waves drowned me out. I was alone. They were too far away, the waves were too big. I just kept trying to stay afloat. I don’t know how long this went on. In my memory, it feels like it was so fast and so long at the same time.
And then, he appeared. An older guy on a white surfboard. A face I will never forget. He was paddling out hard and he extended his board to me. I was going to live! He instructed me calmly to move to the front of the board, he got on the back and we both started paddling towards shore. There was a break in the waves, which likely allowed him to make it out to me. We were paddling hard, and then a big wave appeared behind us quickly moving right for us. Jump off! He said. We both dove off and went under the wave. Fuck, I thought. Now I’m going to get him killed too. My hope turned to shame. We were not even close to safe yet. The intensity ramped up. I asked him calmly, what do we do? He said, wait for the waves then we are going to try and paddle in again. Ok. I had little hope we were going to make it back, based on my experience so far but he seemed experienced and calm. So i listened and followed his instructions. We jumped back on the board and paddled toward shore. Another series of waves and we jumped off again. I had been able to regain my breath so I was in a better position than before. The other guy seemed fine and very focused. And then, a guy on a jet ski appeared. At ease, soldier! The guy on the board said to the guy on the jetski. He pulled up to me, Jump and grab on! he said and I grabbed on to the back. Leaving the man on the board behind. Hanging onto this contraption that was black and had straps that I held onto for dear life. We blazed towards shore and then one of the biggest waves yet appeared. The guy on the jetski saw it, turned us around and headed right at it. we couldn’t out run it, so we were going to go straight over it. We launched high into the air. I held on as we sailed and then hit the water. He killed the engine, turned the jetski towards shore and gunned it. We were at full speed and the wave that just passed us was almost gone to the shore already. I could see a small gap between us and the next wave. We were flying and we were going to make it in this time!
As we got to shore, he yelled back at me to jump off. I went sailing onto the shallow water landing on my legs and popping up and running onto the sand where the lifeguard on an ATV was waiting. I was out of breath, my body was exhausted. I could barely speak and was expecting to be yelled at. He said, Did you swallow a lot of water? I said, a little. That was it. Just a few questions about what happened, how I got out there, if I was ok. I told him I was really sorry, I had no idea and was not from here. I got swept out really fast. He understood. I told him I learned my lesson and it wouldn’t happen again. I showed deep gratitude. I touched my heart and said thank you. I asked him if the other guy was going to be ok and if I could thank him. He said yes, he was a lifeguard and his name was Matt. He said he was going to surf his way in and sure enough 10 min later he made it back in.
I ran up to him. Almost possessed. Embarrassment wasn’t an ounce in my body. Just gratitude. Hey Matt! I said. He looked at me, like he recognised me but didn’t expect to see me or didn’t need to. Totally selfless. Can I give you a hug? I asked. He said yes. I gave him a quick hug. So much gratitude. I probably said thank you 10 times. His face was calm, present. Not much of an expression. He said thank you, and to be safe. The waves out here are dangerous. I told him the same thing, it wouldn’t happen again and I learned my lesson. We walked for a minute down the beach together, then I said bye and he went back to work keeping an eye on the rest of the beach.
As I went back to where my backpack was, I sat down in the shade to calm and collect myself. I looked up, still in shock, my body slowly coming back to me. And then, a butterfly slowly past me down on its way down the beach…..I’m supposed to be here.
Reflecting on an important learning from this event….I can feel myself creating beliefs. Beliefs that I’m not safe. Beliefs that this next risk will be the one that takes me. Beliefs that I’m supposed to die, that I’m going to make a mistake and prove everyone right. That I’m going to disappoint and hurt everyone. I can control this, I can take the steps that I believe are needed, for me. Everyone else can get on board, or not. I am going to live my life. As my best friend, Marty, said to me recently, I can bring the head and the heart together. Sometimes I run in with my heart and don’t council my head. I recently met a Qi Gong GrandMaster, he told me I think too much. I know there is a time for thinking. I just need to create practices around when it is and isn’t that time. I want my heart to guide many things but my head needs to be a part of physical practices and activities in nature.