Comfort zone, shmomfort zone.
In high school I was afraid of everything – failure, heights, deep ocean water, the dark for Christ’s sake. Some of these fears have persisted to this day (i.e. tidal waves and giant squids) and that is why, friends, you have permission to call them “irrational” and scoff at me. The rest, however, have gone away over time and, most interestingly, not always gradually, but rather through single instantaneous decisions. Go big or go home kind of moments.
Most of these came during college – what we will define as Phase 2 of my FFF path (Freedom from Fear, because I’ll be damned if I don’t make acronyms out of most things. AOOMT? Too much, fine). In any case, the watershed moment came when I was working in Switzerland in 2006 at the tender age of 20. Having heard about it from my fearless then-boyfriend, I had decided to travel to Interlaken – so-called “Adventure Capital of Europe” – with the sole intention of challenging my fears. I can’t say I was too disappointed when the bungee jumping was full for the week because of bad weather or when I couldn’t really afford the sky diving over the Alps, but I chose instead to (a) raft in Category 4 rapids and (d) participate in an extended canyoning trip. RFF (Relevant Fun Fact): Canyoning is apparently illegal in the US, or so we were told.
So here we go. As far as I can remember, kayaking went first. I volunteered to sit in the front of the boat, guided by some estrogen-and-adrenaline propelled logic about ‘going all out if I was going to do it at all.’ I thought I was going to die at times but then, in general, I found myself very calm, excited, and (to my biggest surprise) laughing. I should have left it there, but instead, I took up our guide’s offer to jump in a “calm” part of the water to feel what Category 3 waters are like. Like any good student-traveler, I was going to do everything in my power to get my money’s worth, so in I went, only to get dragged under the raft twice, loose all sense of direction, and feel like I was drowning for the entire 30 seconds I was “swimming” in crazy alpine rapids. When they lifted me back onto our raft, I saw the look of fear in everyone else’s eyes and I have to admit that I was filled with a creeping feeling of pride. That is, after I stopped coughing up water.
Adventure #1 was a success. Onwards and upwards.
Canyoning was, at the risk of finding a cliche word, INTENSE. We were rappelling 50 feet down rock cliffs, jumping straight through waterfalls, swinging around (that’s right, swi-n-ging a-rou-nd cliff bends, and just generally doing all kinds of things I found unpleasant. RFF: this was the only way down the canyon so there was no turning back. Other RFF: when someone tells you to jump down 15 feet and land within a 3 feet diameter or your legs will get crushed, you focus down and you do it. Clear eyes, full years people.
Bottom line, @#%!(*)^% loved it. At the very onset, clad in wet suits still damp from the previous use and helmets with weird faded nick names on them, I had told my guide, “Listen, I am scared of pretty much everything we have going on here today. So I need to be the first person down. I don’t want to see other people doing it, I don’t want to hear other people talk about it, I don’t want to do anything other than DO.IT. Don’t let me start talking to you and if you see me hesitate, just push me.” I think they dismissed me as quirky until I actually showed up at the front of the line and then they had to take me seriously every time. And as the most important consequence, I had to take myself seriously.
Sorry for the long story and thank you if you’re still reading! The synopsis is this: that weekend trip in the summer of 2006 was a catalyst. It was a small but monumental shift in how I saw my fears and how I treated them. Since then, it’s been an uphill climb to be fearless, but it’s been a climb with a map, a flashlight, and a lot of water. In other words, I suddenly felt prepared and I found out just how much we learn by floating far out from the metaphorical buoys of our comfort zone. The consequence I am most thankful for is that stretching myself physically in Interlaken reminded me to stretch myself emotionally and intellectually – it pushed me to try, test, question, and challenge myself in many other realms. Comfort zone, shmomfort zone.
Long story, short: Summer of 2008, Cape Town. I decided to go sky diving despite still being petrified of heights. To this day, people always ask me why I would do that if I thought I felt like I was going to have a heart attack before, during, and shortly after the experience? My answer is that I’ve found that if you push through the heart attack feeling and you stare it in the face long enough, it will give way to serene happiness.