Once upon a time, almost exactly a year ago, I found myself squashed under a very large, very stubborn rock. It was enormous. In my mind, it was the size of a house – or a very well-funded political campaign. And somehow it seemed to grow as time went by.
Recovery from trauma, as it would seem, is a many-layered process of which I had no idea. I know this because the first time I accidentally landed on a talus field some months later, I found myself an inexplicable, blubbering lunatic. Suddenly, I was certain that all large rocks were going to come to life and obliterate me.
This was confusing to the people I was hiking with, who assumed the elevation was getting to me or that I perhaps stubbed my toe. For the first time in my life, I had a bona fide panic attack.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know how ridiculous and crippling they are at the same time. Worst of all, I knew I was just scared rather than in imminent danger, and I couldn’t make it stop.
Of course, to a mountaineering, rock-hopping, trail-running badass this is totally unacceptable behavior. We are to laugh in the face of fear, renew our life insurance policies, and jump, dive, launch, run off, over, and up things. We are unaffected by the accepted risks and dangers of our passions. So, why this?
I was so upset at being upset by a fresh field of boulder that I may or may not have gone home to cry about it. I feared my head was broken and that now I would be banished to extreme ironing and cable sweater knitting. I feared my outdoors career would forevermore be riddled with excuses and paved bike paths.
The reality is that I had done everything in my power to recover The Most Pampered Foot and I had neglected the process of the Almost Killed Spirit.
That foot has been to more specialists and voodoo witch doctors than I even knew existed. It’s had massage and acupuncture and light therapy and yoga for heaven’s sake. It was on a strict diet of no sugar or alcohol.
And it healed, miraculously – perhaps with a little bit of a diva attitude leftover. For a while, I considered getting it its own agent.
Even though my foot could take me to the same places, rocks made me cringe. And so I did not go to the same places. If we are defined by our actions, I was losing myself. I was losing what I loved to do, the things that brought me deep joy and meaning.
So I did the previously unthinkable and went to a therapist.
Naturally, we discovered there all kinds of childhood issues, which is why I resist therapy – and personal growth in general. But I also discovered that my fear is much less about rocks and much more about being helpless. This seems more valid. We’re seldom truly helpless, even when we need help.
So last weekend, in a celebration of two feet and all those who made it possible, I packed my first aid kit (with extra matches and an extra thermo blanket) and hiked back up to my old friend, Chimney Rock. My mom casually said, “Hey I renewed your MedStar flight insurance.” You know, just to give me confidence.
It’s a long hike up to the talus fields at the base of the rock, so I had a lot of time to prepare (a year and two hours), but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of relief I had when I saw it again.
I was scared to pieces, and it was okay because that talus stuff is dangerous. I wondered why I had not been this concerned the last time I crossed it.
By accident, I came across a small fire pit in the middle of the field – the very fire that had warmed my stuck body that long night. Right there before me was the boulder. THE boulder.
I stared at it, blinked, and thought, “Huh. It’s not as big as I remember it.”
How very true, that idea rings, for so many things that overwhelm us. In hindsight our obstacles, which might seem impossible at the time, are less significant – sometimes far less. They may shape us, make our memories, and redirect us, but seldom do they redefine us.
I took a moment to make my peace with the rock, including an apology for the tirade of swearing it had to tolerate that fateful day. I breathed the mountain air deep into my lungs. It smelled like gratitude and soil and life.
And then I did what I love most: I ran home.
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