We went on a sort of field trip for our Adventure School on Friday. Mostly it was just too hot to be in the Central Valley so we headed up into the hills. It has been 7 months since I broke my leg on what I consider one of the most basic hikes in the Sierra Nevada’s. It wasn’t the trail, it was my own over confidence in my abilities that laid me up for four months and kept us out of the mountains for six. (Click here to get the full story on how Duct Tape Saved My Life) I was going way too fast for the icy conditions and wearing the complete wrong shoes. Friday we revisited that trail.
Indian Pools is still one of my favorite trails to take kids on. The creek meanders beside the trail adding a bit of mood music to the spectacular views. Although, on this day it seemed more like a raging river. The trail is wide and clearly marked. Kids can easily lead the way, fully confident in their navigation skills. Unless you go crazy off trail it would be very hard to get lost even for preschoolers who seem to have a need to run ahead. There are medium to large granite boulders to scale and then fling themselves from, which is one of Squishy’s favorite activities.
It is a great hike, and I have always enjoyed taking Squishy there where he can be free. The confines that he lives with in town melt away, and he can be his crazy loud bouncy self. Something was different this trip, though. I had an unsettling fear gnawing at my nerves all day. I kept reliving the fall over and over in my head. I tried to maintain a sense of calm on the outside, but I know that I cracked a few times. As we were heading down the trail my mind was placing markers until we reached the boulder I slipped from. My heart was racing and it felt like I had glass under my skin as I looked at the six-foot drop. For some reason my mind had been telling me it was a short 3-4 foot slide that I took. I thought it was more of a misstep or a trip. The reality of how much worse it could have been made my ears ring louder than the rushing creek to my right.
I was determined to see this hike through, though, and I pushed my discomfort aside. I started seeing danger everywhere. Not for myself, but for the little boy who is so much like I was at his age; fearless and curious. Those can be a deadly combination. They can also be a combination for great accomplishments (I tried desperately to remind myself). I imagined my mom sitting at home worrying when I would go off on adventures with my dad. She loved for us to experience adventures and reveled in our daring discoveries, but her anxiety made her inclusion impossible.
I finally understood how crippling her fears were. As Squishy scaled yet another monumental boulder I wondered, how do I get passed this. I could not give up our adventures. Squishy needs them and I need him to have them for my sanity. If I am in a constant state of panic that’s not much of a trade-off, though. This is a new sensation for me. I have always delighted in Squishy’s daring feats. I just kind of rolled with his crazy antics. We have been learning about safety in the woods his entire life. He DOES know what he is capable of, and the dangers to look out for. So I have basically gone from one extreme to another. It’s completely irrational, but that doesn’t make it go away.
Years ago when I read the book How To Raise A Wild Child, Scott Sampson talks about the joys and wonder of a life immersed in the wild. I had one of those “AH HA!” moments. That was the childhood I wanted to construct for my child. As Squishy grew older it became vital that we live this lifestyle. He was that Wild Child Scott talks about. Squishy needs to be free and loud and bouncy. He needs to be able to let his senses reach out and absorb his surrounding without being overstimulated by a synthetic world. Scott Sampson talks about falling in love with nature, but there is no mention of the paralyzing fear I was experiencing any where in his book.
Fear is healthy and has a very important role in our everyday lives. It can keep us safe, and prepare us for dangerous situations. But when fear has moved past healthy into panic, your body will betray you. That is where I was at. I haven’t had many, but I have had enough to recognize a panic attack. In the moment I was not able to rise above it very well, but I did make it through our hike.
Fear is an emotion we all experience at one time or another, and its effects are important to understand when talking about disasters. As soon as you feel fear, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped organ in the center of your brain) sends signals to your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which then has a wide range of effects. The ANS kicks in, and suddenly, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets quicker, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released.
I fell back on the techniques that I use with Squishy. He has Sensory Processing Disorder which basically means that his nervous system is out of whack. He lives in a state of Flight or Fight (usually fight) most of the time. Nature is his refuge. His fear sensors do not register what would be considered “normal” or “neuro-typical” fears. He will go into complete shutdown if he feels water might be dripping on his head, or he might attack a woman who attempts to use one of those blower driers in a public restroom. The converse is that what you or I would think of as something that might actually cause us harm, like say walking along the edge of a boulder twenty feet above raging white water, yeah he craves that.
We have spent countless hours, months, years, desensitizing him. Meaning we purposely put him in situations where he will feel uncomfortable. By doing this in a safe environment he is able to develop coping strategies so he can handle life in a world he is just out of sync with. His fears seem irrational to me, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Like wise my fear of him plummeting down the cliff and a rattle snake springing from behind the tree at the bottom is very real to me now. This raises another question in my ever swirling thoughts. How do I desensitize myself without losing the healthy part of that fear? Because, lets face it, we should all have a healthy dose of fear when we are in the wild.
Squishy has not developed that healthy fear, yet. When I say that he is fearless in the wild, that’s not an exaggeration. He knows the dangers, he is just not afraid of them. Before it was just exasperating, now it is terrifying. I decided that for me, the best thing I could do was breath. Just breath. It is the most basic tool in our tool box and one of the most effective.
The anxiety fighting techniques I chose to use are things that I have found to be helpful for both Squishy and myself. I am not a Doctor of any kind, nor am I suggesting what works for us will work for you.
Squishy and I practice calming techniques when he is at rest. We practice and practice until it becomes his bodies natural reaction when his cortisol levels spike. Deep even breathing can slow down your heart rate, helping you to control your reactions. When you’re in control you can think more clearly. You are better able to assess a situation. Touching something solid, something real like a tree or the ground helps to refocus your attention and bring you back to your sense of space. Counting slowly and deliberately can return time to its normal pace. Consciously tensing and releasing each muscle in the body to cause a loose and free feeling to combat the natural flight or fight response. These techniques that saved us in the middle of a home depot workshop when the noise of too many hammers in a small room became overwhelming, are the same tools I will use to give him the open spaces he needs.
I was honestly afraid that our adventuring days may be limited as I drove down the mountain on Friday. I thought about every step that Squishy took, and the disaster that could have happened. I also replayed my tense responses to him. I am not proud of some of the things I said. I was so focused on holding on and not giving in to the panic that I was bound up like a rubber band. I can’t promise that I will be at ease on our next trip, or the one after that, but after putting what I already know into action I will be able to cope. Just like I ask of him every single day.