In that moment, everything for me changed. I went from being the kind of person who felt completely free to try anything and do anything, to the kind of person who first needed to consider how long I might be in an enclosed space without the ability to take my exit at a time of my own choosing. Because what happened on the roller coaster turned out not to be a one-off. Rather it would be the first in a long-line of what I can only call panic attacks, because I’ve never figured out what else to call them.
What I have endured all these years, isn’t claustrophobia, per say. If I am in a small space and know I can come and go as I please, there’s no anxiety. If I’m in the same small space and someone else is left to decide when I can leave – it’s a significantly different outcome. I have an irrational fear of being “stuck”.
Last week, when Chad and I were in Mexico, we made the decision to experience what is called a Temazcal; a beautiful and ancient spiritual ceremony conducted by a shaman in a sweat lodge type environment. A Temazcal is meant as a purification process: Purify the body, purify the mind, purify the soul. The Temazcal is essentially a cave – it’s like a circular dome – and hot volcanic rocks are placed in the centre with participants seated around the rocks. Leading up to the ceremony, in my mind, I was sort of prepared for a 90-minute sauna, perched above the ocean, on a backdrop of native Mexican drumming. When we arrived, I casually mentioned to the shaman that I certainly meant no disrespect but I might need to come and go a few times throughout the ceremony, if I were to experience any panic.
This woman, who exuded all the calm and wisdom of the ages, gently and lovingly and firmly explained to me that what we were about to experience was a very intricately designed healing ritual. It was important for me to feel and acknowledge the negative emotions, not to run from them. When I run, I give those feelings permission to return. In short, in many ways, she was inviting me to stare my panic down. I trusted her – nothing about this setting was physically unsafe. The Temazcal was expertly constructed, this wasn’t just some makeshift structure sort of thrown together at a whim – for all intents and purposes, it was a miniature church -- and the heat itself would not be unbearable. The only obstacle I might face would be the darkness of my own mind.
And sure enough, there it was. As soon as the doors closed – that awful wave of dread. The thought of sitting there for 90-minutes in the pitch black, unable to leave was too much. In the quiet, before the ceremony even began, I said: “I’m so sorry, I can’t do this. I have to leave.” And while I most assuredly could have, I wasn’t being held against my will, and there were no locks on the doors, she instead invited me to stay: “Breathe through what you’re feeling. Inhale and exhale. Focus on your breath. And remember,” she said: “Fuerza! Fuerza! Fuerza!” Strength, strength, strength.
Every once in a while, the perspective shift hits when we least expect it to and when we most need it to by a trigger we just didn’t see coming. For me it was “Fuerza! Fuerza! Fuerza!” Suddenly I was in a staring contest with this monster that I had allowed to follow me for the last 18 years, and I knew I was going to win.
Strength, strength, strength…
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Joseph Campbell said: “The cave we fear to enter is the one that holds the treasure.” And here I was, not in a figurative cave, but in a literal one, experiencing a miraculous shift from the height of anxiety to the height of euphoria.