What we are really afraid of is the unknown; those things that could happen to us. But what if they don’t?
“Here’s a prescription for Ativan,” the doctor said as he handed me a slip of paper. Fear wouldn’t let me sleep the previous night. As a matter of fact, I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor around the base of the toilet in an effort to shorten the travel distance between the bed and bathroom if the contents of my stomach decided to projectile lurch. The cool temperature of the hard, laminate floor against my hot, sticky cheek was a relief and somehow did more to set me at ease than my warm duvet and soft pillow.
The reaction was a result of anxiety and a lack of self-confidence; a panic attack that got out of hand. That night fear churned up a swarm of butterflies and sent them on a petrified frenzy between the pit of my unsettled stomach and rapidly beating heart.
In two weeks I was supposed to fly to Paris, France, find my way south and then walk 800 kilometers across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Neither country was familiar to me. I had never set foot off the North American continent aside from a couple of family trips to Hawaii and Cuba. Not only that, but I had never traveled anywhere alone before and here I was thinking that little inexperienced “me” would be able to navigate around a foreign country by myself where I didn’t have the slightest clue how to speak the language.
What was I thinking? Maybe I just wasn’t. Maybe I was disillusioned by romantic images of French lavender fields and Spanish siestas. Or maybe my imagination was caught up in a colourful tale in which I was the main character in an adventurous plot to reach the Emerald City of Oz.
Fear had reared its ugly head and spread its long, dark shadow of doubt over me. Its lurking essence enveloped me and whispered stark reminders of just how little I really am in this large and unpredictable world. After all, if things went sideways out there, who would protect me? Who would come looking for me if I was abducted? Who would even know where to look? How would I call for help? All I know is English. Would I become part of the small percentage of travelers that go missing in this gigantic and diverse world; their families left to wonder what happened to their loved one whether they had been murdered or subjected to human trafficking? Who would hold a perpetrator accountable? My mind reeled out of control as fear rooted itself in my thoughts.
Furthermore, I was in no shape to tackle such a long walk. A cold had me popping decongestants every four hours and I had developed a twinge in my right knee. The timing was impeccable, but that’s how Murphy’s Law seems to work doesn’t it? The twinge came on unexpectedly as I walked across the office lunchroom on my way out the door. My knee suddenly buckled under my weight at the same time that an unfamiliar pain shot through it. That’s strange, but maybe not. I had been training pretty heavily on the short, but steep Abby Grind three times per week and then supplementing my training regime with longer treks on weekends; however, there was no sign of a knee problem until that moment.
The pain came after the previous weekend’s hike. I had set off with a full backpack up Frosty Mountain to see if my body could handle carrying the weight over a long distance. It was a 23-kilometre hike with a 1200 meter elevation gain. My pack was loaded with food, water, my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. Maybe the twinge was a sign that I just can’t do this, that I’m not physically fit enough.
“Well, too late now…or maybe it isn’t,” I thought. “I could give up the plane ticket. Yeah, it’s $1500 down the drain, but I could cut my losses and work another two and a half weeks to recoup the lost money. Or maybe I could visit the doctor and get a note to send to my insurance provider and recoup the money that way. Then I could remain safe inside my comfort zone instead of flailing around blindly outside of it. What a relief it would be to lay the restless flurry of butterflies to rest and carry on comfortably with my regular life routine.”
The morning after my sleepless night cuddling with the toilet, I called in sick to work. With no sleep and my mind on a collision course with an anxiety-induced heart attack, I would have been no use there. Instead, I sat across from the doctor at the walk-in clinic. He would validate my thoughts about canceling the plane ticket. After all, a doctor wouldn’t send someone with a cold and a twinging right knee on an 800-kilometre trek…or would he?
The doctor smiled at me as he handed me the prescription for Ativan and continued, “Take one and go on the journey.” Wow, really? Even with a cold and the strange sudden knee pain? Not even the doctor was going to validate my plan to give up the ticket, so I took the slip of paper and filled the prescription relieved to at least have something to stop the crazed butterflies from ricocheting around in my belly like a bunch of lunatics bouncing off the walls of a padded room.
Someone told me that it isn’t good to mix drugs, so I stopped popping decongestants. The funny thing is that as the drug wore off I began to relax. That’s strange. The butterflies in my belly settled and my thumping heart calmed and returned to its normal rhythm. The lurking shadow of fear began to retreat and slowly my rational thinking returned.
I put the bottle of tiny pills away in the bathroom cupboard. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take an Ativan after all. Could an ingredient in the decongestant have triggered a reaction in me and increased my anxiety level? According to Dr. Google, the answer is yes, it’s possible.
My confidence returned and I began to think, “I can do this! Other people do it, so why can’t I?” And so, I took a step forward and with each subsequent step, the rest of my plans fell into place.
There’s a saying by Lao Tzu,“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To look at it any other way would be overwhelming wouldn’t it? The journey would feel impossible; out of our reach. To analyze its entirety would allow that lurking essence of fear to move in, spread its dark shadow and plant little seeds of doubt in our mind.
There is always a reason not to do something. We can easily talk ourselves out of anything that presents a physical or emotional challenge; that feeling of being outside of our comfort zone whether it be the apprehension of developing shin splints, blisters, encountering sleepless nights listening to a bad snorer in the dorm or, a big one, the fear of going alone.
What we are really afraid of is the unknown; those things that could happen to us. But what if they don’t? It’s possible that a physical ailment could crop up, but it might not. Snoring is bound to interrupt sleep at some point along the way, but there are other options to avoid it. One could also contemplate the thought of how unsafe it could be to travel alone, but what if it is safe? By nature, we are problem-solving beings. When presented with a life-challenge we come up with a solution, don’t we? We would on the road too.
The truly scary thing is that if we allow fear and doubt to rule our decisions, we will never know the amazing experiences that lay beyond. If I had allowed the scary stories I told myself to consume me and let fear get the upper hand, I would have missed out on the most beautiful journey of my life. I thought about that as I stood on the steps of the Santiago Cathedral reminiscing back to the previous 31 days; about all of the wonderful people, camaraderie, wisdom, synchronicity and amazing moments, including the challenges that taught me so much about my own strength and courage, and a chill came over me to think that I might not have experienced any of it.
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