This year has not been all beer and skittles. Okay, there were a few pints of Guinness while we were in Ireland, but definitely no skittles. Of course, travel is only life being lived in a place other than home, so we can expect some challenges along the way.
My story begins five years ago. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year previously and it was my first year check up. The surgeon, with whom I had developed an immediate bond and trust, advised me to have a breast MRI as well as the high resolution mammogram. She told me at the time she only recommended this when she felt it was warranted due to the unpleasant nature of the test. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t detail it too much, but suffice it to say, she was right about the unpleasantness of the test. During the first MRI I had a panic attack. That was a first in my life. A panic attack feels like your body and brain have become disconnected from each other and are in a desperate struggle to gain back control; you can’t breathe deeply enough and you need to come out of your skin, all the while your brain struggles to make sense of it.
I knew from a friend of mine who had experienced panic attacks after having a detached retina, that they could come back at seemingly random moments in the future. I didn’t dwell on this idea, thinking that the main challenge would be for me to just return for subsequent, yearly MRI tests. That was a challenge, and thank goodness for Valium! A low dose taken only half an hour before the test, reduced the anxiety enough to establish steady breathing and relative calm. The rest I could overcome.
It never occurred to me that I would be on a tour through the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina when the next panic attack would happen three years later! It was a large-ish tour group, which, despite the cool autumn weather, made me warm. We had finished viewing the top floors and headed to the basement…through a tiny, curved and enclosed stone staircase, with no visible end. Three steps down the narrow staircase and instantly I knew, it was not a good idea. Not wanting to go into full panic mode I looked behind me. Fortunately there was no one, so I tapped my husband on the shoulder and told him I would be waiting for him outside when he finished.
When he emerged, half an hour later, I was sitting at a table with a drink and only the memory of the horrible feeling remained. He said he was sure he could take me down to the basement to see the servants’ quarters by entering the exit, since there was no one else coming out at the time. In we went. Sure enough, it was interesting and I was fine.
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do. –Eleanor Roosevelt
The next time the panic welled up in me was almost exactly a year later, also in a large-ish group, standing in a queue waiting to ascend the Space Needle tower in Seattle, Washington. We were there with another couple and we had already been up the tower the previous evening, but the tickets we held allowed a second visit. The consensus among the other three was a desire to see the view in the daylight, and so we would go again. (I am not a fan of high vantage points, usually preferring earthier details and experiences. I am also not a fan of crowds. At. All. That said, most of the time I do these things because I don’t want to retreat into a life of fear.)
About half an hour into waiting I felt my old nemesis welling up inside me. It is not simply a feeling of discomfort, it is an irrational terror that threatens to overwhelm. Knowing we still had a long ride up in a lift/elevator ahead of us, and also having already seen the view in gorgeous evening light, I said quietly to the group, ‘I will be waiting at a table over in the adjacent park area when you are finished.’ I’m not sure they understood but they kindly did not try to convince me to stay, nor did they make me feel badly after the fact.
During our self-drive holiday along the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland this October, we came upon the Doolin Caves. We had the time to visit and it was a highly recommended stop, so we did. The only caves I’d previously visited were in locations you could access from a more or less horizontal plane, and a wide opening, but just below ground level. They were not via a single door entry point, 210 steps in descent, (about 90 metres) down into the earth, through some very narrow passages…facts which I did not learn until we had paid for our tickets. I know.
Part of the Wild Atlantic Way coast near Doolin Caves
Did I say I prefer earthier details and experiences? Yes, I think I did…
I firmly believe that the Universe conspires its energies to create the lessons that will help us move forward in life. I was on the cusp of my next lesson. Gathering courage, while trying to remain calm, I awaited the start of the tour. There were only eight members in the group, thankfully. I convinced myself, if necessary I could come back to the top. Under instruction we all donned bright yellow or white hard hats. I tried to distract my anxious brain by listening to the entertaining banter of the guide. He explained to us how the men who discovered the cavern crawled through narrow passages about 500 metres to get into it the first time. Somehow that didn’t have the reassuring effect I was hoping for. Still, as we slowly descended, I tried to focus as he built our anticipation for what we were to see at the end.
About halfway down the descent, despite the cool temperature, my palms began to sweat. I found myself taking deep breaths while continually repeating in my head ‘you can do this, you can do this.’ At about this point I pushed hard through the urge to turn and rush up the stairs. In my mind I knew I was not really in any immediate danger. Finally, we arrived at the main cave. It opened out before us, revealing the largest stalactite in the Northern Hemisphere. It was 28 feet long and it was a jewel. It was a difficult lighting situation and so briefly I forgot my fear as I tried to recall skills to get decent photos with my iPhone (my only camera).
We carefully picked our way through a couple of other smaller caves. And then, what goes down, must come up! Only 210 steps to freedom. Legs, don’t fail me now!
Reflection of stalactite in ancient water below
Graceful folds belie they are made of calcium carbonate, hard as stone and thousands of years old.
28 foot long stalactite, Doolin Cave
Once in the open air again, I felt the enormity of my achievement. It wasn’t, of course, seeing the biggest stalactite in the Northern Hemisphere. The big accomplishment was facing my fear. I don’t know if this is the last experience when I will have to face this particular fear, but knowing I got through this one will empower me in future.
In the words of Elmer Fudd:
Be bwave widdoe wabbit.
(I’ll have another Guinness please!)
(If you or someone you know has panic attacks, I feel my experience of testing the waters in modified and less threatening circumstances has been key to dealing with this challenge. Also, try to surround yourself with loving people who will not judge or embarrass you if you experience an episode in their presence. xx)