Feel the Fear and Don’t Do It Anyway

I’ve never been smart enough to do what’s good for me. In fact, most of my life, pretty much everyone around me has asked me, “Why?”. Why did I quit practicing law? Why do I run so much? Why did I let my kids go to school in Los Angeles? Why did I wear bright yellow knee socks with black patent leather shoes – with the ribbons tied up my legs – for school pictures? Why?

Frankly, I’ve never had a good answer. And I’ve tried really hard to come up with a good one, a reason for why I always seem to be swimming upstream, or at least in a different lane. “Because I want to,” comes off surly and snide, when I feel exactly the opposite. Just like I always get lost during trail runs because I’m so busy daydreaming and taking in the sights, I’m the same way in real life – I’m just going along, getting excited about something new, and venturing off before I realize that I’m suddenly on the trail alone. It’s not intentional, it just happens.

This was a very roundabout way of saying that I am not usually afraid of much because I’m not usually paying enough attention to realize I should be afraid; that the choice, road, trail I’m about to take is probably fraught with danger, and a wiser person would stop, turn around, and do something different – something smarter. I’m not putting myself into challenging situations because I’m brave, but because I’m oblivious.

But on Saturday, I was confronted with a lifelong fear that got my attention – my fear of heights. Since I can remember, I’ve always been afraid of heights. Once, on a date, I had a full-blown panic attack replete with hyperventilating, crying, and near-vomiting when our ferris wheel bucket got stopped at the top. Let me just say, the date was over the minute we were safely back on the ground. The poor guy probably saw a lifetime of mental health counseling bills to be paid if we ended up together.

And I have no idea why I’m so afraid of heights – I don’t remember having a near-death experience on top of a mountain, or anything – but it has plagued me my whole life. And because of this fear, what was supposed to be an “epic” 20 mile trail run with friends, turned into an embarrassing reminder that I can’t control everything. Especially not my brain.

Much of the run was on an old unpaved fire road, so all was well. But then, we did a detour onto a singletrack trail – and all hell broke loose for me. One minute I was running, thinking how lucky I was to be out in the forest, running with friends on such a beautiful day, and the next, BAM! Vertigo, nausea and full-tilt panic. We had come to a section of the trail where one side abutted rock face and the other was a sheer drop down 2000 feet. And I couldn’t move. It was like a switch had flipped in my brain and I had turned to stone. Sweaty, panicky, freaking out stone.

I urged my friends to go on, not wanting to compound my panic with further shame for having ruined their run, and then after they left, I gingerly tried to make myself move forward.

“I can do this. I can do this,” I repeated to myself again and again.

But I couldn’t. I made it another mile, feeling as if I was going to throw up the entire time, and finally turned back – having to go back the way I came. It was excruciating.

And the thing that extra sucks about this scenario is that it happens EVERY TIME I run singletrack, mountainous trail. It doesn’t matter how many times I “successfully” get through the run, I still fall apart the next time – and each time it gets worse. I thought if I “felt the fear and did it anyway,” I would overcome it, but clearly that isn’t happening.

So, for now (or at least until I find a good shrink who can hypnotize me, or something), I’m going to swim with the sharks, run with the bears and the mountain lions, travel the world – but NOT run mountainous singletrack. Really, as often as I fall down, the odds are pretty high my fears are justified anyway.

Author: Carilyn Johnson

See all of Carilyn's writtings at CarilynJohnson.com

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent writing; love reading every word you write. Amazing how those things grip you regardless of how much you don’t want it to.

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  2. Gripping article. Thanks for being brave enough to share your fears. Don’t run the Zion Traverse. That would not go well for you.

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