Saturday, May 19, 2012

Accepting risk

Good times: Keith near the summit of Mount Diablo
I'm about to write about something I haven't discussed openly before, but there was a short period of my life when anxiety nearly took control. It was the summer of 2002, and I was 22 years old. I've never been a generally anxious or high-strung person, but I can recall vivid moments of my childhood that were suddenly, and randomly, overcome by rolling clouds of fear and despair. For example, at age 10, while riding in a car through Anaheim during a family vacation, I saw an old blanket on the street and convinced myself it was the body of a missing girl I saw on the news. The darkness I felt still haunts me.

In 2002, strange moments like these returned. One July afternoon a huge thunderstorm rolled over my house as I sat alone in the front room. The blasts of wind and thunder struck me with a fear so deep that I started shivering, even as I failed to understand why I was so scared — after all, I was in my house, under a roof, and I was safe. There was another incident when I was hiking with my friend near Moab and suddenly felt a sense that we were terribly lost. This irrational fear also had no basis in reality, and yet I felt dizzy and hopeless as I looked out across the sandstone plateau we were traversing. Fear started to affect my decisions. I refused an invitation to a rafting trip on the Green River — not because I truly believed it was dangerous, but because I didn't want to subject myself to the fear. I teetered on the verge of a panic attack for hours during a canyoneering trip in Quandary Canyon. Toward the end of the summer, I began to wonder if I had some kind of psychological misfire, possibly even a mild anxiety disorder — which is why I didn't discuss it with anyone, because I didn't want to be labeled as crazy. But fear was always creeping around the periphery of my life that summer, usually for reasons I did not understand.

The summer of 2002 also was, likely not coincidentally, when I started cycling. I purchased a low-end touring bicycle because I was enamored with the idea of bicycle travel, and practiced (not trained, practiced) by leaving my house in The Avenues of Salt Lake City and pedaling up one of the nearby canyons — City Creek, Emigration, Millcreek, and as I grew more confident, Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Some of these were day-long rides, on narrow and winding mountain roads, and I was humorously bad at it (yes I did tip over at a stop sign once, with platform pedals, because I forgot to put my foot down until it was too late.) But the act of riding my bicycle never ignited the same anxiety that just sitting around my house sometimes did. I felt safe on my bicycle, inexplicably so, to the extent that I would sometimes find comfort during a random anxious moment by reminding myself that the next day I got off work early enough for a ride up Emigration.

In September 2002, my then-boyfriend and I embarked on our first tour, a life-changing fourteen days through Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado. There were times on the trip when I was legitimately frightened, because it was snowing hard and we only had summer sleeping bags and skinny tires, or because we were crossing a hundred miles of waterless desolation on a remote and lonely Highway 95. But the act of confronting these very real fears, rather than sitting at home or work washed in ambiguous anxiety, was empowering. The final pedal strokes into Moab filled me with a sense of bullet-proof confidence, because I had done it — I had beaten my fear.

Those were the first 600 miles of a journey I've been on ever since, a journey that has been less about bolstering my strengths and more about confronting my weaknesses. One of my largest weaknesses is the fact that I am, in the hidden corners of my heart, a fearful person. It's true. I've confronted this weakness in places I would have never imagined back in 2002 — the icy desolation of the Iditarod Trail, the explosive storms and crushing fatigue of the Great Divide. There have been moments in nearly all of my larger challenges when I was deeply afraid, but had no choice but to be brave — and that, too, creates an empowering shift of emotions.

My involvement in cycling and endurance sports had a direct correlation to decreasing anxiety in my day-to-day life. For example, I used to be afraid of flying. This anxiety held on consistently until I reached a very distinct turning point — the Penn Air flight I boarded after the 2008 Iditarod Invitational, from McGrath to Anchorage. I remember sitting in the window seat, taking off, feeling the small plane bank hard in early turbulence, and I genuinely did not care. I had just crossed a bewildering swath of frozen Alaska under my own power — what could this plane possibly do to me now? Flying hasn't bothered me since.

Of course, nothing I write about here is an rational assessment of risk. I'm writing about emotional responses, and how deeply they can affect the way I approach my life. And I write about it now because of the recent motorcycle collision involving my friend Keith. He's been so upbeat and optimistic through the ordeal, and I joked that I've been more traumatized by the whole thing than he was. But in a way, it's not a joke. While we were still at the hospital in Sonora, Keith went into the bathroom and the emergency room doctor pulled me aside. She was concerned about nerve damage and Keith was showing somewhat alarming signs that this was possible. Nerve damage could lead to longer term, more disabling injury. Although I didn't understand all the details, I think the doctor simply wanted to convey the gravity of the situation and why they were transporting him to another hospital when both Keith and I expressed a desire to just let me take him home.

Keith went by ambulance to a hospital in Modesto and I drove there in a daze. I got a hotel room across the street and sat on the bed awake until after 2 a.m., mowing through an entire box of Lucky Charms (yeah, I can be a bit of a binge eater when I am stressed.) I was trying to wrap my head around the possibility of disabling injury to my vibrant, active friend, and how I felt to be a part of it, and how I'd feel if it happened to me. Keith for his part was never nearly concerned as I was. Maybe because he understood better what was going on with his own body, or maybe because he never saw the same look in the doctor's eyes that I saw when she talked to me. But for both of us, it was a bad night, and I admit it has opened up a new trickle of anxiety.

Beat and I have had discussions about this over the past few days, about risk versus reward in road cycling specifically. One of his good friends was killed in a collision with a drunk driver several years ago, and he knows others who have been injured in bicycle-vehicle collisions. He questions, on a rational level, whether the risks are worth it. I'm still working through my own emotional response, which is to both acknowledge and confront the fear. I recognize that the highway where Keith and I were riding was perhaps more risky than others, but the fact remains that risk is always there, haunting the periphery. How we accept that risk is really the only thing we can control.

The most important thing I learned about myself in the summer of 2002 is that I didn't want to let fear control my life. Death isn't nearly as frightening as the prospect of soft-pedaling through life without really living. Still, life occasionally comes along and doles out harsh realities, no matter how many irrational fears I've defeated.