For many years, I forged ahead, rarely worrying about much. I figured everything would work itself out eventually, so why waste energy on worrying. Then, for a multitude of reasons, the worries I constantly dismissed came unconsciously crashing down upon my shoulders. The stress of graduating college, the responsibilities of adulthood-primarily providing my portion of support to our family, and the daily routine of cystic fibrosis eventually became too much to handle. The worry overwhelmed my mind and body and affected my quality of life to the point where I often avoid any new experiences that could be detrimental to my health. My wife, Carly, has always been supportive and understands me better than most. While she empathized with my fears, she has constantly challenged my thoughts and perspectives throughout our marriage. In particular, she challenges my fear of the future and unknown. This has led to several healthy discussions, the most recent of which led to our trip to Mexico and what I would call a new beginning for me.
In the fall of 2008, we were invited to be part of a group trip to Mexico that was scheduled to leave at the end of February. Always the traveler, Carly was eager to head south for a warm winter vacation. When news of the trip reached my ears, my reaction was predictable. The worry showed instantly on my face. I came up with every reason not to go to Mexico: health, money, disinterest in traveling...You name it, I said it. The truth of the matter was that I didn't want to penetrate the boundaries of my comfort bubble. After an hour of spirited discussion, Carly relented and I silently rejoiced in my victory.
A few weeks later, we were at a friend's wedding, when out of my earshot a conversation arose regarding the impending trip to Mexico. The participants had imbibed in a few adult beverages, information was exchanged, and soon I was innocently confronted by some of my intoxicated friends. "Why are you afraid to go to Mexico? Carly said you are afraid to travel." I was caught off guard by the question and immediately became defensive and embarrassed. How did they know I was so afraid? I managed to change the topic with little resistance, but decided to wait until Carly and I were at home settling in to bed to mention the incident to her. She immediately apologized for saying what she said to my friends, but once again challenged my reasoning. "What I said was true, though. You are very afraid of many things. I don't understand it and it frustrates me. Honestly, I am sad for you." I tried to respond, but the words wouldn't come out. In my mind, my wife thought I was a coward. I know that she doesn't feel that way about me and never has, but her words made my heart ache. I decided that night to prove her wrong.
Within the next week we had booked our trip and all of our friends were pleasantly surprised. Our friend Kari teased me that I only booked the trip for Carly. While I wholeheartedly agreed with part of her statement, I did it for more than just Carly. I did it for our marriage. I wanted my wife to be proud of me. Most of all, I wanted to stop allowing my fear to control me. In the weeks prior to our trip south of the border I made the proper preparations. I went to doctors appointments, including a travel doctor, and made a list of questions and concerns I had about Puerto Vallarta. All of my doctors were more excited about Mexico than I was. The travel physician even said (in a very diplomatic and bedside manor-ish way) that my fears were a little ridiculous and my risks were no different in that part of Mexico than they were in the U.S.A. I still was not completely convinced, but left both doctors with less anxiety than I arrived with, which was a small step in the right direction.
The departure date was drawing closer, and though Carly's excitement and smile was enough to keep me peaceful on the outside, inside my fear overwhelmed my thoughts. What would happen if I got sick or hurt? There are days when I wonder if the doctors in the states knew what they were doing, but at least they had kept me on the right track. What the hell was going to happen in a foreign country, where my disease may have been as foreign to them as their language was to me? There had been many sleepless nights trying to answer that question on my own with little to show for it besides bags under my eyes.
I received an awakening few days before we left in the form of bad news. An acquaintance from high school, whom I recently reconnected with via Facebook, passed away from cancer. I hadn’t seen her in twelve years and can only remember a few brief but genuinely nice conversations. What really hit home was the rapid progression of her illness. She had been very open about her it, posting short but poignant updates on her progress. Then one day, I went on her page and saw a posting:
"Sabine passed away early Tuesday morning. Thank you to all her friends for their constant support and prayers."
The cancer consumed her, and though I am certain she battled valiantly, her body was not as strong as her spirit. I immediately thought of my sister Angela, who passed away from cystic fibrosis in the same manor. My eyes started to well up for my sister and for Sabine. I read several touching notes left on her Facebook page and secretly hoped that one day I would be remembered as fondly as she was when she left this world. I also wondered about whether she got to do everything she wanted to in her thirty years. A switch flipped on in my head and I decided I never wanted to ask myself that question. This trip to Mexico was no longer just a vacation to appease my wife and improve my marriage; this was a quest to improve the quality of my life and to face what I feared most...
Sitting on the bed in our hotel room, my face pale, and a hunk of bedspread clinched firmly in each hand, wasn't fooling anyone least of all my wife. "You don't have to go, babe." she stated sweetly as she placed her hand on top of one of my clenched fists. I emphatically replied that I was going on this excursion, but I needed time to come to grips with being dangled on a cable high above a Mexican forest with nothing between me and the ground below but a small and frequently used harness wrapped around me that was no bigger than a pair of tighty–whitey underwear. Let me digress...
Days earlier we touched down in Puerto Vallarta right around noon. The flight down was typical. A little motion sickness, but that is something I have always dealt with. The hotel was nothing special either. An all-inclusive that made you feel comfortable, yet driven like cattle as they moved you from venue to venue. Eat, drink, swim, drink, eat, drink, sleep. As a human bovine, I was waiting to be driven into a dark room and be sent to that "big pasture in the sky." Thankfully, this was not the case, and my friends and I soaked up the lethargic vibe with great pleasure. My worries seemed to melt away in the atmosphere with the help of a strawberry daiquiri or two. I was almost in a state of total relaxation when I was reminded of our activity for Tuesday. We were going on "Los Veranos Canopy Tours”: Fourteen individual cables of varying distances and heights, the highest being 1200 feet above sea level. Once you started, there was no stopping. Your only option was to cross longer trenches and ascend higher. I headed to our room determined, but terrified.
From the moment I woke up Tuesday, I was pacing like a tiger in a cage . I couldn't sit still if my life depended on it. My adrenaline and emotions were off the charts, so much so that tears would spontaneously stream down my face and I would quickly wipe them away before anyone could notice, not that they couldn't tell I was nervous from the groove I was wearing in the floor from pacing, but I still had to attempt to save some portion of dignity.
During the bus ride to the canopy tour, Carly kissed me softly on the cheek and whispered in my ear that she was very proud of me. This meant the world to me because it reaffirmed that she was aware of how hard this really was for me. I was very calm for the rest of the ride until the brakes squealed loudly, the door swung open, and a large bald man with a Cheshire cat grin hopped on the bus and joyfully exclaimed: "Hola, amigos! I would suggest you use the bathroom down here, because if you don't there are none up in the trees and this may scare the poo-poo and pee-pee right out of you!". Little did he know, I packed a pair of underwear just in case. Seriously, I did.
While being fitted for my harness, one of the guides - the self proclaimed "Skinny Monkeys" - tried to calm my fears. "You nervous, amigo?" I told him I was scared to death, but “Sin Miedos.” He looked at me, the nervous gringo, smiled and said "Cojones!", cupping his hands below his belt. Earlier in the week, I had watched Kindergarten Cop on TV at the hotel in English with Spanish subtitles. For some reason Arnold Schwarzenegger said "No Fear" which appeared in the subtitles as "Sin Miedos". I proclaimed that as my mantra for the trip and will be forever grateful to the Governor of California for his assistance. I only wish it was from a cooler movie of his. I will admit that I am still thoroughly entertained by Kindergarten Cop.
The presentation of the safety rules was of a humorous nature. They joked about falling, getting stuck in the middle of the cable, and rubbing our helmet-covered heads on the cable in the midst of explaining the proper techniques and procedures. Unfortunately, my selective hearing turned on, so I only heard the terrifying jokes and completely missed the important parts as my eyes welled up with tears of fear. Luckily, the guides were going to be at each station and would review what to do as we needed. With that, we headed up a long, uneven, man-made staircase, which I nicknamed the "Stairway to Heaven", because if the endless stair climb upward in the humid Mexican forest doesn't kill you, the trips across the multiple ravines just might. When I reached the top, gasping from exhaustion (There are many days when I am at home in Minnesota that can barely make it up a flight of stairs, so this damn thing nearly killed me!), I saw the first platform and realized the stairs weren't the only thing about to take my breath way. This was it. I stepped up to the launching point and was hooked on the cable that headed for what seemed like miles toward the following platform. I looked below me (very stupid) between the gaps in the planks and saw how high it was. In my head, I kept repeating "Sin Miedos, Sin Miedos", and only stopped briefly because the guide made a terrible joke about not remembering how to use the equipment. In my head I told him to go fuck himself, but stopped short of saying it out loud since he may have to save me at some point during the day. Here we go! Sin Miedos...Sin Miedos...
I wish I could tell you I had an epiphany as I flew through the air with greatest of ease. Hell, I wish I could tell you my life flashed before my eyes. It didn't, and I apologize to those I love, but I thought of no one...except my Dad. Not even him really, but of a joke he makes all the time. For a large portion of his life he was a siding, roofing, and window contractor. Consequently, he has been on ladders, roofs, and countless other high places and has fallen off of these things a few times. When people ask him what it is like to fall from so high up, he replies, without fail: "The falling is the fun part, it’s the landing that hurts.” The entire fourteen runs I barely made a sound, looked straight ahead, and had that one random thought. I also will happily admit that, while I shed tears on every single run, there was no need for extra underwear I packed. The last run was a tandem race run and I was pitted against my wife. She smiled at me and, even though my face wasn’t as telling, my heart smiled back. We shot down the run (which she won, like she always does) and I ran off the platform and placed my hands to my knees. I survived and I was thankful to have my feet on the ground again.
One fear had been faced and I was proud, but the worst was yet to come. Before we went on the trip, I noticed pictures on the website of people holding squirrel monkeys, parrots, and...snakes. If there is one thing I fear more than heights, it's snakes. Ever since I had a snake put down my back in kindergarten, I have a petrifying fear of snakes. I find them amazing and watch documentaries about them all the time, but I could never get near one without almost passing out. Fate had given me the opportunity to face two of my greatest fears in one day! I had to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. I walked over to the animal sanctuary where I first saw the very territorial squirrel monkeys. After I passed, they peed on someone and then started to bite each other. I had to put my developing fear of squirrel monkeys on the back burner though, because that was when I saw it: A six foot burmese python crawling on the ledge next to me! I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel the passing out sensation that normally occurs when this happens. Maybe my adrenaline was still so high from the canopy tour that I past the point of normal rationale thought. Regardless of the reason, it was time to face fear numero dos.
I told the guide who was handling the animals to please put the snake on me, but to stay close since I was deathly afraid of them. He obliged and gently set the snake across my shoulders. This was a million times worse than the canopy tours and I cringed when he told me to hold its neck right behind the head. The snake felt like a dried out dish scrubbing sponge and I was immediately intimidated by the shear power that this animal possessed. It was like one giant muscle writhing and twisting on my neck and shoulders. I knew it was time to be done when the lower half of the python started to wrap around my inner thigh and leg, so I politely asked the guide to please take the snake off of me. His reply: “No Hablo ingles, senor.” When he didn’t take it, I was tempted to drop it, but thought better of it. Even though I was afraid, I still had respect for this living creature and wished it no harm. I am sure it was not fond of me either and would much rather be hunting in a tree than on my shoulders. My voice tensed up like a twelve year old choir boy and I asked him once again - in a soprano tone - to remove the snake from my body. He smiled and slowly unwrapped it from my torso. Fear number two was faced and I was free from its coils.
You might be asking yourself if I enjoyed either experience. I am not afraid to say that I did not enjoy either. Put yourself in my place: Face your two biggest fears within a span of 3 hours and see how well you hold up. If you notice, I did not say I conquered my fears. I am still afraid of both things, but I am proud of myself for facing them and at least I know that if I had to do it again, I could do it and survive.
Before this trip to Mexico, my life had become a caricature of what a life well lived should be. I am disappointed in myself for taking this long to realize how ridiculous I was being, but I attribute it my human instinct to protect myself that may have gone into overdrive. I will still be cautious in the future, but won't let my fear prevent me from living my life anymore. I would like to end this post by thanking my traveling companions for their support and picture taking skills, my friend Sabine and sister Angela (peaceful thoughts to both of you), and especially to my wife. Thank you for winning most of the arguments, popping my bubble, and loving me unconditionally.