A picture showed up on my Facebook memory yesterday of Jay and me in Telluride two years ago. Jay had skied maybe once if at all, and it had been a couple of decades since I had been on skis, so we did ski school together. Although in the picture we were happy to be done with a long day on the snow, it was not as easy as the smiles on our face made it look. It's often the story behind the photo that tells the real truth.
On our first date, Jay told me he had panic attacks. I understood since I once too had panic attacks and for as long as I can remember, I have had anxiety in some form or another. As I result of being two people that were used to struggle, our tolerance for discomfort was high and so was our need to fit in to prove wrong the voices in our head that told us we were too different to belong.
Traveling especially was a challenge. Jay was afraid of bridges, we both were not fans of flying, and I was wimpy about being away from kids. Jay and I loved to be with family or friends and were also anxious about disappointing others and missing out, so when his aunt and uncle invited us to Telluride, we said yes.
Small planes are where I draw the line, so we decided to drive. It was a long drive, but driving through the beautiful Rocky Mountains without kids complaining sounded relaxing. It was not until we were going through the Eisenhower Tunnel that I realized we were in over our heads as we found out Jay was also terrified of tunnels. The Eisenhower was the first of a few tunnels that were ahead of us.
Late that night in the middle of nowhere on a snowy road without cell phone reception, we were stuck outside of a tunnel and Jay was paralyzed. He was shaking and scared, and I was scared too, and I had no idea what to do. All around us was the darkest night sky I had seen in awhile and I could not stop thinking about our kids at home.
As so often was the case, Jay liked to drive, and I was the passenger trying to determine how to navigate his anxiety. I was in the driver's seat at this point but he was still too afraid to go through it, and I imagined we would spend the night there until dawn. Finally, a state trooper came along and asked if we were OK. Jay told him the situation, and the understanding trooper drove in front of us very slowly through the tunnel as we followed and not long after, we found a hotel and in the daylight, the tunnels were still hard but less dark.
We made it to Telluride the next day and signed up for ski school for our first full day on the slopes. We took lessons on the bunny slope together and finally when we had made a little progress, the instructor encouraged us to take the chair lift which Jay was also terrified of, but the instructor convinced him to go and sat in between us on the lift.
I am not sure the instructor had any idea of how afraid Jay was but he quickly learned. Within seconds, Jay was practically sitting on the instructor’s lap, shaking uncontrollably and telling him he wanted off, asking even if he could jump. Now and then someone else would see Jay’s fear that I knew so well. We laughed about it later, but it really was not funny.
The drive back to Denver was scarier than the drive to Telluride because Jay was diagnosed on day three of our trip with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. That part was not funny either! We were given a route without tunnels, but Jay was on oxygen, and every couple of hours as his breathing would become labored again, we would have to stop at locations that had oxygen refill available. We white-knuckled it and made it back in time to spend a night in Denver before heading back home the next day.
We tried so hard in so many ways throughout our marriage to overcome so much often at our expense. Jay hated his anxiety, and I too often felt resentful of it because what looked so easy for others, was often so defeating for us. We did the best we could and sought out professional help frequently but looking back, we were lost and looking at the wrong map.
We wanted to have it all, be it all and do it all because this is the road map we knew. We talked so much about wanting a simpler life, but every time we tried to map our own route we would come across a big yellow caution sign, and we would turn around. It is telling how we would brave tunnels in Colorado because we did not want to miss out but we could not find the courage to ignore the yellow caution signs.
I am not ashamed to admit I am finally getting help in a way I have needed for a long time. I wish I could go back in time with what I know now but life unfolds as it does, and the only way I know to keep going is to believe there is a bigger picture. I had so many romantic visions of how we would triumph over our difficulties together. I had no idea of the tunnel in front of us.
It seems in my life I learn the most important lessons on my own with no control over how or when they will appear. On many days, I fail to learn the lesson or I am tempted to sweep it all under the rug as if nothing has happened because I know we live in a world that encourages us to push through hard times, and self-care and awkward honesty and taking time to heal win no accolades and are often judged.
Strong to me is taking on a new meaning. It is knowing when I need help and trying to ask for it, standing up for my needs even when I have self-doubt, coming to believe I deserve to not only feel good, but to feel better than good and challenging myself at my own pace so that one day, I will choose the short plane ride to Telluride over snowy mountain passes.
I am understanding that often when I am strongest, I feel incredibly weak. I stutter, shake and am clumsy when I am strong. As I aspire to it, I try not to make excuses or put myself down or obsess that I am selfish or wrong. I try to take the high road and be honest and in all of these endeavors, I trip over my own two feet and have to start over more than once with skinned knees. It's not the sexy six pack ab look we see in glossy magazines but there is so much grace and courage in it that I know I want. It's a road where I may risk losing those who do not understand, but I know it is the only way I will find home.
May the Wind, Son Volt