As I stepped onto the trail, I gave one last look back at my car, parked by itself in a clearing off the road in upstate Connecticut. I could turn back now. I didn’t have to go out there into the woods. Two hours of driving and I’d been back in my house, surrounded by people and light switches.
I turned and headed into the forest. The sun was high, but it would soon begin its long descent.
A History of Fear
Fear has been a constant companion in my life. When I was very young, I discovered that the night is full of terror. There were ghosts in my closet, monsters under my bed, aliens in the air ducts, and unnameable things down the stairs. I had complex and confusing bedtime rituals to deal with all these dangers.
Then, I realized that I would one day die, and my nights took on a whole new form of terror. Sleep seemed like one step away from the eternal unconsciousness of death. I suffered panic attacks thinking about it, and the fear of being alone at night when one of these attacks happened was enough to keep me from sleeping well most of my life.
Then there were the night terrors, waking dreams of unseeable presences in my room and the urgent need to jump up, despite being apparently paralyzed (psychologists speculate that this form of nightmare is the origin of alien abduction and possession experiences. I’m inclined to agree).
All these things got worse in the wilderness. Even sleeping next to my father in a tent, I would lie awake and paralyzed with fear, waiting for anything from a bear to the reanimated corpse of the Camel Woman to attack.
These fears didn’t subside much as I got older. Even as recently as a few months ago, after an episode of Doctor Who, I woke up in my bed with dead certainty that there was a stone angel lurking in the living room…only to find myself totally paralyzed.
Anything and everything my mind could use to scare itself, it has hoarded and nurtured, bringing to life at the most sinister moments.
Setting a New Path
“Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.” – Anon
This was becoming a serious problem, affecting my sleep and my self-confidence; it’s very hard to imagine changing the world when you are afraid of the dark.
So I decided to put myself to the test: I would spend three nights alone in the woods. I would either learn to control my mind, to see the world for what it is rather than a stage for my personal terror, or I would spend three miserable nights in a near-panic.
I guess the second option wasn’t really a great alternative.
The Greatest Fear is of Fear Itself
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
As the shadows lengthened and I prepared my camp for the night, I felt a slimy weight in my chest, like a black worm. I was worried. I had been reduced to desperate prayer in the past and I didn’t relish the idea of spending 8 hours of darkness in that state.
Earlier in the day I had passed a few people, but now there was nobody around for miles. My campsite was empty, though the caretaker’s tent was pitched and unoccupied, which only made it more creepy.
As I set up for the night, I thought about the other hikers and where they might be camping. The first one I had met turned off miles back. He had been carrying a big red can of bear spray.
I laughed. I hadn’t even considered bear spray. Honestly I wasn’t really that worried about bears, or anything else in the woods. If I had been, I would have brought something more threatening than a pocket knife.
So, what was I worried about? I asked myself. What exactly was I so afraid of?
And that’s when it hit me.
I was terrified of myself, of what my imagination could do to me.
This was empowering because if I was the one scaring me then I could stop doing it.
It meant that being afraid was a choice related to how I saw the world and my place in it. Was I vulnerable, or dangerous? Was I a victim, or an initiator? Did bad things happen to me, or was I essentially safe (or even a magnet for adventure)?
A Night of Questions
I didn’t sleep much that night. I spent the hours unraveling how I saw myself in the world, asking a lot of questions about my role and the kind of life I expected versus the kind of life I wanted.
Asking the right questions was the first step to destroying the fear.
Why had I chosen to be afraid of the night? How did it serve me?
An interesting idea I’ve come across is that our fears and limitations actually serve us in some way. We might prevent ourselves from making money because we saw how work and financial responsibility were burdens to our parents, for example.
Self-imposed limitations/fears serve us because they help us deal with the problems we assume we can’t overcome, but they don’t allow us to claim the lives we want.
I realized that, as a kid, my fears gave me an excuse to see my parents at night. Both of them worked, so I didn’t feel like I got enough of their attention. Bedtime terrors gave me a reason to go running to their room and a chance to spend time with them, getting very focused attention (not always positive I’ll grant).
Growing older, it held me back by justifying poor sleep, and my lack of academic initiative. I was smart and got straight-A’s, but I never went beyond that to apply for national awards or compete. I believed I was teased enough for my grades, and I associated my success with people hating me.
In a weird way, being afraid of the dark protected me.
“The key to change… is to let go of fear.” – Rosanne Cash
And when I realized that, lying in my tiny tent alone in the middle of the woods, something loosened inside me, a knot that had been there so long I had forgotten it existed and what it had been holding closed.
And I woke up with the sun in my eyes.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I explain some of the specific mental techniques I used to actually get some sleep on the second night of this ordeal.
Photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller on Flickr