Yesterday, we left New York City to start Part II: Sail South in our two-part, very simple sailing journey. The return to the city marks about 1500 miles of sailing.
That is shocking to me. We've come a long way from not knowing how to sail at all just three years ago. While catching up with friends and old colleagues in the city, Jon and I were asked over and over again, “aren’t you ever scared?” Jon’s response is always, “nah!” and mine is “yes, constantly.”
I can't believe we've actually made it this far.
I was brought back to a blog I wrote a couple of months ago but never published, mainly because I was a little embarrassed. Fear isn’t something we like to talk about unless we have a way of conquering it. Lots of adventurers and writers have amazing prose about how they conquered a fear, how they’ve moved beyond it to live their best life. This blog post isn’t about that. It’s simply an acknowledgment that for me, fear is a constant, that it’s exhausting, but it doesn’t stop me from doing things I love to do.
I think there are a lot of us out there that don’t talk about that, so I wanted to do so for a minute. I’m including below my original blog post, and a bit of an epilogue of what I’ve learned about fear since writing it.
Last night was the first time in a month that I’ve driven the dinghy. I’ve refused to pilot it since the Great Dinghy Flipping Incident of 2016, which for the record, I still don’t find funny. While our outboard has long since been resuscitated, I’ve been embarrassed and ashamed about letting Jon take the wheel — in part because it compromises my own independence and in part because I just don’t believe that there should be anything that stops me from doing things as well or equally often as Jon. But I’ve also been filled with crippling dread about being responsible for myself and other people (and Honey) inside that dinghy.
Nevertheless, Jon forced me to get back in the Hypalon saddle, and drive the damn thing to shore to take the dog out for her last walk of the day. Enough time had passed, the motor was working just fine and he was done chauffeuring me around.
So I did it. Nothing of note happened, and I’ve driven it several times since then. Fine. That’s how we get over fears, right? By just doing the thing? But that’s not really the point of this post.
I want to talk about fear. We fairly universally can relate to acute fear, like my little story above. Something scary happens and it’s natural to be afraid of it again. But some people (me) are just naturally more afraid than others (Jon).
I’ve done a lot of ostensibly brave things, both with Jon and without — I’ve traveled and lived alone in developing countries, I’ve worked in war zones, I’ve managed big teams of people, had to fire lots of people, spoken to large crowds and done a few nominally dangerous outdoorsy things with questionable equipment and guidance that I probably should have said no to.
I’m also somewhat prepared for legitimately scary things. The few times I’ve been in actual danger, I’ve been calm, calculated and have extricated myself quickly and efficiently. I’m well trained in self-defense, and at my peak performance could disarm attackers of their weapons and take down two people at a time. Like I mentioned in my last post, I like to I learn literally everything I can about new things so that I can be well-prepared for any issues that come up. I’m all up in the grill of preparedness and taking smart chances on things.
Despite that, I’m scared all the time. Of basically everything. I don’t mean gut-wrenchingly, panic-attack scared, just low-grade, constant worry that something will go wrong scared.
Is it my half-catholic, half-jewish heritage? Am I genetically bred to worry? Perhaps.
Here is an abbreviated list of the things I’ve worried about in the last 24 hours:
- Driving the dinghy
- Driving the dinghy at night
- Hitting a mooring because it’s dark
- Black mold
- Falling in the water
- dropping my phone in the water
- Honey falling in the water
- Jon falling in the water
- Dying of skin cancer
- Running aground
- Not having reception for work calls
- Losing clients because I don’t have enough internet
- Losing business because I think my voicemail/voice sounds like I’m 12.
- Losing business because I don’t wear enough makeup on video calls
- Going into bankruptcy and not being able to pay off my student loans because of all of the above problems
- Getting raped, stabbed or abducted as I walk the dog
- Falling over and getting a concussion while walking the dog alone and not being able to call for help
- Losing my personality from the concussion
- Blowing up the boat by using our propane-powered water heater
- Not calling my mom enough so that she’ll think I don’t love her
- Not calling my friends enough so that they’ll think I don’t love them
- Not telling the people I love that I love them before I die.
- Dying alone
- The weird bumps in the wood that are appearing in our cabin walls.
- That our rigging will spontaneously pop apart and the mast will fall on me
- Being too old to have children by the time I want them
- Getting food poisoning because I’m not sure if our fridge/freezer is cold enough
- Wasting food because we might not have time to cook it before it goes bad
In contrast, I asked Jon whether he was scared in the last 24 hours, like for example when taking Honey to shore late at night. After some thought he said, “maybe if a car drove by really slowly and flickered their lights at me in a creepy way. Then I’d be a little scared.”
Perhaps it’s the long hours of staring out into the horizon and being alone with my thoughts, but I’ve started thinking about fear and anxiety really deeply for the first time and I’ve only just started realizing that not everyone has to make a massive effort every day to conquer their fears of the unknown. Some people, like Jon, just do the thing.
Hopefully a few of you are as flabbergasted as I am that there are people in this world are able to get through a complete any day or activity, without the million thoughts and fears that go through their heads while doing it. I mean, what would you do with that extra time? I would have written an entire compendium of novels by now with that brain space.
It’s also a shock to me how some people react to scary situations. In contrast to my ultra, almost paralyzing calm in the face of fear, I’ve noticed that Jon will treat a scary situation like a joke of the first order. Once, when taking a wrong turn in Hebron while working in the West Bank, we found ourselves surrounded by some very angry Israeli military with AK47s. I froze and gripped the sides of the car, urging Jon to back the car slowly away as they ordered. He, on the other hand, started laughing and joking with the soldiers.
Then there are those people who seek out fear. I can’t even, with those people. According to a frustrating article about people who apparently aren’t terrified all the time so want to seek that feeling out, from The Atlantic, “to really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. Lots of people also enjoy scary situations because it leaves them with a sense of confidence after it’s over.”
That makes intellectual sense to me but there must be a fundamental difference in brain chemistry between these people and me. The older I get, the more unsafe the world seems. This plays directly into the writer, Allegra Ringo’s, additional assertion that “things that violate the laws of nature terrify us.” (which, unrelated, pretty much sums up my fear of mimes.)
The more I know what’s possible — rogue waves, freak storms, electrocution by water — the more susceptible to fear I become. Perhaps the sea is where the laws of nature are most able to take their free reign. But as a city girl whose greatest metaphysical mystery prior to living aboard was where New York’s constant hot trash smell came from, the ocean is a scary place.
I have a deep, wild fear of the unknown, starting with a complete lack of understanding of the range and moods of the the substance on which I float.
This is different from being scared of the water, which I am not — and which Jon is. In fact, that’s the only fear he has that I’ve been able to discern of his — the dark mysteries of deep water hold about as much power over him as the entire rest of the world does to me. So, I go about my business as if everything doesn’t scare me, and Jon lives on the thing that scares him the most. We’re a fine pair.
After discussing my constant fear with a few different people since writing this post, I haven’t found any solutions, but I’ll put forth some hypotheses for cures in case any of them resonate with you.
1) Do something that scares you every day. I’m pretty sure this oft-repeated mantra was handcrafted by a Silicon Valley bro whose version of scary is an indoor skydiving cocktail hour or maybe covering a bar tab for a bunch of friends when he wasn't sure what was left in his bank account. Sure, I can say I live by this mantra, if only because literally everything scares me. Last night I opened and cooked with a dented can of peeled tomatoes (See fear of botulism, above). I played with fire and didn’t get burned. Check and check with that one. I don't think it helps.
2) Get to know your equipment, have trust in yourself and your experience. The overwhelming response of women in the sailing community that I showed my fear to fell into some version of this tactic, which is probably the most practical of any that I’ve seen.
I see two downsides to this — if you don’t have a lot of experience with a new thing, you definitely shouldn’t trust yourself or your equipment because you don’t know where your limits are. I’m sure after a few more thousand miles under our belt, this will feel like a no-brainer, but after our first thousand miles, I’m still not convinced. Every outing is a new chance for something completely insane to happen. In the meantime, I keep a close eye on our inclinometer and let the main way out every time we pass 25 degrees of heel.
3) Know the difference between fear and anxiety. After reading a really wonderful series of blog posts by a fellow sailor and therapist, I know that what I feel is actually anxiety. Not panic-attack level, medication-necessary anxiety, just run-of-the-mill Jewish Grandma worry. Understanding more about how my brain works has been helpful. It hasn’t cured me… but perhaps reading up on how you feel can make a difference. By understanding what’s happening in your brain chemistry, you can let feelings pass through you and acknowledge them, and ultimately let them go in a moment of zen, or treat them professionally if necessary.
4) Say yes. Funnily enough, as I was first writing this blog on fear, blogger Carolyn Shearlock of The Boat Galley, published her take on fear. It’s an indirect treatment for sure, but one I’ve always subscribed to. My version of “say yes” is “try everything once.” Whenever I’m afraid, I tell myself, "I can NOT do that thing ever again, if I know I don’t enjoy it, but I’ll never know until I try it." Like Carolyn, I rarely say no to things, despite how I feel on the inside. That doesn’t make a difference, however, in how I ultimately worry about doing those things.
5) Fake it ’til you make it. Or, my personal philosophy. Despite never not being afraid, I continue to believe that if I do something enough, I’ll someday be fine with it. If not, at least I’m still doing it, which is better than doing nothing at all.
In fact, while literally writing this post, I employed strategy #5 to great effect. I had to take a break to take the dog to shore for her walk. I was alone on the boat for a couple of days, reluctantly practicing my rediscovered dinghy management skills as the sun splayed its most gorgeous sunset-colors across the sky. I pulled up to the dock to a crying toddler.
His mom was trying to comfort him as he wailed, “I don’t want to go on the boat! I’m scared of the boat!” In that moment, after spending an hour trying to capture all my anxiety about sailing in one blog post, that child was my spirit animal.
“Look!” His mom said brightly. “This lady and her dog are coming from a boat!”
His mom looked desperately at me as I caught the edge of the dock and began to tie the dinghy off. “You guys are having lots of fun on the boat, right? Isn’t it a beautiful night to be on a boat?”
I looked that little kid right in the eye and said, “Totally. It’s super fun and gorgeous out there. You’re gonna love it!”
The mom lifted her sniffling, not quite convinced child into their dinghy and sped away. I watched them with mixed feelings. Did I lie? Not quite. I love our boat, and the ocean, and all that comes with it. But did I absolutely feel for that kid and completely identify with his explosive tears? Absolutely.