Standing in line at Universal Studios, I knew I was heading toward my death. I did it voluntarily. I took stock of the past year while I took in my surroundings, seeing only eyes above the ill-placed face mask of everyone waiting to board the Hulk rollercoaster ride.
COVID-19 and the year 2020 had made standing in line wearing a mask covering the nose and mouth normal. By mid-2020, we all looked like bank robbers or Dentists, and we were very distrustful of anyone who did not stand six feet away.
There were new terms too, like ‘the new normal’ even though we had not finished identifying what this meant. Death and isolation were paramount.
To wear or not wear a mask in public became a political movement. Underlying conspiracies over face coverings were touted and slung like hand grenades by secret underground online networks with scary names like QAnon and Fox News.
We sheltered in place inside our houses and used ‘Zoom’ for work meetings, family reunions, and hosting book club via our computer monitors like something out of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451. However, these were not the reasons I was afraid. I had been afraid well before 2020, though I don’t know why.
What was my big problem? Why was I always so freaked out?
I looked above me at the people winding up a metal staircase. I heard the shrieks as passengers were locked into their seats and thrust onto a twisting rollercoaster track going no less than a million miles per hour. Still, that wasn’t the reason for my anxiety.
It wasn’t even the newness of trying out the rollercoaster that spiked my adrenaline. I had been on the Hulk ride before, seven years earlier, and had loved it. My intense and constant fear was a new phenomenon.
The older I get, the more my default setting is panic and anxiety. I was going to die, every minute, of every hour, of every day, no matter what!
I have always been a little on edge, but now it seemed I was heading toward a total mental breakdown. I could feel it—the anxious air filtering through my face mask tinged with unknown disasters waiting to feed. I wasn’t the only one who seemed to feel it, either.
Everyone, it seemed, couldn’t wait for the strangeness of 2020 to be over. For any happenstance, like a rare 5.7 earthquake in Utah, the explanation was always, “Well, that’s 2020 for ya.” As if 2020 meant double trouble and that all-powerful jinx, Karma, was out for revenge.
It seemed everybody believed that once 2021 started, all our difficulties would evaporate on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight. Well, almost everyone. I doubted 2021 would bring anything different at all unless I did something about it.
I gazed around at the line of people corralled between metal railings and roped dead ends. “I could bob and weave through that group,” I thought. “I’d have to tuck and roll around those three men, there. I could hurl the last set of railings to the front of the line and disappear into the park!” The problem with the plan was I would have to move my feet.
My feet! Four days before, my family and I had taken a Red-eye flight from Salt Lake City to Florida. For some reason, my body blew up, as in, I became a human balloon.
I was so swollen that I could barely button up my jeans and then sit down for fear I would crush myself to death.
My abdomen stretched and stretched until it opened a small tear in my skin. And the bones of my ankles on either side of my feet disappeared, covered by puffy flesh.
What’s worse, the long hours walking inside the amusement parks, every day, rubbed liquid-filled blisters on each pinky toe that threatened to dislodge the toenails and caused me terrible pain.
“Your shoes are too small,” my husband Brian told me.
“They weren’t last week,” I said, driving my pointer finger into the place where a protruding ankle bone had been. “What the hell is happening to me?”
“You’re probably just dehydrated,” he said. “Drink more water.”
But I knew what this was—this was death.
“You’re not going to die,” Brian said, “Just drink more water.”
And then we were inching along, heading up a spiraling metal staircase to get on the Hulk ride willingly. I knew I didn’t have to be there. There were plenty of middle-aged people sitting, six feet apart, on park benches outside the rollercoaster.
I, too, could be there, waiting for adrenaline-junky family members to return, smiling, exhilarated, and thrilled for at least another five minutes until the next ride flirting with disastrous fate.
I could be with the waiters, but then I would always be with the waiters!
Recently, probably thanks to the pandemic and the year 2020, I have returned to therapy for my mental health, online, of course.
“I want you to lean into your fears,” my therapist, Charlotte, said. Fear is the main topic for every session. It isn’t that I’m crippled by it, I can leave my house and have teleconferenced conversations with people, but still, fear keeps me from living a different kind of life—a better, more stimulating one—one in which I call the shots instead of the calls shooting me.
“Lean in?” I wondered. “Are we still doing that?”
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, the C.O.O. of Facebook, wrote a book called “Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” a New York Times bestseller about women seizing opportunities to further their careers while balancing motherhood. A sentiment torpedoed after First Lady Michelle Obama countered that leaning into everything, all the time, was impossible, and let every woman off the hook.
In 2016, Sandberg revised the idea that every woman should “lean in” unless you’re a single parent—or something like that. But since then, the sentiment has changed.
Apparently, “leaning in” now means challenging past thoughts or ideas that keep us from personal growth. So, here I was, asked to do just that, lean into possibilities. It sucked!
“You can’t be creative through fear,” Charlotte told me. “You can’t let fear run your life.”
“Yes, I can!” I said, “I’ve been doing it my whole life!”
I ignored that nagging bit of irony that I was back in therapy, probably because of just that. “I’m doing fine.”
“Obviously, you are not doing fine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in counseling, right?”
So here I was, in Orlando, Florida, attempting to take back, or rather, start to build a different kind of life, the type of life I choose. The kind of life where I did not passively exist but had a reason for my existence at all. In theory, I could get a life where risk equaled survival, happiness, and purpose.
Yikes! Why the hell would I want to do that?
“The goal is to challenge whatever scares you,” Charlotte said. “I want you to approach this with curiosity, not fear. I want you to explore it, feel it, let the experience envelope you.”
And I had to do it with my eyes wide open?
At the top of the stairs, somebody directed my family and me into a slot to wait for the next rollercoaster car.
“You okay?” Brian asked me.
The car rumbled up and stopped. I climbed onto the bench seat made for four victims, squeezing in next to my husband, my daughter, and my son, and cinched up my seatbelt.
“You’re going to be okay, okay?” Brian said.
I tried breathing slowly as a metal bar was placed over my body and locked into place.
“Yeah, this is going to be fun,” my daughter chimed in, reaching across Brian and touching my hand. I noted my knuckles were already white, gripping the metal harness holding me to the seat.
I heard the crank of machinery underneath my feet. Felt the rollercoaster car shiver in anticipation. This was it. It was time.
Hello, Reaper! Catch me if you can!
The car screamed out of a tunnel at a million miles per hour up a steep hill. It paused. I could see across the entire earth, reach out and touch a few clouds if I wanted to.
Then the car heaved and plunged forward down the track, spinning, spinning, spinning downward while gravity yanked at us, and the ground rushed upwards.
I let go.
I didn’t die.
The COVID pandemic isn’t over. 2020 is gone, but not forgotten. 2021 has a big thick shadow it has to wiggle out of, and who knows, I still might die before 2022.
However, I am committing to a different kind of life. A life where I seek out scary things—at least for me. A life where fear is interchangeable with curiosity. A life where I find out why my body blows up sometimes!
It might be painful. It might open up a can of horrifying worms, but I’m doing it anyway. I just hope that whatever life brings in the next minute, the next hour, day, month, or the following years, I am living it.
*Stay tuned for more posts in a series about my experiences challenging my fears! I would love to read what your challenges are and what you plan on doing about them. Leave me a message! I always respond!