Facing Fear

J.B. Mackinnon in Orion Magazine:

ChadFarnesAs a teenager, anxiety overtook me like a metamorphosis, replacing my previous self cell by cell. The term “anxiety” has Latin roots in the verb “to choke,” which captures the internal experience so much better than the put-upon oppression implied by the word “stress.” I developed the notion that I suffered from life-threatening asthma, waking in the night to study my lips in the mirror for any blue hint of oxygen deprivation. I was fine, of course, and when I could no longer believe I had asthma, I moved on to doubting my heart. Cardiologists soon dismissed that concern, too, until at last my fears found their perfect expression: I was losing my mind. No test, no expert, could prove this wasn’t so—in fact, both testing and experts were likely to support the theory. I remember lying in bed with awful stillness, convinced that even a heavy sigh would be enough to snap the thread by which I was clinging to sanity. To this day I can’t be sure what would have happened if I’d simply given in to the gravitational pull toward madness. No one who knew me well at that time had any doubt that I could walk into any psychiatrist’s office in the land and walk out a few minutes later with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and scrip for mood-smoothing drugs. Xanax. Celexa. Beta-blockers. But I never took pills. Instead, the cover of an outdoor magazine changed my life.

The cover photograph featured John Bachar, a rock-­climbing god from California. In the image, Bachar hangs off one arm, his feet plastered to sweet nothings on a near-vertical cliff. Bachar is climbing a route called “Crack-A-Go-Go” in Yosemite National Park, and his blond ringlets are freedom itself, his skin as golden as the stone is gray. He’s climbing ropeless. If he falls, he dies. When I saw that photo on a gas station newsstand, I was in the agonies of a road trip with my mother, convinced that every moment I spent watching her try not to fall asleep at the wheel was one that I would otherwise have passed in the arms of the beautiful girls back home who by now, surely, would have noticed my existence. I knew nothing of rock climbing, the majestic Yosemite Valley, or John Bachar. All I knew was that I wanted to do that, to go there, to be him. Within a couple of years, I—the kid with the stomach butterflies and stress-induced ­hemorrhoids—could regularly be found with my blond hair in the breeze, sunburned skin against pale limestone, climbing ropeless up a cliff face. I had discovered the rock-climbing cure for anxiety disorder.

More here.

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