Fears and the Boundaries of Your Life

Dark cave

No one expect to end up crying on their honeymoon, much less in a postcard-perfect tropical setting. Yes, I was nervous about the trip as a whole—the ambitious itinerary (3 weeks, 4 countries, 8 cities), the language barriers and culture shock, and the expense of it all—but the thing that set me over the edge was something I had never anticipated.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, M and I had several disagreements about details of our honeymoon, including how to travel, what to pack, and how much we should plan out in advance. As the discussions became more heated, it became clear that at the core of each conflict was a simple issue: how far am I willing to go beyond my comfort zone?

To me, a vacation is a time to relax and escape from worries. And, since I’m a naturally anxious person, anything can become a source of worry. For me, transportation, money, getting lost, and being too cold are all things potential issues that will have me on edge. My ideal vacation is at a tropical beach where we could spend days on end relaxing, reading on the beach, or swimming in the warm, clear water. My nightmare vacation would be one hectic with travel, and so packed with activities that there would be no time to relax.

To M, a vacation is a time to explore and experience new things. He wanted to see as much as possible. His dream vacation: backpacking through Southeast Asia without an itinerary. The only worry: missed opportunities. And swimming. M absolutely refused to consider swimming, snorkeling or other water-related activities as part of our honeymoon.

As you can see, we probably couldn’t have been more opposite in our ideas if we’d tried! But it was M’s refusal to learn to swim that bothered me the most. No matter how many times he explained to me his resistance to any water-related activity, I couldn’t understand it. His reasons all sounded like excuses to me, and I was hurt and frustrated by his reluctance to join me in an activity that I enjoyed. On some level, I understood that there was a phobia involved, but it’s hard to hear the phrase “I’m not going to do that,” and not hear it as someone making a choice.

“When you refuse to swim, that means there are things we can never do together. And that makes me sad.” I told him.

“I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with forcing me to do something I don’t want to do! I never make you do things you’re uncomfortable with.” M responded, and he was right. He never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Aside from this backpacking trip…

“I just don’t want to be stuck in this small world of limitations that you create for yourself.”

It was a cruel thing to say, but something I felt deeply. If you’re not willing to face your fears, you close yourself off from the possibilities life has to offer. When you’re part of a couple, it means holding your partner back, or being left behind. Either way, it has an impact.

I’m very hard on M sometimes, and I’m not always fair. I’ve fiercely defended my right to stay in my own comfort zone, even when it meant M had to go to parties or other events alone. I’ve only twice joined his soccer pick-up group, even though he’s invited me many times and I know it would make him happy. And he knows I won’t willingly go outside when the temperature is below 65 degrees. Still, his decision not to even try swimming felt personal. My vision of the perfect honeymoon did not involve swimming alone, or going on a solo snorkeling trip. Neither did it involve staying dry on the beach. So I was a bit cruel at first, but eventually I had to concede defeat. (You can lead your husband to water, but you can’t dunk him in the ocean without a life vest and expect him to be okay with it!)

But then, something miraculous happened. On the first afternoon of our trip, when the warm, clear waters of the beach were beckoning to me and I couldn’t resist going for a swim… M decided to come in with me. The beach had a gradual slope, so there was an entire stretch of water that was deep enough for swimming, but shallow enough to stand in. I taught him the basics of floating, treading water, and some simple strokes he could use to move around in the water. It wasn’t a lot—certainly not enough to safely enter deeper waters—but it meant a lot to me. It was something new we could do together; something we’d never done before. I was moved by his willingness to try, and so excited that something that had once seemed impossible for him was now entirely possible!

The next day, we went on a snorkeling trip together. He wore a life vest, and I didn’t, but we stayed together at the surface of the water, pointing out brightly colored fish and amazing seascapes to each other. Less than a week before, I never would have imagined we’d be sharing such a magical experience. Now, it’s something we’ll never forget.

Things were off to a great start, but on the third day everything shifted in a way that I never expected.

It was pitched to us as a kayaking trip. “You’ll go kayaking and you’ll get to see a cave. Wear sneakers.” The hotel concierge told us before booking us on the trip. We waited as the concierge made a phone call in Thai, then gave us a smile. “All set! Rock climbing in the morning, then kayaking after lunch. They’ll pick you up at 8:00am.”

Rock climbing? I have arms like toothpicks and absolutely no upper-body strength, but if the hotel staff was recommending this trip, it must be easy enough for beginners. And the kayaking sounded like fun! Though the long ride to the dock and on the long-boat that brought us to our destination, I marveled at the beautiful Thai landscape. Limestone islands rose sharply from the deep blue ocean, the waves carving caves from the vertical rock cliffs as verdant tropical plants took root in every crevice, creating rich green forests high above the sparkling water. The view was breathtaking.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the entrance to the cave that I began to have doubts. “Your children won’t be able to do this part,” I heard one of the guides explain to a German family as we assembled near the base of a 30-foot vertical ladder constructed from rope and car tires. “The rest of you, watch carefully.” The guide climbed easily, demonstrating where to find hand and foot-holds as he ascended to the mouth of the cave. “Easy banana!” he exclaimed with a flourish, as he reached the top. “Who wants to go first?”

It did not look “easy banana.” I did not want to go first, or, to be completely honest, at all. It’s not just my lack of athleticism—I also have an intense fear of heights. Quietly, I took M’s hand and pulled him to the back of the group. Someone else stepped forward and, with only a slight hesitation, climbed the tire ladder safely. In flip-flops. I clung to that detail, because if they were letting him try this in flip-flops, it couldn’t possibly be that dangerous. Even though it looked like any one of us was just a missed grip or a slipping foot away from plunging to our death. One by one, people in our group climbed the treacherous ladder and disappeared into the mouth of the cave above. Soon, it was only me and M left at the bottom.

“Do you want to go first, or should I?” M asked.

If I asked M to stay here with me on the ground, he would. But it would mean missing out on something potentially amazing, and he might resent me for it. I had to push myself.

“I’ll go first.” I said. If I died doing this, I rationalized, M wouldn’t have to put his own life at risk. He’d be off the hook.

I didn’t die, but I was still too nervous to watch M climb up.

We entered a large cavern with stone walls and thick stalactites hanging from above. An opening in the cave gave an amazing view out over the water to the surrounding islands. I peeked out, staying as far away from the edge as I could manage. The vista was beautiful, and worth the climb. Mission accomplished.

Or so I thought. Because I couldn’t imagine that the knotted ropes that dangled from a rock at one edge of the cave was meant for us to climb. But minutes later, the same guide was pointing out foot-holds along a steep edge of the cave that led to a higher chamber.

There’s no way that’s safe! I thought, but no one else seemed phased by this death-defying stunt. One by one, everyone in our group made it up the side of the cave, assisted by the knotted rope. There were some slipping feet followed by showers of pebbles that echoed as they rolled down into a deep crevasse in the cave’s floor, but no one fell. I pulled myself together and followed the group, and M followed me. It was impossible for me to not imagining every way a slip could be fatal. There were narrow foot holds, and what if your hands slipped from the rope? There were patches of pebbles on the cave floor, and what if you tripped and lost your balance? And there were the edges of the cliff outside… everything in my brain was screaming “Danger! Danger!” and I was doing my best to stay calm.

I managed to stay in control of my overwhelming fear of heights until it was time to climb down. By the time we had reached the final cavern, not only had we climbed the tire ladder and the steep wall, we had also climbed through a small hole in the side of the cave that required entering feet-first. The idea of dangling into the unknown, grasping with my feet for unseen footholds was too much. I started to freak out.

“I can’t do this.”

It came out as a whisper.

“Of course you can!” M encouraged.

I shook my head and looked at him as if he were crazy. I couldn’t understand how no one else here realized we were all going to die!

“Do you want me to go first?” M asked.

“No,” I said.

The guides had started to notice my quiet meltdown at this point. “Don’t worry, you’ve got this!” one of them encouraged, as another coaxed me through the hole step by step. I made it through, then, backing away from the edge of the cavern, sat down, hyperventilating. Everything slanted toward the giant hole in the center of the cave. If I slipped and fell, gravity would take me the rest of the way down. Nowhere here was safe. Why did no one else see that???

“We’re going to get you down first,” the guide told me, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I nodded stiffly. “Don’t worry. Easy banana!”

When everyone was through the hole, the guides led me through the crowd to the wall with the rope. One climbed down first, letting me use his knee as a foothold and holding my hand as I climbed down. Even with two people helping me, even surrounded by an entire group of people who were unphased by what I was about to do, I was more scared than any time in recent memory. It was an irrational fear, and a visceral one. It took over my mind entirely, until I couldn’t think clearly.

Finally, when I’d made it down the wall of the cave into the larger cavern, I started to cry silently but uncontrollable tears of relief. The worst was over. I could even begin to acknowledge that I was probably going to survive the day… but I couldn’t stop the shaking or the tears.

M climbed down next (easily, and without any help) and put his arms around me. “You’re okay! You did it!”

I was completely embarrassed, aware that I was causing a scene, but sometimes emotions take over and all you can do is wait it out. I was just lucky that M was there to wait it out with me!

The final descent, the tire ladder, truly was “easy banana” compared to everything else I’d just done. Tear-streaked and exhausted, I was just glad to be back on solid ground. But at the same time, I realized something.

Phobias have nothing to do with what’s safe and dangerous, only our perceptions of the things. What’s easy for one person, whether it’s scaling rock walls or swimming in the ocean, could be daunting for someone else. As much as fears can be irrational, they factor into our personal experiences in a significant way. On a trip involving multiple flights on minor airlines and crossing streets in cities without stoplights, climbing down from a cave with a rope and a spotter probably doesn’t enter the top 10 dangerous moments. Still, even in retrospect when I can admit that none of the rock-climbing was nearly as dangerous as it seemed to me at the time, the fear I felt was real.

So I’ll take the humiliation of that experience as a lesson and a reminder. That feeling of pure terror I had in the cave, that is what it feels like to M when I try to force him out of his comfort zone. Even if I can’t understand a reluctance to swim, I can now understand what it feels like to be too afraid to try. I also realized, as the fear faded and clarity returned, that when someone is trying something that terrifies them, it’s better to be sensitive and encouraging than pushy. So much of one’s subjective experience is invisible to everyone else, and it’s impossible to know exactly how much someone is struggling from the outside.

Confronting and conquering our fears creates new horizons for us. It means that our lives are not confined to the small spaces in which we feel safe, but expanded infinitely in any direction we can imagine. The fears we face may seem impossible to overcome, but what lies on the other side may be priceless. We often rely on others to pull us from our comfort zones, coaxing us out with reassurances. In this way, the people we surround ourselves with play a big role in enriching not just our lives, but the possibilities we see for ourselves. However, this transformation cannot be forced. At some point, we have to be our own catalysts. We have to push ourselves to take on our fears and live the lives we’ve only dreamed about. No one else can do it for us.

Disclaimer: My account of what happened during the rock climbing trip represents only my perception of the experience.  I do not believe that the tour guides were negligent in any way, or that my life was ever truly in danger at any time.  The photography used in this post is my own (mediocre) work.
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10 thoughts on “Fears and the Boundaries of Your Life

    1. I think I did have a bit of a bawling meltdown… certainly not my finest moment! I was just lucky to have someone there to support me until I could recover enough to laugh it off!

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