Those of you who watched my Switzerland vlog may correctly have surmised that you saw a jaunt around the Alps made by a very happy woman while on holiday with her friends. There’s no lie, digital trickery or faux bonhomie in that account; the holiday was immensely fun and much joy was had by me. In this post, though, I’d like to focus the lens in on the small moments that require courage for those of us who harbour strange fears that fall under the panic umbrella. Here’s a snapshot //
I’m standing at the top of the nursery run, skis nosing off the ledge, hands wet with sweat, heart pounding. Around me, laughing children lead by Swiss instructors stick their poles into the snow, propelling themselves off the slope. They squeal in glee on their way down, some zigzagging carefully, others gathering speed by crouching low and sticking to a straight trajectory. It’s 3pm, and by now any hesitant skiers have flung aside fear: they’ve learned that at worst, tumbles on this stretch of snow lead to a couple of bruises and, invariably, plenty of giggles.
Not I. For me, more than just plum-hued sections of skin hang in the balance; this slope is as much a challenge to my mind as it is to my body. My mind has little holes in it, you see, that I often compare to Swiss cheese – agoraphobia, emetophobia (an extreme fear of vomiting), panic disorder. Imagine these little tunnels, separate but conjoined in the one body. Just a little pressure here or stress there and the padding between them collapses, and they grab each other by the hand, pulling the mind within which they dwell down an abyss of panic.
Here are some of the thoughts that swirl in my head like a blackened, twisted version of the white snow whistling around me before I edge off: will I fall? If I fall, will I panic? If I panic, will I be sick? If I’m sick, will I ever stop being sick? Will people laugh? Will I do something ‘wrong’? What if I choke and can’t stay upright as a result?
Wrapped firmly around my torso is a shoulder bag containing water, cough sweets, diazepam, various anti-nausea aids, my ski pass and a little hip flask containing vodka. While I know that none of these will act quickly enough to calm me instantaneously if I get into trouble, I nonetheless find the lumpy bulk comforting, a talisman against the panic that rises in me unbidden.
I’m here for two reasons: to ski, simply because it is enjoyable; and to prove that I can go skiing, thereby increasing my confidence to push at the boundaries of the panic that blights me. I’d also like to get fitter: sport – and the resulting sense of capability – is often cited to be key to challenging panic and mental illness in general, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggesting that movement releases dopamine and serotonin, while also stimulating new brain cells to grow.
Vital, though, is that the exercise should come with a sense of enjoyment and enough control so as not to push those prone to panic into any of their triggers. And therein lies the difficulty in pushing off on my skis; I sense the danger both to my bones and brain. Push off I do, though, carefully winding S-shaped grooves in the snow as I make my way down. My heart speeds up, my palms perspire, my handbag taps against my hip and – suddenly – I’m at the bottom.
It takes a few minutes for me to muster up the courage to do it again and a several days for me to tire of the little slope that most abandon after a few runs, but I fall into bed afterwards euphoric and exhausted. I didn’t make it to the big slopes this time around – maybe next time. For now, I simply feel triumphant.