I watch the figs die.

Fearing

I was in the Scottish Highlands when the news about the impending lockdown boomed from the radio. It was the day before my twenty-sixth birthday, a significant birthday because (I’m not sure why) I’d always thought twenty-six would be the year I’d finally have the things I dreamed about: a loving partner, a sweet baby, a fulfilling career, and a home to call my own. I had none of those things. I’d already completed a lot of solo goals in a short amount of time. I’d thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, written novels, worked in Paris, traveled alone. And while I was proud of that, I could feel my life moving too quickly, and I was no closer to securing any of the long-term goals. 

And now as I drove through the highlands with my friend, I tried to focus on the highland coos with their long horns and the fringe covering their marble-shiny eyes. But that voice on the radio was telling me that life was about to change in ways that no one could anticipate. Something was coming and we didn’t know how bad it would be and we didn’t know how long it would last. Whatever happened, I knew it was only going to delay any possible chance of my life moving forward the way I wanted.

I fidgeted as a familiar burning in my brain began. When my anxiety flares up, it’s like I can feel someone spreading gasoline and lighting a match right beneath my skull. Then my heart starts racing like I drank a gallon of coffee and ran a marathon. I’m exhausted, amped up, terrified, watching my vision tunnel. That’s what started to happen in the car, and it continued through the night as I lay in our camping pod, beneath a sky of stars, in a beautiful valley with a view of snowy hills.

I didn’t sleep at all. I turned twenty-six with my eyes wide open.

Settling

Back in my flat in Edinburgh, the lockdown began and I fell into a comfortable routine. I slept from ten pm to eight am. I stretched in the morning, ate breakfast and had coffee or tea, read in bed with my cats for a couple hours, worked on university assignments, walked five miles wherever I felt like it, exercised in my living room, made dinner, watched a movie, stretched again, and went to bed. After the Scottish government kept promising “just two more weeks of lockdown” and the two weeks kept passing, I realized that everything truly was out of everyone’s control, and my previous fear and anxiety dissipated as I firmly decided to just wait it out and be patient. Surely it would just be a couple months. I could write my dissertation in peace and then travel a bit before moving back to Florida.

But part of me knew that this peace was temporary. As always, I was distracting myself so that I didn’t have to face the question that had repeated itself ever since I finished high school: “What am I doing?” As August crept closer, I felt myself on a familiar precipice, awaiting an unnamed catastrophe. It was the same catastrophe I’d awaited many times before. For as long as I could remember, depression had been whispering in my ear, telling me that I had no reason to live. And anxiety had been wrapping its fingers around my throat, convincing me that if I did choose to live, there would be nothing but worry, panic, and failure for the rest of my days.

Like Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, I spent a lot of time sitting beneath a metaphorical fig tree, unable to choose a fig, and watching them all fall, black and rotted, at my feet. For perhaps nine years now, since one in a series of abusive relationships, I have been living in a state of constant and crippling embarrassment. Humiliated about my very existence, I let opportunities pass me by out of fear of failure, and because I don’t think I’m worthy. How could I possibly deserve anything good? How could I choose any of the figs, each of them representing careers, relationships, and possible positive changes, before it’s too late and they’re all spoiled?

Grieving

Soon after returning to Florida, already blinded by panic and the question of what I would do next, the losses started coming and they didn’t stop. Within a span of a few short weeks, a friend, a close family member, and a lover all exited my life. Three strikes, just like that. Knocked to the ground and struggling to understand the scope of my worthlessness, a new loss of indescribable measure took center stage.

And after seven years of making magic as a character performer at Walt Disney World, I was let go. Thousands of us received an impersonal email telling us that our Covid-induced furlough would no longer be extended, and we were being permanently separated from the company. For so long, I’d been playing these characters, and now I’d have to find out who I was. No mask of makeup, no glittery gown, no fairytale stories to hide behind. Just me, exposed to myself and the world at last.

Saoirse as Princess Merida of Disney’s BRAVE.

Sinking

For weeks I sank deeper. Manically, I’d chase distractions, until one song or one photo or one intrusive thought sent me back into the spiral. Many nights, I knelt by my bed, hands clasped, and prayed to the god I don’t believe in, prayed to die in my sleep. Tears streaming, practically wailing, I sent up this hopeless prayer, begging and pleading with the universe to let me go. Too afraid to take my own life, even after ten years of dreaming about it, I left it up to a cosmic force to do the job for me. But every morning I awoke, already gasping for breath, eyes wild, taking in the room I’d never wanted to see again. I tried to steady my heart with both hands on my chest, but the organ that I desperately wished would stop beating carried on, more like a crash crash crash than a thump thump thump. Like someone was chaotically throwing two cymbals at each other beneath my ribs. I couldn’t stop it. I wept when I knew that I was no longer dreaming, that I’d have to face another day in the world that I felt didn’t want me.

You should be so grateful, everyone said.

You’ve gotten to travel. You have a Master’s degree.

You have your health. You have more than other people. Just be grateful.

Be happy. You should be happy. What do you have to be depressed about?

Hoping

After Christmas, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope. Perhaps I would pick myself up and ease into my new life: single in my late twenties, jobless but capable of doing freelance work that I actually might like, excited to renovate my home and make it a place that my cats and I could enjoy together for as long as I could manage to stay put in one city. I started to look up at the new figs growing and averted my eyes from the rotten ones at my feet.

Accepting

A couple weeks of hope must have been a lot to ask for. In January, one of my two beloved cats began sneezing a lot. After weeks of stress in which I could barely eat, and never left her side, she was diagnosed with cancer. I fought the news at first. How could my gorgeous, sweet, perfectly healthy nine year old cat have cancer? How could life get worse when I was just beginning to push on with things despite the losses of the previous months? It seemed too unfair to be true, too ridiculous to not be a joke. But slowly, I stopped fighting and I accepted the reality of the unreal situation. I was going to have to live through this, to be strong for my darlings. I really only had two options: adapt to what was happening, or die.

Healing

With the help of therapy, I’ve begun to come back to myself. Depression and anxiety will always be part of me. But I’m working on the embarrassment and self-hatred that make them worse. If I can stop caring so much that some people might think I’m ungrateful, or pathetic, or a failure, then I might be able to start choosing some of those figs when they’re at their ripest. If I can accept that my worth doesn’t come from anyone’s opinions, or anyone’s perceptions of my achievements and losses, then I can focus on what really matters to me: my cats, my mental and physical health, and the people I love. Perhaps on that list of people, I’ll even add my own name someday.

Saoirse Ibargüen is a writer and performer from Florida’s Gulf Coast. She has spent the past seven years working at the happiest place on earth, while writing bleak and fairly unhappy stories. Saoirse holds a BA in literature from the University of South Florida, and an MSc in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. While she enjoys writing fiction, she spends equal time having adventures and writing memoirs about them. Her most recent work tells the story of her six-month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. For Saoirse, writing and exploring go hand in hand. You can find Saoirse on Instagram: @lovealwayssaoirse, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/saoirsesshelf, and on her blog: https://saoirsei.wordpress.com

Could it really be this simple?

Guest submission by Danielle Baker.

Last summer my husband and I went for a hike up a local mountain. It wasn’t anything wild or daring, but it was new to me – and it had been some time since I’d done anything strenuous. Standing next to the car and looking up at where we were about to hike (which I found out later was actually behind me) felt daunting. I had no idea what to expect from my body; if I would have enough energy, strength, or stubbornness to make it to the top. Okay, well actually, I knew I would have enough of one of those things. 

As we headed into the forest, I felt the slight temperature cool against my skin. The canopy of the old-growth reached overhead and all around us plant life flourished in its damp, dark shadow. Thick carpets of moss stretched out over boulders the size of cars that were scattered on either side of the trail as we made our way along the meandering – and misleading – flat approach. 

Only a few minutes in, the trail rose abruptly in front of us and climbed up through the natural steps in eroded tree wells and large grippy rocks that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This trail was not carefully manicured with special attention given to those short-of-leg, as I am. My husband’s long stride took him confidently and effortlessly up through these steep and muddy sections. To his credit, he always turned back to offer me a hand, but usually, I had already wedged a toe into some precarious nook, thrown an arm around the trunk of some young tree, and was inelegantly but effectively heaving myself up to the next level. 

Grace has never been my strong suit.

I was ten when I was unceremoniously signed up for my first dance class. I had already gotten my period and I towered over the other students. I was gangly and awkward and everyone around me – I was pretty sure – had started dancing in the womb. Just old enough to understand and with an instructor just mean enough to tell me, it was clear that I didn’t belong, that my body didn’t move properly, that I was never going to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. I might have gone to only six classes and, yet, thirty years later and topped out at 5’4, I am still that uncomfortable in my body much of the time. The only thing that alleviates that feeling is being outdoors where being capable is valued over being poised – and I am capable as fuck. 

There is very little for me that is as confidence-inspiring as problem-solving around the limitations of my body in the outdoors. Once, while hiking alone I came to an icy rock ledge that was too tall for me to get a leg up and too slippery for me to get any grip on. I was stuck but I wasn’t going back. I took off my huge pack, hoisted it onto the rock, and then flung myself penguin style onto the ice and skidded across it to where the trail continued. I was so elated – and then immediately disappointed that no one had witnessed this incredibly competent, yet extremely inelegant, act.

Multi-day hikes, where I haven’t showered, my hair is greasy and glued to my head like a bad combover, I’m slightly bloated because the dehydrated food never really gets to the right texture before I inhale it, and my clothing is chosen purely for function over fashion, are unequivocally the most beautiful and happiest I feel in my skin.

This backyard day hike with my husband was eliciting these feelings.

I was surprised to feel the strength in my legs as they pushed me further uphill, the capacity in my lungs, and the willingness of my mind. About halfway up we encountered the base of the sheer granite wall we would eventually come out atop and I marvelled at how it felt to weave my body through the overlapping and ill-placed boulders at its base. I placed one foot after the other at unusual angles and reached across to grasp a rough spine with just enough grip to pull me forward. I thought, ‘look at me go!’ And I mentally high-fived myself. 

When we finally stepped out of the forest and onto the lookout, I was elated. The breeze swept over my damp skin and, although I was only standing at 800 meters, I truly felt on top of the world. I took in the view,  then asked my husband to take a photo of me to commemorate my achievement. I stood there, proudly grinning for ear to ear thinking, ‘look at me in my fucking glory!’

Click. That click changed everything. 

My husband flipped the screen around to show me the image. My legs weakened under me, my stomach turned in on itself. There I was, short and squat, gangly arms, rounded shoulders, thin hair slicked to my skull. There was my thick shape-less waist. There were my wide hips and tree-trunk legs that ran into my shoes without the benefit of a tapered ankle. The wind hadn’t just left my sails, my boat had sunk. I sat down and cried. Surrounded by nature, and an incredible vista as a reward for my accomplishment,  all I could do was press my hands to my face and sob. My husband sat next to me and put an arm around me. He didn’t say anything, he just waited. 

I’ve had these moments before in my life. Plenty of times in fact. School photos, engagement photos, family photos. Sometimes it’s been my weight, sometimes my posture, other times it’s my snaggle tooth that no one else ever seems to be able to see. But this time was unique in the abruptness. I had felt beautiful and then I had felt ugly, all in the second it took to click the shutter. The thoughts rushed in. 

‘Look how fat you are.’

‘No one would find you attractive.’

‘Why do you eat so much. You don’t deserve to eat like that.’

‘You’re not as pretty as other women and definitely not as worthy of love.’

As my tears slowed down, so did the automatic thoughts that were cruelly filtering that image through decades of judgment that wasn’t mine. In the tiniest bit of silence that appeared between them, I heard a question. It wasn’t profound, it was simple. 

‘Is this how you want to experience this moment?’

‘No.’

‘Then stop.’ 

I wiped my face (probably on my husband’s shirt) and made a decision: I wasn’t going to waste my beautiful moment – my accomplishment – feeling that way. Completely to my surprise, it worked. 

The abrupt shift from how I felt to what I thought had forced me to ask if I accepted those negative beliefs as truth. Those judgements had been so incongruent with the rest of my experience that it allowed me to starkly see them as something outside of myself, layers of judgement that I had internalized over thirty years since that first dance teacher told me I couldn’t move my body the way I was supposed to. The power of that specific shutter click was that it allowed me to set aside those voices and listen to my own – and my own said, ‘fuck yeah, look at what you’ve accomplished.’

Danielle Baker is a freelance writer specializing in creative nonfiction, copywriting, and content creation. Growing up in a small West Coast fishing village, Danielle has an innate love for the outdoors and a strong sense of community. Her grandmother was a natural storyteller who inspired her not only to write, but also to follow adventure down the lesser known paths in life. Her father, a hobby photographer and darkroom enthusiast, first ignited the interest that would lead to her Diploma of Professional Photo Imaging from Langara College. 

Danielle calls Squamish, British Columbia home, and whether out mountain biking on local trails, exploring the rain-forest on foot, photographing bike races in Mongolia, or writing about the inspiring and unique people she encounters in this world – everything is lived with that original small town authenticity that flows through every aspect of her life.

Do you ever feel haunted?

I’m not talking about the ‘girl has exited the tv and is puking goo while crab-walking backward down the stairs’ kind of haunted. And I doubt there’s a monster lurking in the darkness with a machete (although tomorrow is Halloween and the universe may still surprise us). 

What I find genuinely haunting is the past — and all the painful, upsetting memories that help piece together our understanding of the world. Personal demons, foot-in-mouth moments, ghosts of humiliation; whatever you call them, each of us carries our own baggage lodged deep within our souls. These ghosts alter our perception of the world and often fill us with a super delightful array of emotions: dread. Anxiety. Regret. Shame. And, most often, fear. 

Fear has a purpose. It longs to keep us safe, regardless of the cost. It’s main job is to remind us of our vulnerabilities and the need to protect ourselves. What a nifty warning mechanism!

But being safe and feeling safe are two separate things, and sometimes we develop a fear with no discernible difference.

Have you ever been alone at home and unable to sleep, because despite double-checking the locked doors and windows, you were still convinced a stranger could break in? Welcome to my occasional paranoia and our house, just five driveways down from the neighbourhood graveyard! 

In moments where we’re actually safe but still feel fear, our fear becomes less helpful and more paralyzing. Irrational, even. (Although we can easily find ways to rationalize why the fear is legit. Like, would Hitchcock really make a movie about birds if he didn’t somewhat believe they were more sentient and potentially murderous than we currently give them credit for?!)

Often, in our quest to feel safe from those less helpful fear responses, we start to avoid anything that may trigger the fear. We miss out on potential opportunities, experiences, and enjoyment to avoid reawakening our ghosts. 

I’ve got that t-shirt! My poor daughters… all those years of bouncy castles and carnival rides, and I never went in one. They’d grab me by their eager hands, urging I partake in all the frolic, only to be met with an emphatic, hard pass. See, once upon a time, I was locked in an attic above a garage by some asshole boys. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old? Left alone in that tight, dark space for more than an hour morphed into a classic case of Claustrophobia. Cue the years of avoiding anything I believed I could become trapped in — elevators, roller coasters, caves, and, bouncy castles! To this day, my husband has been dubbed the ‘fun parent’ (since I was too chickenshit to engage in half the things), and I? Well, I’m just the ‘hard worker.’  

Photo by Will Myers on Unsplash.com
Photo by Will Myers, Unsplash.com

Skirting past all the uncomfortable feelings that come with being scared can evolve into a fully-bloomed avoidance of living the life you imagine. I think it’s important to know the difference between the healthy fears and those less helpful. It’s good to be frightened of the bear you stumble across on that hike, but you’ll limit your growth if you turn down the chance to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. The truth is, both situations may be terrifying. But one has the potential to tear you to shreds (unlikely, but possible) while the other is not going to kill you, even though you may feel like you’ll die over the matter!  

So how do we go from living in fear to living with or despite the less helpful fear?

Sometimes befriending your ghost is a good option; leaning into the fear and exploring its roots can help you to pursue healing and develop safety. It’s a journey that can be done on your own, with friends, or with a therapist (therapy can be life-changing, I’ve been in and out of it my whole life!). And never forget that you have a choice. Whether you avoid the fear or lean into it, you get to decide how you respond.  

Trying to manage your fear doesn’t mean it will completely evaporate — there’s a chance you’ll be somewhat haunted for a long time, and that’s okay. But it may mean that you can co-exist peacefully with your pal Casper instead of constantly waiting for him to pop out and scare you senseless. 

We all deserve a life that is the fullest expression of ourselves — unhampered, and free. Not one governed by the things that haunt us. If you find you’re limiting your life to avoid fear, you aren’t alone. Be patient. Be strategic. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. You developed these fears because something scared you enough to feel unsafe; even if it’s worth facing your fears and moving forward, it’s still damn hard. Give yourself space to feel that.

Here’s hoping we’re haunted only by actual ghosts and goblins this Halloween instead of the ones we carry with us! (Just jokes… remember, I live by a graveyard?!)

PS: if you’re a trauma survivor and are able to access resources, please engage with a therapist or professional before you work on any trauma-related fear you have. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has put together an excellent list of resources we’re attaching below. Re-exposure can be triggering and having appropriate support available is important. 

A collaboration between Sam Plavins & Melissa Dafoe, BSW

Don’t sit on the fence!

A guest post by SWTW Ambassador, Heather Ferrin

Hello, all you beautiful and amazing woman out there! 🙂

One thing I learned the hard way in life, is that at some point we must get off the damn fence! When we are on the so-called ‘fence’ about something, the universe freaks the heck out. Imagine a parent offering their child milk or juice, and the kid always says, “I don’t know” or worse, “I want both!”… but they can only have one.

As a parent, we can’t work with that. We are stuck standing there, repeating ourselves, waiting for them to make a choice so we can meet their needs. In real life, the universe is the same way. It wants to support us in our growth, but often we’re called to make the choice first, before we can receive any sort of assistance. That goes for helping ourselves, too. 

When we have self-doubt, fear and anxiety about our life choices — whether it be work, parenting, friendships, family, our workout routine — and we are sitting on the fence, the universe can’t help but stall. Freak out with us, even. Or become completely incapable of working its magic to move us forward in any productive way.

Let me tell you though, back in 2015, after breaking up with an ex-boyfriend who had been cheating on me for a while, I was left in Utah feeling alone. Completely crushed.

Backstory: I’m from Minnesota but have called Utah home since 2005. I have an amazing son out here who I share joint custody with his dad. We are really good friends and co-parent extremely well together. I’ve got 2 wonderful dogs who love to backpack and climb mountains with me, and some of the most amazing, supportive girlfriends ever!

However, despite this network of support, I felt alone.

I didn’t know how exactly to pick myself up after feeling unworthy for my ex. For a while, I felt ashamed of not having the perfect marriage, and another failed relationship on top of that. I wanted to run and hide. I didn’t want to show my son my failures, either. I even thought about going back to Minnesota. I was on the fence with everything! And as a result, everything seemed to be suffering. Nothing felt good anymore. 

It took me until the middle of 2016 to really get my shit together, but I made a bold choice for myself: a challenge to hike 100 days in 2017. It might not seem like a ‘get off the fence’ type moment, however it really was. It was a time where I got off the fence about moving back to MN. I got off the fence about making my workouts a priority. I got off the fence about starting to date again and how I wanted to deal with my current job.

That year, I became an adventurer!

My friends literally referred to my weekend plans as adventures, and would often ask “where are you exploring next?” The whole tempo of my life changed. It became a powerful domino effect as friends, family and complete strangers were carried along with me into this new way of thriving. It was magical!

I bonded with my son and friends deeply and authentically that year. I reconnected with family better than ever. I got into the best shape of my life. I started becoming a better employee at work, which netted me a raise and, later, better hours. I met my current boyfriend on a backpacking trip that year, as well.

Amazingly, amid an insanely busy ‘normal’ life — work, parenting, and dating someone new who happened to have 2 boys of his own — I managed to hit my goal.

New Year’s Eve 2017 was hike 103. I hiked 100,000 feet of elevation gain, 500+ miles overall, 50 different trails, and my 100 days of hiking.

I nailed it! I even brought in 2018 with a New Year’s Day hike, just for good measure. Damn right… and it was exhausting too. HA

The point is, that I made one simple choice in 2016: to get off the fence and just do something. At first, the hiking challenge didn’t feel like an ‘on the fence’ moment at all, but it was. I made a conscious decision to stop feeling sorry for myself. I decided to start hiking to fill my time with something better then sulking at home alone. And that one choice changed all areas of my life dramatically.

With that in mind, I encourage you not to sit on the fence either! Whether it be dinner choices, working out, starting a new hobby, or if you like your job, or not. Start planning out your own life now! Make the little choices and then plan BIG. Take action and move towards them. It will impact your life in such an incredible way if you take the time to make up your mind on the things important to you in life. The rest, oddly enough, seems to fall into place as we make those choices firm and concrete inside our minds.

Now there are days I don’t have it all together! Not at all, my friends. Ha! But I no longer sit on the fence, feeling stuck in a second-guessing mindset. Like you, I’m a work in progress. I’m always willing to try again, learn something new, think about things differently, and help those around me try again, too.

Carve out your own path in life, and be proud of every choice you make along the way. When needed, it’s ok to pause and sit for a while, even on the fence… just don’t stay there for long.

All my best, 
Heather  

Subscribe for weekly content that will challenge, uplift and inspire you.

×

Do you feel stuck on an ever-turning treadmill? You just might resonate with this freebie. Enter your email for a FREE download of the SWTW Credo to inspire you every day.