Every summer, my mom and aunts and all of the cousins go on a camping trip. It’s just the women and the kids. I went to the first annual one when I was 17 or 18 and I have missed every one since. This weekend, at 29, I was finally able to go again. We hiked the trails, scared each other in the old WWII bunkers, admired the sunset, flew kites and ate a delicious dinner.
There were five tents between us all, and we set them up next to each other so each tent was no more than a couple feet apart. Our camping site was on a bluff above Puget Sound, so my normal fear of bears was inexistent. I went to sleep by myself, alone in my tent.
At 1:30AM, I awoke to a noise that sounded something like rain on the tent. But then the sound turned to something different, and I couldn’t quite make it out; almost like someone crinkling a really thin plastic bottle. It became such a strange noise, that I got nervous and called out the normal thing any scared, grown woman calls out in the middle of the dark night. “MOM?”
“Yah?” I could tell by her voice she was awake and heard it too.
“Do you hear that?”
“What is it?”
“I thought it was rain, but I don’t know.”
The sound then became ones of movement. A creature, something, was just outside of our circle of tents. I yelled for it to go away. It didn’t. I grew more scared, especially since I was all alone in my tent. I grabbed my knife, asking my mom what we should do. My mind jumped to visions of a murderer stalking and taunting us women and children at the campsite. And then I imagined deer would leap onto my tent and crush me. Or some strange animal would bite its way through the nylon to get me. Suddenly the creature, whatever it was, was lapping water.
I started to panic and get louder. “Jenn! Cat! Deb, are you awake?” I called to my aunts. “WHAT IS THAT?” No one would answer, or the answers were slow and tired, like they didn’t care. Like they didn’t give a crap that at any minute we would be slaughtered or eaten or attacked. This went on for a quite a while: me in silence listening and then me asking what was out there and then me getting more upset when no one would answer. “WHY DOES NO ONE CARE?! HELLO?!” All I wanted was to transport myself to one of the other tents where everyone else appeared to be sleeping so peacefully.
I managed to wake pretty much everyone up, and I laugh now at the visual of me in my tent with my knife out while we all went back and forth about what the noise was and that it was nothing and who heard what, but no one seemed to be as scared as me.
“It’s just a dog,” my mom said.
“It’s probably a deer. Go to sleep,” an aunt said.
I was paralyzed by fear because I could hear it moving around just feet from our bodies. How could my own kin not be as concerned as I was? I started to call out profanities. Maybe that would let them know I was serious! I wanted help! I wanted someone to rescue me. My sister made her first contribution to the chatter. “Why are you so scared? You’re the ‘journeyfooter’ and you camp in the middle of nowhere with no one around you!” I cursed her mockery.
Finally my two aunts opened their tents and got out to go pee, not seeing anything in our site. I immediately bolted from the tent with my sleeping bag and dove straight into my mom’s tent, smashing in with my mom, sleeping little brother and Charlie dog. I felt instant relief, until a few moments later my mom said, “it’s back.” Aunt Jenn must have shined her flashlight outside of the tent, because she finally discovered what the creature was. “It’s raccoons!”
On the one hand, there was some relief that it was not a murderer or a sabre tooth tiger. On the other hand, I don’t like raccoons. The sounds they make when communicating to each other are the strangest, weirdest noises that I never want to hear again. They circled our site and I could hear them searching for food. My mom might as well have left out cookies and milk for the damn things, because they were munching away on Charlie’s dog food, which clearly had attracted them. I pictured sharp teeth and long claws slashing their way through the tent, giving me rabies and lice and other diseases. Somehow, though, I was finally able to go to sleep.
In the morning, my aunt Deb confronted me about the incident the night before. “Okay, so I, like, get that you were totally scared and I understand that, but like, I thought you went camping out in the middle of nowhere without anyone around and with bears and other animals. If you were that scared last night, how are you not scared then?”
I am! I am always scared.
People might be surprised to know that more often than not, I’m a big fat chicken. The only times I don’t get scared in a tent are when I am extremely tired or extremely drunk. Other than that, I pretty much always feel fear once dark settles in the outdoors. There was that time I was convinced possums were surrounding our tent on the banks of the Colorado River, which could have been a hallucination. There was another time I yelled meanly at my friends and used my “veto power” to keep the tent tarp on because I was convinced the lady at the campsite next to us was part of a cult, which prevented my dear amigas from enjoying the stars. I’ve feared falling branches, snakes, bears, spiders and everything in between. If there is three in a tent, I’m in the middle. And you can be sure to hear “what was that?!” several times before I fall asleep. So I’m a scaredy cat. It’s true.
And dark nights in the tent aren’t the only things that scare me. Car accidents, paralysis, heights, sting rays, the bottom of lakes… This year, crows topped my list. Don’t ask. Truth be told, I would love to not be scared of the things I am scared of. I envy people that are brave. But then again, we all have our own versions of bravery, just as we all have our own versions of fear. And I think we are all entitled to our own fears. It’s when those fears begin to interfere with our lives that it should be a concern.
When fear is rational and purposeful, it can be a great tool. It can help guide our decision-making so that we stay away from potentially harmful situations or objects. Yes, fear is useful, but fear should only go so far. Otherwise the fear becomes the harmful thing. Sometimes I dwell on whatever it is I am scared of and think up all of the potential outcomes that could ever be possible, including the absolute worst that really would probably never ever happen ever (ever), and then I let the fear of those potential outcomes take over. The result? Paralysis. Paranoia. Panic. So much anxiety I can’t help myself. It’s one thing to have fears, but it’s another thing to let the fears have you. The worry associated with the fear can so easily cloud my judgment and prevent me from making the best decision in that moment, which defeats the original purpose of fear as a resource.
I could have handled the raccoon situation a bit differently. Next time when this happens, and it will, I’m sure of it, I will take my flashlight and slowly unzip my tent so I can assess the situation before freaking the eff out. Surely that has to be a better plan than lying in my tent with knife ready to go, yelling at my family to come save me from something I haven’t even identified. Waiting for something to either attack me or save me is probably not the best course of action in a fearful situation. It is a helpless mindset. So sorry family. Sorry for waking everyone up and yelling in the night and swearing in front of my little cousins and demanding you get out to go pee so that really I can just move closer to my mommy. Oh, and sorry to the other campers that I know I woke up too. I could have prevented all of that if I had just worked up the courage to help myself.
What do you fear and how do you handle that fear?