Stepping off the plane into a busy American terminal, Barbara’s mind was full of to-do items for the family vacation. The luggage, the rental of the townhome, the kids, the theme park passes, tonight’s dinner, the cat they left behind (her sister was reluctantly talked into house-sitting), a presentation that she needed to complete over the next few days and last, but not least, Stuart.
Barbara’s husband still had details to finish up at work in his position as Professor of Psychology. He would join them tomorrow, but Barbara never leaves anything to chance. She had packed his suitcase, organized his passport, his medical information and other important documents. She had even set two alarm clocks – the second in her son’s (now empty) room down the hall that would ring ten minutes after the first. Barbara deeply appreciates her husband’s easy-going nature, but not when it comes to early morning flights. All Stuart had to do was wake up on time and get into the pre-arranged cab for the drive to the airport.
For a Ph.D., he could be remarkably clueless about some things, she thought.
The kids were ecstatic to be off school a day early. Peak winter travel times were always extra stressful, so Barbara arranged with the teachers to ensure that their school work was up-to-date. As they collected luggage and headed out into the warmth of the southern sun, they all took a deep breath. Jonathan, her ten year old, took the opportunity to tease his younger sister.
“Emma!” he exclaimed. “I just remembered. We left all your birthday presents at home. You won’t be able to open any of them for the next ten days. Tooooo bad!”
Emma’s lip quivered and she lowered her head.
“Jonathan! You stop that this instant!” Barbara could feel the heat rising up her neck. Usually this would also come with a tell-tale wave of red wrapping her, like a scarf of bold emotion. Sometimes the red would even flow into her face.
What’s gotten into this boy’s head? Can’t he just leave her alone for one minute?
“Emma, don’t listen to him. I packed everything and your birthday this year will be wonderful.” Barbara forced a smile for her daughter’s benefit and gave Emma a big hug.
Jonathan snorted and bent over double, laughing. He was even holding his sides. The boy has a knack. Barbara’s nerves felt like the frayed ends of raw wires that were being dipped into some sort of electrified vinegar. Sharp volts shot through her body, tightening her rib cage, her jaw and probably just about every other muscle that ever existed in her body.
She wished Stuart was here. He had a way with the kid, but most importantly, he could calm her down in an instant.
Not like her first husband. Her first, the father of these children, was the one who seemingly stripped all those nerves in the first place. It had taken years to build back the myelin coating and let her nervous system settle.
Barbara had meticulously planned her wedding to Richard while simultaneously completing her post-grad degree. Flawless execution of both meant that as they walked down the aisle together after the service, she had successfully launched both her career and the start of her family.
As her husband (ex-husband, she reminded herself) is an international banker, she had felt assured that she had chosen well. It was important that she and her children would be well-cared for and that she could stay at home in their early years.
What she had not planned on was almost two years of infertility treatments and what eventually turned into a very lonely marriage. Barbara had always been capable, and she worked hard to keep things together. She could hear her mother’s voice reminding her that you made your bed, now lie in it. That she could do, but as hard as she tried, she could not repair broken trust.
His behaviour was a deal-breaker, she thought to herself. Now, years later, she has greater clarity on what she wants in life, and she definitely feels stronger and more certain as a person. But picking up the pieces and putting everything together again was brutally hard and she would never wish that on anybody.
The children were newly in grade school when the divorce papers were finalized. Still unsteady, she enrolled in a couple of courses in university on the advice of a choir of friends. Get out of the house, meet people, use your mind again, do something very different, they harmonized. And, she did.
Psychology was the last thing that she would be inclined to take, which is exactly why she forced herself to sign up. And, wouldn’t you know it? It was darned interesting.
In her second semester, Barbara managed to be accepted into Stuart’s class on the Psychology of Modern Relationships. Like most people studying psychology, she was looking for answers to her life.
Still barely able to put one foot in front of the other, she was most definitely not looking for another husband. Almost before she could take another breath, she was married again, juggling visitations, blending families, and resurrecting her career. Taking a much needed break now with loved ones is exactly what she needs.
“Jonathan. Emma. Into the cab, please. Remember your bags. That’s right.”
Barbara is particularly adept at managing, organizing and directing. Her children have known this ability in their mother all their lives and they automatically followed her direction.
Later that night, with the kids in bed and a mug of herbal tea, Barbara picked up her cell and called her husband.
“Stu here,” his voice answered.
“Doctor Stuart Hamilton,” she corrected him. It was just like him to not look at the phone to see who was calling. She hated this nickname. She hated all nicknames. Especially the one his buddies in the dojo use. Hammy. Ugh. If he wanted to be taken seriously, he would have to be more professional.
“Darling,” he crooned in his Scots undertone. “I was just thinking about you in that warm coastal air. It is starting to snow here and they are calling for ten centimetres tonight. I can’t wait to see you all tomorrow.”
Almost immediately, Barbara was busy on the airline’s website, checking for cancelled flights and a back-up. She was listening to him, but now it was in a more distracted way. But he could always tell.
“My dear,” as his best Sean Connery voice flowed, “they tell me it will all be fine. I promise you that I will arrive as planned. We will enjoy the rides and the festivities. Now, tell me all about your flight…”
Forty minutes later, feeling calmer than she had in ages, Barbara said goodnight to her husband, smoothed out the soft lace on her new nightgown (a recent treat to herself), kicked off her slippers and ran a hot bath. The heat, the crowds and unfamiliar food would all be tolerable if she could just get over her fear of theme park rides. The kids begged her for this trip, but what finally won her over was Stuart’s argument that it was a perfect opportunity to overcome her fears.
In the last month, she had already seen a hypnotist for a few appointments to deal with her fear of flying. As she boarded the plane for this flight, she eyed the plane’s cabin suspiciously.
Normally by this point, she would be close to hyperventilating and would have already maxed out her anti-anxiety meds. But she had not taken any of her prescription yet, even though it was within easy reach in her purse.
She only agreed to hypnosis because Stuart had prepped her on the research and her doctor thought it would be helpful. Plus, Stuart was not flying with them, so she needed an edge.
I think I am ok, she thought. No racing heart, no sweaty palms. The scary thoughts, while still there, seemed more distant, so they were easier to disconnect from. By the time the plane landed, she almost totally forgot that flying was ever an issue. She was impressed, but at the same time she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that her next challenge was the roller coaster.
Barbara remembered an experience when she was little with a theme park ride that frightened her. She had always assumed that her fear stemmed from this. But both Stuart and her hypnotist took a broader perspective. The ups and downs of the ride that were so exciting to many others felt completely terrifying to her. Where others would respond with excitement, her body perceived her natural adrenaline more as a threat. She seemed to be wired this way. Growing up, she even found it difficult to be excited about birthdays, holidays and wrapped presents. Barbara wanted to loosen up and have more fun, but she didn’t know how.
After the kids were in bed, Barbara puts on her relaxing music and got comfortable on the couch. She focused her eyes on a spot higher up on the wall and took three long slow deeper breaths. On the third breath, she closed her eyes and let her body sink down into the couch. Barbara liked the image of climbing a set of stairs with the idea of relaxing even more with each step. She took her time – from experience, forcing the process did not work well for her.
At the top of her stairs, she became aware of her Special Place in her mind’s eye. Barbara deeply enjoys the feeling of freedom that comes with running, so she decided that her Special Place would be a path along the lake. She would pass various markers on her run to help measure her progress. Every step of her run cleared her mind a little bit more. She focused on seeing it as clearly as she could…smelling the fresh air…feeling the weight of her body as it made contact with the ground…she pulled in as many senses and details as she could. Once she reached the point of feeling solid and heavier in her body, she knew she had the hypnotic state. For Barbara, this solid-and-heavy feeling was uncommon in her life experience, but she liked it. With practice this feeling was the reliable signal to her that she had achieved trance, like when she was in the hypnotist’s office.
Then Barbara imagined in her mind’s eye the detail of the roller coaster…waiting in the line-up…reaching the seats…getting on…buckling up…and waiting…waiting for the ride to start. If at any point she noticed herself anxious, she started over again from the beginning. She reminded herself that she was safe and calm. She wanted her body to feel so relaxed, it would almost be like jelly when she buckled in. As everybody knows, tightening up on a ride like this only results in sore muscles and an unpleasant experience.
She also knew that these rides are designed to look scary, but it is only an illusion of scary. She willed herself to smile and soften into the seat even more. For most people, big whooping sounds is part of the fun and Barbara let herself have permission to be noisy on her imaginary ride. She always ended her visualization with the feeling of stepping back onto the ground with a big smile, high fives with her kids and hugging her husband.
Tomorrow is the day for the actual ride, so as she settled into sleep, she repeated the imagery over and over as she drifted off to sleep.
After breakfast, they lined up early at the ride. Barbara wanted this out of the way so that she could enjoy the rest of her day. She knew that Stuart was watching her carefully, while the kids chattered, generally paying no attention to them. Barbara sometimes closed her eyes to remember her running, but sometimes she was able to stare off into space and do her “run” with eyes wide open. For the first time, she could really see the excitement in her kids in a different way.
This isn’t scary, she thought. This might even be fun, as they settled into their seats.
As the plane took off on the flight home, everyone had a bit more colour in their cheeks and they looked rested now that their holiday was over. Barbara thought back to the first roller coaster ride and the ones that followed and remembered that each one seemed easier than the last. She had even managed to forget a few times about her old fear.
When the seatbelt sign was turned off, Stuart put his arm around her and she snuggled into him and closed her eyes. Things would be busy enough once they landed at home. A few moments of a nap was just what she needed right now. She took a deep breath and allowed her muscles to relax and she drifted off.
What old fear, or fears, are you ready to let go of now and when will you know this has been accomplished?