Last week I agreed to go to a cabin in the wilderness of southern Wyoming with a group of friends. We all needed a vacation, and there would be quaint, woodsy things to do, they assured me. Hammocks to hang, hummingbirds to watch, and no pesky Internet to distract us from each others’ company. Plus I might see a moose.
They got me with the moose.
I grew up in the tree-hugging town of Boulder, Colorado, so I’ve always been under a lot of pressure to be an outdoorsy person. In high school, my classmates went hiking at every opportunity, and I always felt left out because I preferred to stay indoors where there’s air conditioning and no mountain lions.
So, with an eye toward learning to appreciate nature, I reluctantly chose to visit my friends’ cabin. But I still have one glaring problem with the great outdoors that no amount of courageous self-talk can overcome:
I hate bugs.
“‘Hate’ is a strong word,” you say.
Yes. I fucking hate them.
My fear of small animals that have more than four legs (unless it’s a puppy with a birth defect, in which case, awww) is debilitating and complete. My skin turns cold and I scream like a small child when those little bastards sneak up on me. Last week I found a spider in my kitchen sink at 5:00 a.m., so I went next door to a friend’s apartment to sleep on their couch rather than my own bed where the damn thing could crawl into my room and touch me, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen.
And if you still doubt the legitimacy of my hatred: I’m literally afraid of butterflies.
My therapist has told me that the best way to overcome my fear is by exposing myself to bugs in a safe environment. When I inevitably escape with my life, I’ll learn that there is nothing to fear from most of them. In fact, the next time I see one, I might even be able to get a little closer to it (and eventually I’ll be able to squash the creepy monsters – although I didn’t say that to my therapist). Exposure therapy has been proven to work in cases like mine, where there truly is nothing to fear.
So I went to the damn cabin.
And I survived. As we stomped through overgrown wild strawberries on the last morning of our vacation, I reflected back on the skills I had used to get myself through the past three bug-infested days. One skill in particular kept coming to mind: finding silver linings in anything I could.
One of my friends asked me what was on my mind as I worked through this idea.
“I used to be so negative,” I said after a thoughtful moment. “The pessimistic pathways of my brain are well-worn and easy for me to go down. But I don’t want to be a negative person. So a few years ago I started teaching myself to be optimistic, but it’s hard. Positivity is definitely a learned skill for me. It doesn’t come naturally at all. But I’m much better at it than I used to be. Like, I hate dirt, and being cold, and especially bugs.”
“But you dealt with all those things this week,” she observed proudly.
“Exactly.” I smiled and stepped around a thistle. “And there’s no denying the discomfort those things make me feel. I can’t get rid of thoughts like ‘I wish I were clean’ or ‘I wish I were warmer’. But I don’t have to dwell on those thoughts. I can choose to focus my attention on the good stuff, even if there isn’t nearly as much of it. For example, since I exposed myself to things I don’t like on this trip, I’ll be better at dealing with those things in the future. I’ll have to be dirty and cold and mosquito-bitten again at some point in my life. But now I’m a little more cognizant of my ability to survive all that.”
“You should make a blog post out of that,” she laughed.
The raw fear and irritation I felt on the trip to Wyoming were like an emotional storm cloud: dark, upsetting, and uncontrollable. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from reacting badly to my environment, just as I can’t stop bad weather from dumping rain on my head. I realized, however, that I have a lot of control over how I deal with my brain’s unpleasant reactions. To complete the metaphor, I can go inside and mope over the downpour – or I can play outside despite the rain. I chose to play.
I have to admit that overall, we had a nice time. We slept with all the windows open, made cocktails, and explored the woods in an off-roads buggy (which was really fun to drive down mountain trails at breakneck speeds, until some of our stuff bounced out of the truck bed and we had to backtrack half a mile to find it). We got some beautiful photographs of the wilderness.
I even saw a moose.