What do you get when you hand me two skis and two ski poles? Answer: a panic attack.
Yes, I'm afraid of skiing. But I met my fear head-on when Justin and I recently took a weekend trip to Snowshoe, W.Va. Justin had some business in the area and suggested we make a mini-vacation out of it.
Obviously, skiing was "the thing" to do. I was leery. I'd "skied" only once before. I use the term loosely because I spent the majority of my time sprawled out on the ice cold snow watching others whiz by me. In my defense, I'd never ever skied prior to that, nor did I have a lesson of any sort.
Justin talked me into giving it another try, so we each bought a package that included equipment rental, an all-day lift ticket and a two-hour lesson. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad this time around since I was actually getting professional instruction.
Ski day arrived, and I suited up in the appropriate waterproof clothing and gear. I was comfortable until I had to put on my ski boots. If you've never worn ski boots before, I can sum them up in one word: uncomfortable. Those suckers were tight - and then you have to latch them so they're even tighter. I guess they don't want your skis to fly off if you're cartwheeling down a hill.
Walking in ski boots is even more uncomfortable. Our lodge was ski in/ski out, but for us, at least at this point, it was more like walk in/walk out. We walked out to the slopes and waited for our lesson to begin.
Justin and I were split into a group of eight people. Our instructor, Drew, pointed us to a flat spot to get started.
Perhaps I should have seen this as an omen, but I couldn't get my skis on. You basically just step into the ski with your boot and it locks into place, but no matter what I did, it wouldn't lock. My frustration grew, and I had to call over the instructor, who determined I was given the wrong size skis. He suggested I walk back up the hill to the rental place and get a new pair. I grumbled. I didn't want to walk up that hill again.
I took about five steps when I heard Justin calling me back. He was having trouble too, and he and Drew figured out that we just mixed up our skis. I felt a bit foolish, but at least I didn't have to walk up that hill. However, this seemed to set the tone for my building anxiety throughout the lesson.
Drew showed us the basics of moving, proper stance and most importantly, how to stop. He then led us through several tasks, including negotiating hills and turns. Predictably, I fell after the first task. Getting up off the ground is kind of awkward when you've got six foot long planks attached to your feet. There was another girl on the ground, so I didn't feel like a complete dolt when I asked Drew, "Um, can you show us how to get up if we fall?" That was code for, "I'm going to be in this position a lot, so I need some alternatives."
Be prepared to exert a lot of energy getting up if (or when) you fall. It takes a lot of leg and abdominal power, and Drew noted that if you fall a lot, you tend to get tired very quickly. No kidding.
We repeated the drills, once without poles and then again with poles. Most of the group seemed to be getting the hang of it. Justin also did well. I guess I didn't do too bad either, according to Justin, but I felt like a baby fawn trying to stand on its legs for the first time. And every time I felt like I was picking up any speed at all, I panicked. When I panicked, I tried to stop. When I tried to stop, I felt like I was still going too fast, so I dug in. When I dug in, I fell. And when I fell, I had to push myself back up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Justin kept asking me if I was ok. I wasn't. I hated feeling like I was always out of control.
My anxiety hit sky high when Drew introduced our next task - traverse a steep hill, but cut across at a wide angle so we reduced the incline. I instantly freaked out. And then I freaked out even more because everyone else seemed to glide right across. When it was my turn, I barely made it five feet before I fell. I stood up and fell again. And stood up and fell again. By this time, I'd had it. I didn't want to do it anymore. My legs hurt from pushing myself up over and over. I was so frustrated that I started to cry.
Drew suggested I take off my skis and walk down to the group. "We already did the hard part. The rest is easy," he said, trying to be encouraging. The final test was to ride the ski lift back up and then ski down the slope Justin and I walked across earlier to get to the lesson. "It will combine everything you learned today, including watching out for other skiers and weaving in and out of people." I gulped. I definitely didn't feel confident enough to negotiate through people. The last thing I needed was to plow into an unsuspecting family.
Of course, I fell getting off the ski lift. Gravity continued to be my worst enemy about 10 yards into the final slope. I'd had enough. Even tiny children were blitzing past me - I really should have feared being the one run over by children, not vice versa. I waved for Justin to go ahead without me. I took my skis off and waited for him to finish up.
When he walked back a few minutes later, he looked concerned. I was still bawling like a baby. My legs felt like overcooked spaghetti. "My legs hurt so bad," I whined. "I'm going to have bruises." I complained some more about everything in general, and Justin just let me vent.
Justin suggested I relax for a bit in the room. He went back out while I took a nap. When Justin returned, I felt better. He convinced me to come back out with him. "Just give it one more try," he told me. "I don't want you to give up."
If there's one thing I'm not, it's a quitter. So I snapped on my boots, grabbed my skis and poles and off we went again. Justin gave me a few pointers, and then I just sucked it up and skied down the slope I'd walked across earlier. I just went slow, and Justin stayed with me. I made it across without falling! I went back through some of the obstacles from earlier and tried the turns again. Much better! I even conquered that stress-inducing cross-hill trek. Justin wondered why I'd been so upset about my performance earlier. "You were doing just fine during the lesson. I didn't know why you were so worked up," he said.
After I made several successful passes to the bottom, Justin suggested I try the faster bunny slope with him. He'd gone down some green trails when he was out by himself, so he was starting to get pretty good. The steeper slope scared me, but I went for it.
Justin had mastered the ability to weave, but I could only go straight. And fast. Very fast. I fought the urge to panic, and attempted to slow myself down. I still felt out of control, but I stayed up until I shifted my ski the wrong way. I tumbled, but managed to hop back up and ski to the bottom of the hill. I slid in next to Justin, who was waiting in line for the lift, expertly negotiating the final turn.
As we rode the lift to the top, I thanked Justin for convincing me to come back outside with him.
He was happy that I was having fun. "I knew if you didn't try it one more time that you'd never want to ski again," he added.
As I successfully landed on my feet after hopping off the lift, I knew he was right about that. It always bothered me the first time I tried to ski that I pretty much gave up because it was too hard.
Chemotherapy is hard. Radiation is hard. A stem cell transplant is hard. I whooped those without flinching. In that realm, skiing is not hard. And I now I can say I conquered that too. It's tough facing your fears, but it's so rewarding when you get over them.
Look out, USA Olympic ski team! I'll see you in PyeongChang in 2018.... on television.