The ever-present sun, dead vegetation, tall mountains, the sounds of sheep and goats roaming around the flatlands, dirt, rocks, the calm Mediterranean Sea, winding roads, extreme heat, greenhouses, olive trees, wind turbines, bewitching beaches, enchanting villages, ancient sites — and wildfires.
This is the island of Crete, the biggest and southernmost island in Greece. In fact, on a dry, sunny day, using binoculars, one can make out Africa on the seemingly endless horizon, dominated by the deep blue Libyan Sea.
For all its beauty, Crete is one of the hottest places in Europe, subjected to ravaging wildfires in the summer and the dryness of its moderate winters.
Summer 2008, Crete, Greece
Maria, 23, had decided to leave everything behind after graduating from the University of the Aegean and move to southern Crete, where, after receiving a sizable research grant from the European Union she established her own bio-diversity research lab, located at the center of an olive tree plantation. It was a forgotten family property which she transformed into her ideal home and work environment. It was, also, only a fifteen-minute ride away from the nearest beach.
Maria was — nearly— content with her life.
The only thing keeping her from being carefree and happy was her excessive anxiety, for she would regularly experience panic attacks and overthink about everything life threw her way.
She kept contemplating that perhaps the reason why she moved to Crete was motivated by a liberating desire to flee her anxious world of academic rigor and impeding family responsibilities. To be alone. To focus on her work and finally find time to publish her research papers.
She would notice that, at times, logic fortified itself on the other side of a bullet-proof glass, impossible to access. On top of that, anxiety gave way to depression, rendering her incapable of undertaking even the simplest of tasks.
“Is this going to be how I live for the rest of my life?” she thought.
She knew this is a toxic situation to be a part of, and, no matter how hard she tried, she could not escape it.
Then, in a sunny morning in July, an unfortunate event manifested itself in the most instructive way possible.
At around 9:00 a.m., the authorities issued a state-wide warning due to a ravaging wildfire, which was threatening to destroy plantations, houses, and other properties. Upon receiving the news, Maria took no chances and immediately left for the city. She would only return when the fire was under control.
By 12:00 p.m., the wildfire’s unpredictable path, due to the shifting winds, was heading towards Maria’s property, destroying everything on its path.
At 1:30 p.m., there was nothing standing — her house, her lab equipment — everything had been destroyed.
Maria, however, was happy. In fact, she cried tears of joy. No, she wasn’t crazy.
“Wow — thank you, anxiety,” she exclaimed, for she knew that, apart from the physical structure of her house, her lab equipment, and her beloved furniture, nothing was really lost.
You see, Maria was a compulsive over-thinker; as part of her everyday anxious and depressed life, she would constantly live in fear and uncertainty, making plans for seemingly improbable, yet destructive, events she theorized in her mind. She had spent countless nights with insomnia, worrying about everything — from the nonessential to the existential.
To alleviate her fears and the paralyzing thoughts keeping her from being productive, she decided to — simply — plan ahead. Instead of being reactive, like most of us, Maria was able to re-purpose her anxiety into a proactive role.
Although her house was ashes, before moving to Crete, she had made living arrangements in case she wanted to move out.
Her lab equipment was fairly expensive, so she bore the cost of insuring it.
Her documents, photographs, and research journals had been digitized, encrypted, and uploaded online so she can access them everywhere and anywhere.
Her habit of saving a portion of her independent income every month resulted to a significantly large savings account, which she reserved for emergencies, like this one.
Maria was back on her feet — actually, she was never brought to her knees to begin with. It was barely a bent.
A week after the fire, she sat in her mother’s veranda with a journal on her lap, and she started writing:
I always complained about how terrible my life was. I was an obsessive overthinker, an anxious mess. I feared for the future, I feared that something terrible will happen to me or my family, so I kept myself awake at nights coming up with solutions to problems that didn’t exist. In turns out, life happens, and my condition unexpectedly prepared me for what I feared the most.
It feels exhilarating knowing that everything is okay. I am pleasantly surprised when things are easier than I had presumed them to be. Having a plan B, C, or D for that matter saved me hours, weeks, and perhaps months of headaches, stress, and money. Overall, worrying can help me avoid problems. This is a fact.
But it is not enough knowing that. After my triggering experience, I pledge to re-evaluate my relationship with anxiety — what an ambiguous term! I pledge to do my best to shut off any paralyzing thoughts and create a dedicated time-window in my week to deal with them. I will write them down in this very journal, so I can visualize them and make better sense of them. I will declutter the noise from the legitimate concerns, and I will take appropriate action so that my fears never get the chance to personify into what I dread the most…
Fear for the worst, plan ahead, and sleep in peace.
I’m in control.