“Exposure therapy is a technique in behavior therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. It involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety and/or distress.”
The second time I hung upside down from the tree I was drunk, again, but this time it was much more intentional and this time I didn’t fall.
I read somewhere recently that time doesn’t heal wounds, intention does. We don’t grow unless we want to, choose to, set our purpose on it.
And that night I chose and set my purpose on proving that falling out of the tree had been a fluke. That I was in control of falling or not falling. Dying or not dying.
Which, of course, I am not.
I was actually just rewriting the narrative of tree climbing in my head from “you’ll fall” to “most of the time you don’t fall”. Most of the time you play with the tree and gravity and the two of them stand by and let you monkey around. Most of the time we live.
Mostly we live.
Will and I are more afraid of snakes than anything. It’s stupid, really, that we are the ones who moved to Australia, where every sort of deadly snake there ever was, also lives. We have a conspiracy theory that the reason all the snakes are here and the reason they are all poisonous is because they had to protect themselves from some predator that lives deep in the bush that no one has seen in eons that will no doubt come back to haunt us now that Will and I have arrived.
But I digress.
When Will stepped on a snake on the beach, Christmas Eve, we were drunk… again. (Perhaps this a pattern we should note.)
But beyond whatever was floating extraneously through our veins, the experience was surreal. Even SEEING a snake would have been our worst nightmare. But stepping on one, with a bare foot no less, was like a mean joke. We used to text each other terrible snake scenarios to make each other cringe:
Imagine you wake up in your sleeping bag and there’s a snake slithering up your leg…
No, no, imagine you’re driving a car and hear a snake at your foot below the gas pedal…
Okay, but imagine you’re on a walk at night and you step on a coiled up snake… with your bare foot!
Only that’s exactly what happened.
We shivered and dry-gagged over the memory for a full 24 hours after it happened.
But then slowly, quietly, the more we sat with the experience, the fear turned into something more like awe.
Amazement that it had happened–and that we were fine, we had lived–dawned on us. For the rest of our road trip we looked at pictures of snakes on the internet to identify ‘our’ snake. We discovered he was a harmless juvenile python. We discussed its various features, eventually concluding that his jaw was much better looking than that of those other nasty snakes with tiny sharp heads. We found we had a soft spot in our hearts for this snake that had let us live.
I talk to mom on the phone because Will has now left Sydney to go backpacking on his own. She asks me a million times how he’s getting to his first farm and I dodge the question until it finally comes out on the family group message that he’s hitchhiking. She tries not to sound worried, but she is.
Mom, He’ll be fine.
She knows. She hates that we live so far away. She wonders where we’ll each be for Christmas next year – it was hard to have us so far away this holiday.
Mommy. It’s like exposure therapy! I’ve exposed you to your worst fear – having your children live far far away from you – by moving to the country farthest away possible. Now no matter where we go from here, we’ll be closer!
She laughs and agrees this is true.
It is my worst fear… I suppose I am living through it.
It is, and she has.
The more her children do the things she is afraid of–moving far away, engaging in risky behavior like hitchhiking and snake-stepping and tree-climbing–the less afraid she is. Not, I think, because she makes an analysis and discovers that the things are less dangerous than she originally thought. But because she can’t keep up the high levels of concern and maintain her health and sanity.
Our brains aren’t wired to function on high alert for long periods of time. The Fight-or-flight response we humans physiologically engage in when we find ourselves in allegedly dangerous situations isn’t meant to be handled for prolonged periods. Sensory fatigue, or adaptation, is this clever little thing human noses and ears and eyes do that has kept us alive all these years. In essence:
“…Our bodies becomes desensitized to stimuli to prevent the overloading of the nervous system, thus allowing it to respond to new stimuli that are ‘out of the ordinary’.”
The evolutionary purpose being, that once we have become aware of and defined or categorized an element in our environment, we dismiss it, and no longer let it into the small handful of important variables we need to respond to at any given moment.
Falling out of a tree is a real occupational hazard for a monkey. They live in trees. But if the monkey brain doesn’t at some point let that danger recede into the background, his senses won’t have enough bandwidth available to notice when there’s a tiger in town.
We open ourselves up to new experiences and become available to assess and respond to new ‘out of the ordinary’ stimuli when we let ourselves relax into situations where, mostly, we live.
Is life not just one big experiment and self-discipline in exposure therapy, then? Perhaps we are timid at first and perhaps it keeps us alive at first. But we have the ability to pick up speed, to live and thrive through increasingly challenging situations. Maybe finding something new to be afraid of is the definition of evolution.
When I walked by the park on my way to work the other day I saw that the tree I almost died falling out of had been cut down. A little part of me was sad to see that the danger I acclimated to no longer existed. But another part of me wasn’t phased.
Because there are other trees in this jungle. And who knows, maybe even a tiger.