Unused Adrenaline

The edge of the Grand Canyon, a guardrail blocking a fall off the edge, the effect a little claustrophobic, a little like a cage

When we went to the Grand Canyon with the kids two summers ago, I felt sick with unused adrenaline almost the entire time. Buzzing jolts of anxiety coursing through my muscles every time anyone got close to the canyon walls. It wasn’t enough to know that I was far away from the edge-I had to know that every other person was also nowhere close to the irredeemably sheer cliffs. My heart knew it couldn’t witness someone fall. There was no thrill for me in seeing someone dance on that tightrope and survive. I realized about halfway through that day that my fight or flight reflex had kicked into full gear and there was no way of doing either that wouldn’t be wildly dangerous. I had this instinct to pump my legs as hard as I could to get as far away from the edge as I could…and then… just had to…stand still. Carefully pick my way over uneven ground. Hold my quivering stomach down with abdominal muscles unused to that task. Watch a woman fall and sprain an ankle in front of me and not lunge for her hand before checking where the guardrail was (someone else caught her, and gingerly got her back up to the road and to a shuttle bus). I wanted to get as far away as possible from something that terrified me, and was utterly unable to do so. I had to move slowly, carefully, deliberately until I felt safe enough, until I was far enough away not to see other people risking their lives. It felt like an eternity.

It’s been a year of that adrenaline-sick state for me now. I count mid-February of 2020 as when I became terrifyingly aware of what was coming. There are a million reasons I am so finely attuned to the worst case scenario- temperament and genetics, medical history and neurology, working in a profession where I witnessed the effects of trauma and was taught how to prevent or mitigate it, raising children with a man who had unthinkably lost everything before he was a teenager –I am keenly aware of how none of us is exempt from the possibility of having very awful things happen to us. And I live in a country where very many preventable horrors are allowed to continue because they are convenient to the greedy and powerful.

For a year now my body has been flooded with an instinct to make big sweeping movements to dispel that awful energy, the energy of knowing there is danger and having no control over its presence. Of watching millions of people dance up to the edge of a cliff, bringing unwilling participants with them, and hundreds of thousands going over. My body wants to run as far as I can from this nightmare. But there is nowhere to run. We are literally kept in small spaces this winter, small circumscribed movements as we nimbly and carefully move six feet around each other in poorly ventilated spaces. In a more figurative sense, there is no way to escape. There is no part of the country we can go to that is safe, no way of leaving to other countries that had a plan and a collective caretaking spirit.

All I can do is make small careful movements. Pay attention to the uneven ground right in front of me. Place each footstep with as much deliberation and grip as I am capable of as my knees try to buckle out from me. Hold onto guardrails when they become available (but check that they are anchored and not rusted out before setting a hand on it). Watch that the people I hold hands with to guide me through, and me them, are trying their level best to get through day by day and inch by inch. Avoid the things that I know can push me over the edge, or have done so before when the drop was still horrible but wasn’t nearly as high. Stay away from those who skip blithely through pretending it’s all just a yellow brick road. Move so slowly my heart feels like it’s going to crack, even though the end is in sight and I just want to feel my legs burn and make a run for the solid wide path that will take us all back to safety.