As a person who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and works as a psychotherapist, the map of recovery takes many different routes. This year I found it on the ski slopes of Lake Louise.
As a kid I made infrequent trips to Ontario ski hills the steepness of Canada’s Parliament Hill front lawn: Don Mills, the shadow of which can be seen driving down Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway; Kitchener’s majestic Chicopee created from landfill; and the Grand Daddy of them all, Collingwood’s, Blue Mountain. Yet, even on these slopes, I was frequently scared witless. I was always out of control on the ski slopes. So this year, at 48 years old, I wanted to over come that.
I took nine weeks of lessons at Lake Louise with three hundred or so other woman. A couple of weeks ago was my last day of instruction, and it was a triumph of my recovery. Here’s what happened: while on the lip of the steepest part of the Men’s Downhill run, in front of five of my fellow skiers, I froze. As I looked down all I saw was icy death.
“Gene!” I yelled to my instructor. “I can’t do this.”
This is a classic fight-flight-freeze moment. I always remind my clients, if they have experienced one of these reactions that these responses are automatic. It is not weakness to freeze. These responses are biologically hard wired to save our lives. They override any rational logical thinking. It didn’t matter that I had five other women staring at me. It didn’t matter that I felt embarrassed and somewhat ashamed that my body took over. The reality was my heart was racing, my breathing was rapid – short and shallow – my muscles were in clamp down, and I was covered in a cold sweat. I was terrified.
Now from my psychological training, when processing trauma, I work within each client’s “Window of Tolerance”, which is also considered to be his or her “Optimal Arousal Zone” (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006). Too much exposure to stress, people become overwhelmed and get retriggered into their fight-flight-freeze response. This is counter-productive because it deepens the biochemical pathways that support this response. Simply put, we will do anything to avoid feeling this panic; the more we avoid the panic, the more confining our life becomes. However, not enough stress, and people will also stay stuck in a limited existence. So in this moment, staring down the icy steepness of the Men’s Downhill I was, shall I say, “Optimally Aroused.”
“Jan!” Gene shouted. “Look at me!”
Barking out a command to someone in the frozen state is precisely what is needed. Gene’s voice cut through my foggy freeze. Gene stood 20 meters down the hill. I felt vertigo but his shout allowed me to focus on him. Making eye contact was the next necessary step. In that moment I knew I had a buddy who was on my side. It was obvious that Gene cared about me. He was there to guide me through my terror. I was not alone in this.
“Gene! I’m freaking out! I can’t do this.”
When processing trauma it’s important to be mindful of your present state. I define mindfulness as just paying attention to what is happening in the moment. Simply by naming my terror, and sharing it with Gene, my body relaxed a little more. Basically, I was not wasting energy trying to create a false reality. I was terrified. I named it and then I could work through it.
“Jan, you’re going to be fine. You can do this.” Gene said. “Now slide down the hill. Come to me!”
And ultimately I did want to go down this hill in some fashion. So I slid sideways to Gene. As I stood beside him, Gene put his hand on my shoulder, and let me know I was doing fine. Physical contact is another way to calm our terror.
“It’s okay Jan. You can either continue to slide down sideways, or you can ski down.” Once again this is the right thing to say. I always remind people that they have a choice when at a crossroads. With the freedom to choose, I could remember my reason for being in these lessons. I wanted to learn to ski and to ski well. I took some breaths, shouted a war cry, stabbed my pole down the hill and took my turn.
When I got to the flats, I stopped and gathered with my group. I felt fantastic. I had been able to conquer a lifetime fear. I flashed back to the basement of our 1970’s Don Mills town house, on a typical Saturday afternoon watching Wide World of Sports. I could hear that announcer clearly:
“And like the greats of Canadian skiing – Podborski, Read, Irwin – McLeod crosses the finish line in a blistering 26 minutes!”
I really felt I had walked the same path of giants. I couldn’t have done it alone. Learning with fellow skiers and working with a superb coach helps to conquer fear. This was the best winter of my life!
Janet McLeod and Super Coach Gene Durrand
Careful, this hyperlink below has some awful crashes in the beginning. Scroll passed that for a couple of minutes and you will see Franz Klammer’s 1976 Gold Metal run. It is a classic childhood memory.
Janet S. McLeod, Registered Psychologist
Ogden, Minton, & Pain (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.