When I was 13, I went on a school camp that affected me in more ways that I probably even know. I remember very few details of the camp, but certain moments stand out like photographs of both a place and a feeling. This particular photograph is the story of how I learnt about regret and conquering fear.
The school was very focused on the outdoors, on pushing yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. Every day of the camp had different challenges, games, activities etc. A whole bunch of experiences mixed in to force us to push ourselves and scope out our capabilities.
The day I let fear stop me:
It was my groups turn to go abseiling. After breakfast we all started our hike up the hill, excited and nervous . The hike was through the typical bush-veld of South Africa: thorn bushes, dust, hard ground, and a blazing sun. It was a long, steep walk and, by the time we got to the top, we were all glad to have a spot to rest in the shade.
While we rested and recovered our breath, the instructors explained the usual rules, equipment, what-to-do’s and what-not-to-do’s. We would get hooked up, step backwards over the cliff, walk halfway down the cliff until we reached a little ledge, unhook ourselves, shimmy along the ledge to the path and then walk back up. It was simple enough.
One by one my group got up, got strapped in and down they went. There was much excitement and fear; pep talks and scary thoughts. Then came my turn. I got up and walked to the edge (for the very first time since being up there!) and looked over. The cliff was high up, like very high up. The waters below were crashing loudly and they looked like they would swallow me. I froze.
All the possible “freak-accident-leaves-13-year-old-girl-dead-at-school-camp” headlines rushed through my head. Everybody there told me it wasn’t as scary as it looked, I must just do it, I would regret it if i didn’t… but i had made up my mind. I was not going over that edge. That was that.
The inevitable floods of regret after letting fear make up my mind:
After everybody had abseiled down that impossibly high cliff, we started our long walk down the hill. It was hotter and drier than the hike up. And while everybody was buzzing from the exhilaration of facing their fears, every step down that hill made me sadder and sadder. At first I was content with just having made the hike. Then I wasn’t sure if it had been the right decision…
“But it was so high and scary!”
“But everybody else did it and they are fine, more than fine actually. They look amazing!”
“But you made up your mind so stick to it. There’s no turning back now anyway.”
My internal conversation with myself went back and forth until we reached the bottom of the hill. By then I had realised that I had missed an opportunity and had been ridiculously stupid throwing a chance like that away. Regret my dear friends, regret had hit me hard and it was only an hour after the event had occurred. I asked myself if I would always look back on this trip and remember that I said no to a chance to be fearless and adventurous?
“No, I have never abseiled. I once had the chance, but I was too scared.”
I figured that answer was yes.
By the luck of the gods and the will of a stubborn redhead:
After I had finished my internal debate, I knew I would never forgive myself for saying no.
13-year old me was outspoken, stubborn, un-afraid of speaking her mind (even if it was rude and terribly timed). I didn’t take no for an answer. When I made up my mind about something, nothing short of a heated debate with myself could tell me otherwise. So tiny, red-haired, stubborn Ashleigh walked straight up to the organisers at lunch and told them I wanted another shot.
I was told it wasn’t possible, my group was done with that activity and the next day we had other (less exciting) things to do. I argued back, told them I absolutely had to go back up there and abseil that stupid cliff. After talking with what seemed like all the adults at camp, it was finally agreed that I could go with another group the next day and get a second chance. This was my last shot. If I got to the top and froze again, there would be no going back!
Second chances and facing fear in a respectable manner:
I barely remember the hike the next day. I was so determined that I marched up that hill not thinking of anything else. Once at the top, I walked straight to the edge to look down.
That same fear overtook me. It was so high! and so scary!
Determined not to let this get the better of me, I studied the set-up. I noted every tree at the bottom. I noted the ledge I had to make it to. I studied the rope and the giant rock it was secured to, the bolts into the rock, the grass and floor around the rock. Everything. The way I saw it was if I memorized every detail I could use that information to fight my fear.
Same as the day before, one by one people had a turn. And extremely quickly it was my turn again. But this time instead of freezing I walked straight to the edge and got hooked up. I stepped onto the edge, my back facing the drop down. I slowly lent my weight into the rope, leaning backwards. It was time for me to walk; taking the first step was the hardest, but I did it! The climb down was amazing, not only did my fear evaporate, but I felt like I was stronger for stepping over the edge, like I could do anything.
Concluding my lesson on regret and fear:
I was right at the age of 13; I would remember the time I let fear freeze me for years to come. To this very day, that is the memory I use to face my fears. I remember how adamant I was that I didn’t want to do it, and how hard I fought to get a second chance. I remind myself that there aren’t always second chances. I need to focus and take that first step.
I have used this memory many times to remind myself that fear should be a motivator to do something, not a reason not to. That the more afraid I am, the better that feeling will be when I lean back and let go. That experience as a young girl changed the way I face my life, the way I make decisions and the way I view opportunities. And I will continue to use this memory to draw strength when I need it in order to become that old, grey woman that remembers life with no regrets!
How do you deal with facing your fears?