Fear is a funny thing—and a hard one to write about. I’ve started, stopped, and deleted this post so many times because I can’t figure out how to put it—how to adequately describe and give weight to what is simultaneously my deepest, darkest fear—nay, horror—and also what is maybe the most privileged, whitest problem to have on the planet. Ah well, here we go.
I’m terrified of skiing. Equally terrified of snowboarding. Not, like, “Eek I don’t wanna!” A legit phobia—like, brain shutting down I’m going to throw up just thinking about it phobia. I’m also aware that this fear is half legitimate, born of really traumatic experiences as a kid that warped and grew like a tumor I was privately nurturing, and half absurd and unfounded, as most monsters under the bed are.
I have been so scared of this my whole life, in fact, that when people in a group began to discuss it, I would lightly sweat. Or change the subject. Or get up and leave. I avoided it at all costs, made up elaborate excuses as to why I couldn’t, and happily hid behind the ignorance and inability afforded me by my parents who chose warmer climates for all our vacations. I never had to learn to ski, or had the opportunity, really—I was channeling Hemingway my whole youth in Florida—it wasn’t really a priority. I also somehow managed to live on a ski mountain for 6+ months and it only came up once—when an entire group of friends who had come to visit spent the day on the mountain, curiosity and FOMO made me venture out to the garage and snap myself into a pair of boots and skis hanging on the wall. I stood at the top of the driveway, then burst into tears and bailed out sideways the minute I started to inch forward.
As I grew into my thirties, I also grew comfortable in my own skin. Not being good at this thing that was snapping my friends’ legs in half wasn’t such a big deal anymore. It nagged at me a little, but on the whole I was ok not knowing how to do something, and comfortable not being good at something. And that was great.
And then I met Chad. And Chad, well—let’s just say he’s prioritized snowboarding—both in life and in love. If I didn’t care about him, I wouldn’t care about that—but I do, and so, I did.
[Chad sacrificed an amazing day he could have spent flying around in fresh powder to inch down a bunch of greens with me and watch me wipe out all over the place. Sorry, not sorry.]
“The best beginner snowboarders—the successful ones who ‘get it’—they’re always stubborn people.”
My instructor Josh said this to me as we rode the chairlift up the beginner slope for what felt like the 100th time that day. If I was exhausted, I wasn’t going to let him know. I smiled bravely and nodded through all his advice, trying to remember everything in preparation to make the next run better than the last. My legs had finally stopped quaking beneath me, my chin had stopped quivering as I held back tears, and the paralyzing fear was fading like a fever going down.
The fear had been bubbling up since days before we even got on the plane to Utah. The day of our flight, I couldn’t even speak for four hours, unaware until later in the afternoon that I had been in the middle of a panic attack. When Chad had dropped me off at my lesson that morning, I’d been secretly crying behind my goggles for a few solid minutes, attempting to quiet the jagged inhalations that come before sobs. As he walked away, I remember giving him a quick wave like a little child, then pressing the goggles to my face, squeezing the tears out of the foam lining like a wet sponge. It had not been an easy day.
I was also on the 15th hour of a splitting altitude headache, hungry but too anxious to eat (the $21 I spent on a Gatorade and slice of uneaten pizza didn’t help), and rather than mentally logging my victories like a sane person, I was already mortified about whether or not I’d be able to keep up on the slopes tomorrow with Chad and the rest of the group we were staying with. (It didn’t matter; that altitude headache turned into a migraine and I missed the whole day anyway, to add insult to injury.) I quietly prepared myself to spend the day alone again, and made a note to ask Josh what slopes I should stick to if I was feeling brave. Because that was the one constant I was sure of about this sport, one of the worst parts that colored my memories as a child I had confirmed so far in my self-imposed attempts to learn it: that it’s lonely as hell.
“You’re goddamned right I’m stubborn,” I said, slowly turning my head back toward the slope, narrowing my eyes as I sized up my enemy one more time.
We already know I’m stubborn, or I wouldn’t be out there facing down this fear like a dog on a bone. I’d have said “Thanks but no thanks” and closed the case, but here I was, looking like I’d gone 14 rounds with a badger, pulling myself up by the bootstraps, and not quitting.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to get it.
The lonely thing—I find this really important to explain and emphasize. Because loneliness on its own isn’t bad, but fear and loneliness? Deadly. Buried alive deadly.
Each of the three times I’d attempted skiing as a kid, I’d been sort of pushed out onto the slope with no lesson, no instruction, someone else’s clothes on my body, and no one of a similar skill level to laugh through it with me. It was always against my will, nothing I ever wanted to be doing, and 0% of it ended up being any fun at all. Can you blame me for not wanting to do it again?
Ah, skiing: Just me and my crippling fear, feeble pep talks on a reel in my head. “You can do this,” and “It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok,” running through a 10-year old’s head alone on a slope. On one occasion, I spent the entire day alone, no friends, no instructor, separated from the church group I’d bussed out there with. As darkness fell, the reality of my being separated from everyone and also totally lost dawned on me, so I clopped in the ski boots over to a walkway and sat myself down on a low brick wall, gave up, and cried. For an hour. I wasn’t sure they knew I was lost, or how I’d get back to Richmond, where I’d sleep, or how I’d get money to use a pay phone. TRAUMATIC. A random woman found me and helped me locate my group just before the bus left. [Sidenote: I visited that wall when I was back at Wintergreen for my lesson last month and sent a little “Gonna be alright, dude” back in time to prior me.]
I also find mountains to be incredibly intimidating. [Only when covered in snow. Green ones are wonderful and I will hike them until my toenails fall off.] I don’t have the best eyesight, so knowing where to go on slopes is problematic right off the bat. It also feels sort of like loitering around between a row of archers and their targets. I feel like my being there is annoying everyone around me—serious flashbacks of being uncool surrounded by cool kids, guys. Slopes are disorienting, everything feels impatient and rushed, and there’s zero “pausing to get your bearings” unless you want to get taken out, which makes it emotionally exhausting. Again, somewhere I’d imagine it’d be fun to have a friend in the same boat as you. Some people see ski mountains as a playground—”So much terrain!”—but I have always seen them as nightmare death traps. I generally just feel like I’m in the way.
When I fell—even totally alone with no one nearby—the first words out of my mouth were always “Sorry!” or “Oof, shit, sorry!”
I’m constantly apologizing for falling—but to whom?
So far, trying to learn this at this age, alone, has felt really isolating. There’s a lot of “Why am I doing this to myself?” swirling around in my head, taking lessons alone, driving alone to mountains to do something I’m terrified of, talking myself into each consecutive run, trying to remember everything I’ve learned, trying not to fall, trying not to look like an idiot. No one to tell you when you’ve done a good job; no mom to hug me when it’s over and tell me how impressive it all is. It sounds dramatic, but it’s led to some serious soul searching—questioning everything from fear of rejection and inferiority complexes to insecurity, self esteem, and the need to prove people wrong.
Take my advice: These are not the right reasons to learn a new sport.
And now, some random photos from a really pleasurable night grabbing a drink at the St. Regis Deer Valley—a little reward after a hard day in fresh powder for the first time.
“Your whole demeanor has changed since this morning,” Josh said as we skated along in line for the lift. I looked up at him through my goggles and smiled, feeling all of about 7 or 8 years old. “Really?” I asked shyly. “Really.” “I guess it helps that my legs aren’t shaking anymore,” I laughed, to which he said “Yea, the muscle exhaustion is real!”
“Oh, my legs aren’t tired—they were shaking cause I was scared.”
“Oh… shit,” he said, staring at me. “That bad?” “That bad,” I shrugged.
I’m telling you: Even when I say aloud that it’s my worst fear in life, no one really understands that it’s actually my worst fear in life.
I was tired, though—my head and my body and my heart, having been beating the rate of a baby fawn’s who’s been staring down the barrel of a shotgun for 6 hours. And despite nailing a few runs, connecting my heel side with my toe edge seamlessly carving down the mountain—the only goal I had for the day—I was disappointed. Disappointed I hadn’t picked it up right off the bat like some sort of wonder woman prodigy jock. I’m not a girly girl; I’m athletic. I have good balance, strong legs, pretty solid endurance, focus, and coordination. What gives? Why wasn’t I a natural?
Easy answer: Fear. It was that childhood fear holding me back, crippling me, and yet a conundrum because I wasn’t going to be unafraid until I felt like I knew how to do it confidently. On one of my runs in the last hour of the day, Josh secretly filmed me as I made my turns smoothly in big S’s all the way down the hill, without falling. He hit the brakes feet from me, grinning. “And HOW WAS THAT?” he asked, already knowing the answer. “I have to say, that was the first time it actually felt, sort of… fun.” We high fived.
And it was fun, finally—but I had this lingering thing. I’d achieved my own goals, but somehow it still wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel good enough because I hadn’t been born with this bone in my body, I had to grow it all on my own. I didn’t feel good enough because I’d accomplished it, but not with a smile on my face. What did that say about me? For someone who has just conquered their greatest fear—for it to somehow not feel like it was enough was devastating. I didn’t realize I wasn’t just learning something new, or conquering a fear—I was welding back together a part of myself that had snapped in half decades ago. Once I’d figure that out, I’d be at peace with it all.
[He’s a patient guy.]
There are people who stand on the top of a mountain for the first time trying this sport, and they’re excited—it’s about to be fun. I envy them. I had a much different path to get to the same place—the bottom of the hill, able to call myself a snowboarder—but I have to stop apologizing for that.
I conquered my worst fear, but it turns out that wasn’t the end of it for me—it was just the beginning. I’m still learning about myself from it, weeks later.
No matter how much each of us grows up, changes, or learns new things, I believe that every prior version of ourselves are still very much alive inside of us, like nested matryoshka dolls. Structurally, in the here and now, we’re the sum of all those versions, good and bad. Their thoughts and emotions and reactions and fears still course through our veins. They explain us.
On rare occasions, we get the opportunity to crack through every single outer shell until all that’s left is the littlest matryoshka doll, nestled in the center. The OG source code of the software, for better or for worse. That was snowboarding for me—facing my fears, but also being reduced to the littlest, most unequipped and frightened version of myself. It was a chance to change part of myself, like fixing a bug in a forgotten piece of software, embedded deep inside me. I got a chance to rewrite who I am and in doing so, I let that fear go, said goodbye to it, and I never want to see it again.
As I got home and unpacked my things, my outer layers restored one by one, it became apparent that I’d been fundamentally reformatted. The monster flushed out from under the bed.I’m not sure some people ever get that kind of opportunity—and it was one of the most transformative things I’ve ever been through. Most nights, I dream I’m snowboarding, cutting down the hill light as a feather, my body feeling the swaying motion, going faster with every run.
The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire. Mine just happened to be covered in snow.
*Deets for the cheap seats: I would be remiss not to call out all the gear I got that made me feel equipped, happy, comfortable, and helped me to reboot the whole snow sport trauma of having to wear someone else’s crappy hand me downs. Not knowing the sport at all, I didn’t know what to get—would I be too hot, or too cold? Was I buying the right jacket? The right pants? It was overwhelming, so I gotta shout it out to my peeps at Columbia for making it so easy to find what I needed. I have a rule about stuff like this: Never try and look cute doing something you don’t know how to do, so I found super understated grey and black pieces that made me as invisible as possible—haha. I highly recommend. I got a 3-in-1 interchange jacket and Jump Off pants with this awesome silver thermal lining that kept me toasty but has great ventilation zips. Yay for not doing snow sports in jeans! May that humiliation die and never be resurrected.