Sunday, February 4, 2018

Curiosity and Wonder

Just over one year ago now, I was incapable of orienteering without breaking down into tears. In the middle of the forest, alone with my thoughts, I would be overwhelmed by a wave of panic and despair. It was confusing for me since, for so long, orienteering had been my "safe place", the way that I could escape from the stresses of life. I kept pushing myself though, which lead me to the bottom of a depression where I didn't even know how to be alive anymore. At that time, I decided that WOC was so important to me that it was worth finding my way out again. I think that I believed that if I made it to that World Champs start-line and raced well, then somehow I would be okay again.

Photo: Jaana Honkanen

Looking back, I can see that it was the right decision for me to make at the time since it gave me motivation to climb out of the desolate place I had found myself in. I ate because I needed fuel to train, I visited psychiatrists, sports psychologists and doctors all because, more than anything, I wanted to be healthy at WOC.

It was a very constructive goal with many positive effects. However, it was also destructive in the sense that everything action I took was for WOC. I was so single-minded in my purpose that I had no wiggle-room, no room to just breathe. It was as if I had built myself a long corridor that lead all the way to WOC.  It had strong and sturdy walls to support me but there wasn't space to spread my arms and the air was musty and hard to breathe.

The panic attacks started happening again while orienteering.

Thankfully I did have those strong walls to lean on, my support network of psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. I made it to the start-line at WOC and raced with my whole heart but when it was over I still had the same negative feelings that would come surging up when I was left alone with myself.

After the summer competitions, I didn't touch a map for 4 months. I still went out into the forest, though, and was able to see it through the eyes of just Emily rather than Emily the orienteer. I didn't have anywhere to go or any controls to find. I was free to wander and to explore and to play. Over the last two months I've slowly started training more and some of those trainings have been with a map. Some have been pure joy and others have had the twinges of the past panic. I kept trying though because I didn't feel fair that I couldn't do the sport that, deep down, I knew that I loved so much. I kept trying because I didn't want to let fear control my life.

To help, one sports psychologist suggested going back into the past and finding a memory of orienteering where there was no pressure, only pleasure. I ended up travelling back to when I was 12 years old at my first Canadian Championships. I had just learned how to read those brown lines on the map, contours. I can remember the feeling of awe as I looked at the map and it came alive with the ups and downs of the terrain. I can remember seeing every leg as a challenge of how to get around each of the hills and depressions. I can remember the curiosity I felt while navigating through the features and the absolute wonder when I found each control. I was 12 and I was just playing.

COC's 2004 in Whitehorse, Yukon. Long Lake comes alive!

If my mind wanders to competing at an elite level again while training, which it often does, I still feel the same panic building in my chest. But rather than let it take over, I stop and I relive those feelings of curiosity and wonder. I come back to the present and all of a sudden I'm living the training from a completely different perspective. I'm no longer in that long corridor to performing perfectly at WOC but out in the nature with so many discoveries to make. I can take the time to stop at the top of a hill and take in the view; I can make it into a challenge to relocate after losing contact with the map rather than feeling the pressure of "losing time". Today I stopped to listen to the wind as it tinkled through the frozen pine needles of the trees around me. The air was filled with the sound of a thousand wind chimes overhead. Today I was able to smile, to breathe, to play and to experience the sport I love with curiosity and wonder.

Photo: Jaana Honkanen