Fear and Afar: From Kyrgyzstan to the Bay
Fifteen years after being held hostage for six days by a group of Islamic rebels in Kyrgyzstan, I picked up the phone and called a therapist. I had spoken to her a couple of times about starting therapy, but had never pulled the trigger. I was too scared to go down that dark road. Too scared to open those wounds.
But … I also wanted to be able to function in my life. My fears and paranoia were affecting my child, my marriage. I was becoming a person I didn’t want to be for our son, Theo.
“How about 10:30 on Thursday?” I looked at my phone hoping to see a conflicting appointment. Anything to keep me from committing to the session. My phone was blank. I couldn’t think of anything else I had to do.
“Beth?” she asked. “Are you there?”
“Yes, that works fine,” I stammered. “Looking forward to it.” I hung up the phone.
Looking forward to it? That’s what I said?
I always add pleasantries to conversations when I’m nervous or scared.
Fear & Loathing in the Bay
In August 2000, on our way home from Kyrgyzstan, Tommy and I had a layover in the Amsterdam airport. I was just a short 12 hours away from the comfort of my mom’s arms. Just then, a Muslim family sat down next to me and Tommy. I was terrified. I felt my chest tighten, my breath shorten. I made Tommy get up and move to another set of seats a few gates away.
Within a year of returning from Kyrgyzstan, 9/11 happened. Anti-Muslim sentiments were at an all-time high in America. My worst fears were confirmed, if not exacerbated. I was paranoid that our captors were going to track us down and find us in America. If these terrorists could hijack a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center, what would they do to me?
Every time I boarded an airplane, I scanned the passengers by face and garb. I was looking for “bad” people. I was unsure what I would do if I saw them, but I was unable to help myself from performing this check. If Tommy flew somewhere without me, I reminded him to look, too. Later, I did the same for Randy. Tommy had much more tolerance for me and my fears; he’d just oblige me and say OK.
Randy, however, started to push back.
“They aren’t all bad people, sweetie,” he’d say. “They aren’t going to hurt us.”
Randy worked with Muslims and Middle Easterners. The first company Christmas party I went to, I met his co-workers and suddenly found myself short of breath. I knew my fear was irrational, but I wasn’t brave enough to tackle it.
“Sameer, this is my wife, Beth,” Randy said at the party. I avoided eye contact. I resented Randy. Why did he put me on the spot. Why did he use my first name?
Right after returning from Kyrgyzstan, I got counseling to help me sleep without nightmares. But I found that the best way to cope was by burying it all. I practiced a well rehearsed paragraph that I could recite on command, with little emotion, to summarize our horrific experience. I told people that it made me stronger, a positive message, as that’s what I figured people wanted to hear.
In reality, I was gripped by fear. I was afraid that our captors, their allies, or their sympathizers would find me if I ever spoke of our experience and take revenge. I was afraid that the nightmares would return. And I felt ashamed that I seemed to be struggling with this more with this than Tommy—that I couldn’t just get over it, that I couldn’t use it to make me stronger.
Instead I decided to focus my entire energy on climbing—mostly in Yosemite, or a few other places where I knew it was probably safe. I never made eye contact with Muslims. I only trusted a few people in the world. I lived in an extremely sheltered bubble.
Living in the Bay Area—where diversity and tolerance are sources of pride—I constantly found myself putting up a bit of a facade. The diversity was a source of anxiety, though I’d never admit that. I tried my best to not show my fears, as deep as they were inside. I pretended everything was fine, and avoided any interactions that might make me uncomfortable.
Being a hermit was easier, to be honest. I holed up in my own little enclave. Here, I was the gatekeeper. I was in control. It worked for 15 years. I didn’t realize how self-damaging and limiting this was, however.
Everything changed when I became a mom.
Boys in the Park
Near our home is a small, well-worn toddler park. It’s adjacent to basketball courts, a softball field, and a community center. During the peak summer months, it’s often maxed to capacity with people. People of all races, colors, and walks of life. The park was the proverbial melting pot of America.
I treated the park the way one might wade into some dark ocean waters. I was anxious about who might be around that corner, and what might exist under that surface. Taking our dog on walks through the park served as a good excuse to leave my hermitage, and over time, I became more comfortable with being out in the open. Still, I couldn’t fully shake a small sense of mild dread, throbbing deep down in the pit of my stomach.
As Theo got older and more mobile, the park, of course, became a perfect place for him to play.
“Mo, Mo, Mo!” Theo said in between squeals of delight as I pushed him on the swing. We had the park to ourselves, and my sheltered self loved it.
The park gate creaked open behind me. We were used to having playmates come in, but Theo was not yet at an age where he really “played” with anyone.
“Mo. Mo.” I kept pushing and glanced behind me, somewhat curious if it was someone I knew.
My eyes stopped on a Muslim family—a father, a mom, who was wearing a headscarf, and a small boy, who looked about Theo’s age. Their little boy toddled over to the swings and started making noises. The parents smiled and the dad lifted his son into the swing next to Theo.
My hands started sweating. I felt light headed and dizzy. My vision became blurred and I couldn’t catch my breath. After Kyrgyzstan, I had programmed myself to fear anyone who looks like them—the way they were dressed, the dark olive color of their skin. I smiled as best as I could, but found myself unable to make eye contact. I wanted to leave, but didn’t want to make it that obvious.
Theo laughed and squirmed. I picked him up slowly and put him in my arms. I gathered our backpack and left the park. I glanced back and noticed the family playing with the boy in the sand. I looked at Theo and his longing to go back in the park. We’d been planning to stay in the park for another 45 minutes.
Part of me felt safer, I could breathe and see clearly again, but part of me also felt shame. That Muslim family was safe, and their son could have been a great playmate for Theo. I held Theo and looked at him. It’s incredible how your child’s innocent eyes can become a window into your own soul. Was I becoming that kind of mom? The kind who unintentionally passes along her worst fears and ugliest traits simply because she’s took weak, or blind, or scared to overcome them herself?
Leaving the park that day was one of those crystalline moments when you’re clobbered with clarity. I knew I couldn’t just hide from this any longer. I knew I had to change.
Overcoming the Past
I walked into the therapist’s office. I liked her. She was kind and comfortable. She was more formal than the therapist I saw during my divorce, but I really liked her and most of all trusted her. Randy and I had seen her for couples counseling. She had done trauma therapy earlier in her career. She knew I was hesitant and scared.
“So how do we do this?” I asked. Kyrgyzstan was over fifteen years earlier, it seemed like a lifetime away.
“Why don’t we just start with talking about the trip?” she said. “I know the general outline, but let’s just get comfortable talking about it.”
The first couple of sessions were all about gaining comfort and an ability to talk about it. I started out by reciting my go-to five-minute story that I gave at slideshows: we were kidnapped, it was terrifying, we are stronger because of it. That’s what being a strong, brave, professional climber does. We turn epics into heroic feats.
But when I tried to dive deeper, I froze up. There was a boundary inside of me, I dared not cross it.
“The first firefight and the night where Su was pushed off the ridge are still times I don’t want to think about,” I told her one morning. Yet I also didn’t want to continue to glossing over those horrors.
These were some of my sticking points: The first time I saw people die. The thud of someone’s body hitting the earth, the air being pushed out of them. Tommy’s face. His scream. His tears. How his shoulders looked. How I felt responsible for him. The feeling of being cold. The feeling of being hungry. All things that led me back to being afraid and terrified.
We worked these sticking points, one by one. She had me check in with myself to make sure I wasn’t getting overwhelmed. We opened up so many wounds I felt as if I had a head injury. I felt like I was hallucinating, and that my senses had stopped from working. At times, I saw her mouth moving but couldn’t process what she was saying. Coming out of these sessions was a like a scuba diver returning to the surface—it had to be done slowly, and with care to avoid getting the bends. She told me to walk around the block a few times before getting on my bike to ride home. It was surreal to go that deep into the trauma.
I’ve continued to go to therapy for my PTSD. It’s helped. I can think about the trip now without as much fear. I can talk to about it honestly with people. I don’t gloss over the severity of its impact on my life.
I think there is a lot to gain from facing your fears and labeling them honestly. For so much of my life I have strived to be perfect in every way. The rigors of motherhood scraped that facade away, revealing a vulnerability that I never wanted to admit existed. I couldn’t just wrap my feelings up in a neat little bow, some kind of empowering message that you end slideshows or TED talks with. I couldn’t fake it anymore.
I’m still working through my fears, but the biggest step I’ve taken is to open up to people and myself and be honest about them. Climbing taught me about physical strength and being brave in one way. But motherhood has shown me that bravery can take on all shapes and sizes, even just picking up the phone and calling a therapist.
My postpartum anxieties were rough. Sure, every mom has them. Theo is going to catch colds and take trips to the emergency room. He’s going to get sunburned and get his own life scars. Some things you just can’t control. But some of them you can.
I rode home and Theo came and grabbed my leg.
“Mama!” he shouted. “I built a twrain!”
I looked at him and smiled. He’s the reason I started this. It’s one thing to hurt yourself; it’s quite another to do harm to someone else, especially your child. Our fears can be some of the strongest forces in our lives. Love is stronger, though.