A Facebook memory recently popped up that made my heart skip a beat. It was from a trip I took last fall with my mom and my sister to the Miraval campus in Tucson, Arizona. I had signed up for an activity called “Out on a Limb.” The blurb said participants would be able to “integrate calm and confidence as you cross a log suspended 25 feet in the desert sky.” I zeroed in on the “calm and confidence” part and selectively ignored the “log suspended 25 feet” part as I signed up for the following day.
When I showed up at the meeting point, I noticed I was the largest-bodied person in the group by far. I immediately felt like I was in the wrong place. There's been some sort of mistake. This was not for me. But, before I could change my mind, our guide (I don’t quite remember his name, but let’s call him Brian) rallied the participants and led the group on a short walk to the challenge course. This was happening.
I made small talk with the others in my group as we anxiously filled the five-minute space. There was a group of women from Northern California celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday, a mother/adult daughter duo who were each sporting lots of tattoos, and a middle-aged guy who was at the spa by himself (a rare, but celebrated site). We didn’t have much time to go deeper than that because we arrived at the challenge course and the chatter turned from “where are you from?” to “what the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Brian led us to a shady spot that had chairs already arranged in a circle to introduce us to the activity and give us the safety talk. His voice was gentle and calming, but he was direct and clear about the protocols. It wasn’t until he asked us to each grab a harness that my general trepidation shifted to acute panic. Not because of the very imposing suspended log in front of us, but because I had had a past experience with a safety harness that re-activated long-standing notions of feeling insecure, insufficient, and inadequate. However, before I could have a full-on emotional meltdown, Brian casually walked over to the shed to bring out a different harness that would accommodate a larger body and he put it on the pile with the others. No big deal. No production. Crisis averted, I grabbed it and awkwardly shimmied into it along with my compatriots.
In a move that was surprising to absolutely no one, the lone (white) man in our group volunteered to go first. He raced up the ladder and started moving across the log at warp speed. He fell off in .2 seconds. But this blog isn’t about how gender and racial dynamics show up in every aspect of society - even 25 feet up in the air in the middle of the desert - so I’ll move on.
I queued up in the second half of the pack. I wanted to observe the others to learn from their approach, but I knew I would get antsy waiting all the way until the end of the line. Two people had fallen off by the time it was my turn. I was relieved to know that if I fell, I wouldn’t be the first or the only, however, I couldn’t stop the tape in my head that said that if I were to fall, it would be because I was overweight. Never mind the fact that the two people who had fallen off had very average-sized bodies; if I failed, I would attribute it to my size. That was the only explanation. That was always the only explanation.
It was ridiculous for me to even attempt something like this. I was probably the heaviest person who had ever signed up for this challenge. How would Brian even be able to keep me safe if I fell? I was twice his size. This was a horrible idea. I should have just gone to a low-key yoga or meditation class. Why did I think I could do something like this? What was I trying to prove?
The negative self-talk was fast and furious and seemed to be on a loop. Before I could let any more toxic thoughts take up residence in my brain, it was my turn. Brian checked my harness and hooked me up to the safety ropes. He seemed unphased about his ability to do his job so I took that as a good sign. I tried to calm my nerves and took some deep breaths to shift my energy. As he had done with the participants before me, Brian asked me to state my name and share my intention.
“My name is Marissa, and my intention is not to live small.”
Suddenly, everything got quiet and the only thing I could hear was my heart pounding in my chest. I looked up at the log. I looked up at the ladder. I turned to face this group of strangers and humbly stated, “I need some encouragement.”
As they erupted into cheers, I started my ascent up the thin and rickety ladder and then transitioned to metal loops anchored into the pole. I have always struggled with body image and have been overweight since I was a child, but there had been a cocktail of circumstances in recent years that had moved the needle on the scale higher than I had ever seen it move before. Given that I had accumulated pounds from my second pregnancy followed by overwhelming grief and comfort eating after my father’s death which occurred shortly before the pandemic lockdown and a recurring hip issue that sidelined me from most physical activity for a few years, I was surprised at how swiftly I was able to make the climb. Rung by rung, my arms pulled while my legs pushed and propelled my body upwards. When I made it to the top, I took a brief moment to extend gratitude for what my body could do.
I transitioned gracelessly and inelegantly from the vertical pole to the horizontal log and grabbed onto a handle to steady myself. I had my back up against the pole and looked across the log to the other side for the first time. Somehow, 25 feet seemed a lot farther from up here. It was hard to hear the cheers of encouragement from the group now because I was so high up so I was stuck, yet again, with my own thoughts. My heart and mind were racing. I kept willing my body to go, but my hand would not release its obscenely tight grip from the handle.
I couldn’t move.
I wouldn’t move.
I didn’t move.
Keenly aware that everyone was waiting for me to make a move, I told myself that it was OK if I fell. Other people had fallen. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t matter. I noticed that when I released the need to prove myself or get it right, my body relaxed. My hand softened and I was able to take a step.
In fact, I took a few shaky steps, but then I completely lost my balance. I wobbled. Big time. I told myself it was over and braced myself for the inevitable. Then, the strangest thing happened: I didn’t fall. Like an Olympic-caliber gymnast, I somehow regained my footing and recalibrated my balance. I surprised myself again. Huh, my body just did that. I just did that.
I had moved about 20% of the way across the log so even though I was still miraculously upright, I didn’t have a handle to grab onto or a pole to lean on to steady myself. I thought back to the starting point (I could only think about it because there was no way I could possibly pivot my body to glance at it). It was only a few steps away, but I knew I did not want to turn around to go back in that direction. I would feel so disappointed with myself if I didn’t at least try to finish. I had already come this far. If I was going to go down, I wanted to go down swinging.
On the other hand, the other pole seemed so, so far away. I felt totally alone and exposed at that moment. Everyone was watching me, but I knew no one would be able to help me get across. I had to do this for myself.
Take deep breaths. Calm your breathing. Drop in. Find your center. Stay focused. This is only about you. Think of how you will feel when you get to the other side. You can do this.
With a newfound resolve, I looked up and locked in on my destination. I estimated it would take me ten steps to get there. That seemed doable. I could do this.
I pulled my shoulders back, bent my knees generously, focused on my target, and took off. My feet suddenly felt sturdy and light.
Oh my god. I am doing this. I am really doing this.
Don't stop now. Keep moving forward.
I am doing this.
Just a few more steps.
One foot in front of the other.
I can’t believe I’m doing this!
I was bursting with a heady concoction of adrenaline and pride when I made it to the other side. I lunged forward and hugged the pole like no one was watching. It wasn’t until I turned around that I could see and hear my new friends whooping and hollering for me. After a few more seconds of soaking it all in, Brian asked what I wanted to do next. I nonchalantly walked to the middle of the log. I smiled and waved and posed for pictures. It seemed so much easier now.
I took a celebratory leap (and by leap, I mean slow and awkward squat backward) and Brian, bolstered by another participant who I hadn’t noticed had been helping, safely brought me down to the ground as I took in the beautiful scenery around me. While I had been so consumed by fear and focused on the task at hand, I had not been able to enjoy the spectacular view.
After I de-harnessed and tried to calm my heart rate, I continued to bask in my post-accomplishment glow while cheering on the others. I felt so excited for them when they were successful. I felt even more excited for the two people who had fallen off the first time around and were then each granted a second chance. They both took it and they both made it across! It was amazing to see how we, as a newly formed community, genuinely celebrated one another and relished in our individual and collective triumphs.
Once everyone had finished, we circled up to debrief. It was fascinating to hear how the same exact experience struck a different chord with each participant as they related it to facing challenges and navigating self-limiting beliefs in their own life. I reflected on how powerful it was for me to see what my body could do.
At my heaviest weight and with all of the judgments I have absorbed throughout my lifetime about what it means to exist and move through the world in a bigger body, that same body had just enabled me to accomplish something incredible. It seemed as though I was chipping away at that narrative that had been keeping me stuck. Just like when I was up on the log, when I was consumed by negative self-talk and held so tightly to a belief about myself that was based in fear, I couldn't move. I wouldn't move. I didn't move.
It was when I realized that I was the only one who could change my perception of the situation, believed another reality was possible, and extended myself grace through the process that I was able to let go and forge ahead.
Brian shared that he was struck by what happened after I wobbled. “It was like you just made up your mind that you were going to make it across. You were so determined. I could see it in your face. I had no doubt that you were going to make it after that.”
This experience of being “Out on a Limb” continues to resonate with me a year later on so many levels. And, it feels particularly relevant in this moment as I prepare for another daunting physical and mental challenge next month: my first marathon!
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