70: The Year of Exploration

70: The Year of Exploration

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

The Year of Exploration

You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.

~Mary Tyler Moore

Touretta Lynn’s School of Hard Knocks was no joke. My hands trembled as I double-knotted the laces on my white roller skates and tightened the throatlatch on my helmet. I raised my eyes to the dozen or so heavily-inked women gliding around the cement track. Though no two women were dressed exactly the same, there was a semblance of a uniform — ripped T-shirts, black fishnet stockings, and spandex shorts so tiny they’d make marathon runners blush. The women’s expressions were also uniformly grim as they deftly crossed their skates on the turns, then pumped their arms to speed down the straightaways.

A heavy metal door slammed behind me, and Naptown Roller Girls Coach Sin Lizzie entered the Warehouse Lair. She wore blue nursing scrubs, and the blood-stain resistant fabric wasn’t lost on me. At least she probably knew CPR and how to stitch up an open head wound. In a sport where the athletes adopt pseudonyms like Sandra Day O’Clobber and Nancy Drewblood, her medical training would be in high demand.

I peeled myself off the bench and took a moment to get my balance. Then I wobbled across the cavernous warehouse to join the check-in line. Stapled to the plywood wall to my right was a poster from the movie Whip It. Actress Ellen Page leapt over a fallen skater with a look of fierce determination on her face. My stomach flip-flopped, and I gulped.

The girl in front of me in line pivoted on fluorescent wheels that matched the hot pink streaks in her hair.

“Last week was brutal,” she said, and I forced my gaze from the full sleeve tattoo on her arm to her freckled face. “I heard three girls puked.”

“It’s my first day,” I admitted, fidgeting with my elbow pads.

The girl studied my 105-pound beanpole frame, gaunt arms, and sunken cheeks. She wished me luck and turned away.

I didn’t tell her I used to be a kickboxer. I didn’t tell her I used to have another fifteen pounds of pure muscle from jumping rope, working the heavy bag, shadow boxing, and cranking out pushups, sit-ups, and squats by the hundreds. I didn’t tell her how I used to relish pushing my body to the brink of exhaustion, high on the thrill of hitting and getting hit. I didn’t tell her, but I wanted to. Not like she’d have believed me anyway. I barely believed it myself anymore.

When I reached the front of the line, Sin Lizzie peered at me over her clipboard.

“Name?” she said.

Dogs can smell fear. Dogs and this woman. I forced myself to meet her gaze.

“Brass Nicoles,” I said. “Reporting for duty.” I was tempted to salute.

She handed me a waiver, which I signed without reading. Then I joined the rest of the trainees on the track and braced myself for the unknown, ready to conquer my fear.

It’d been four years since I’d graduated from a top-ten business school and landed a marketing job with “upward mobility.” By twenty-five, I was my company’s go-to creative powerhouse and had been accepted to a prestigious evening master’s degree program. In whatever time remained, I laced up my gloves and transformed into a 120-pound, hard-ass Muay Thai kickboxer. For a while, I’d been able to do it all. I was promoted, got straight A’s, and excelled at the gym. The more I juggled, the prouder I was.

Then, one morning, I walked into a coffee shop and was blindsided by my first panic attack. The experience was terrifying and left me profoundly shaken. The attacks grew more frequent, overtaking me anywhere, anytime, with no warning. It would be months before I received a definitive diagnosis: Acute Anxiety Disorder.

With the news came shame and self-loathing more debilitating than the attacks themselves. From the moment I rolled out of bed in the morning to the time I curled back under my covers at night, my only goal was to keep the panic attacks at bay. I lost my appetite and survived on protein shakes and dried fruit. I almost dropped out of grad school and nearly resigned my job. After months of steady decline, I made the heartbreaking decision to quit kickboxing. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I was in self-preservation mode.

I spent the next year getting back to basics. No more skipped meals, appetite or not. No more late nights at the office or doubling my grad school course load. No more skimping on sleep. But as the year drew to a close, I couldn’t think of a single adventure or accomplishment that made me proud. Granted, I was slightly healthier and more functional. But I didn’t recognize this girl either. She wasn’t the least bit interesting. And if my own life didn’t interest me, what progress had I really made?

So the next day, I did something drastic. I formed a steering committee of five close friends to help me confront my anxiety and rebuild my shattered psyche. I tasked them with issuing me monthly challenges that would test me in every way — challenges entirely outside my control that I vowed to complete no matter what. I called my experiment The Year of Exploration and started a blog so friends could follow along.

During the twelve months that followed, I tackled more than twenty committee-mandated challenges, as well as several of my own. I endured the Naptown Roller Girl’s brutal training camp and learned the art of curling, sailing, and fantasy football. I visited new churches and begrudgingly took up running. I closed down my first bar and created a piece of abstract art with Tombi, a 10,000-pound African elephant. I even agreed to a series of committee-mandated blind dates (and nearly broke up with my steering committee in the process). I learned to redefine success and unearthed my will to live in the strangest of places.

It wasn’t easy. I considered quitting every day, but I didn’t. I still suffered brutal panic attacks, but I lived. I got frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed. But I persevered. No matter what my committee — and my life — threw at me, I didn’t break. Maybe I wasn’t a weak, worthless failure after all. Maybe I was a survivor.

When the year came to a close, I stood in front of sixty friends and family to complete my final challenge — a live reading from the memoir I’d been writing about my experiences. I’ve never been prouder of myself than I was that night.

Shortly thereafter, my friend Sarah invited me to a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. I felt a familiar pang of panic. What if I had an anxiety attack on the plane or in a foreign country? What if my disorder ruined my vacation and hers? Not to mention, I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, and I’d never done yoga. Then I thought about how far I’d come. I thought about all the times I’d been nearly paralyzed with fear, but pushed through it. I’d survived The Year of Exploration and emerged a stronger woman. I could do this. I took a deep breath.

“I’d love to,” I said. “When do we leave?”

~Nicole K. Ross

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