23 November 2015

Losing Sight of the Shore: Kayaking Lake Michigan

A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
~ William G.T. Shedd

he kayak leaned drunkenly to the right. I braced my legs against the sides as a small swell raced towards the hull.  My paddling grew fast and sloppy, as if I could hear the sound of banjos and I angled the kayak to avoid getting side-swiped.  The small swell rose up and lifted me about two feet above the shoreline before dropping me like a roller coaster. 

My mouth became a desert and my muscles ached with near panic.  Those two exhilarating hours spent with Johnny Wolfe on the glassy Rappahannock a couple of weeks ago seemed a lifetime ago; as the next wave battered my boat, I wished that I’d asked him to teach me how to roll back upright. But I’d sworn to everyone that it was a skill I wouldn’t need -- river paddling didn’t seem to call for it, I’d never seek out white water and I assumed this trip would be along the same lines. 

Now I was being bested by a lake.  A lake!

Granted, a lake that is 118 miles across and 307 miles long and with riptides strong enough to pull ships down 923 feet to its murky bottom.  6,000 ships to be exact – many of them the tall, masted ships of the 18th century and 19th century. Superior’s got nothing on this freshwater sister. 

Lake Michigan never gives up her dead either.

I wasn’t stupid – I had watched the ocean-like waves pound the beach all week, stood knee deep in the shallows every other day for the sheer thrill of feeling the frigidity, and listened to my Wisconsin hostess and friend tell tales of tourists whose kayaks had been swept out far from shore, their bodies resting undiscovered hundreds of feet below the surface.  I had the utmost respect and awe for Lady Lake Michigan and treated her like the siren of the deep she is.

But even crashing waves and angry, rainy skies couldn’t dampen the hunger to get out on the water.

My friend Diane was with me at the writers’ retreat by the lake and had river kayaked as well.  Although not quite as keen as I was, she was game to go out on the water once the waves died down to a whisper.  And at first, it looked like it would be a good trip for both of us. 

Diane’s kayak was a sit-on-top that lay flat on the water and had self-bailing scupper holes in the top to aid in stability.  Mine was a long, sleek sit-inside ocean craft, designed to cut through waves and go a long distance on the open water.  Usually, one would wear an attachable skirt in this type of kayak. I did not.  So it was my own miscalculation that kept filling it up with lake water every time a wave hit it.  As it continued to rock from side to side and the swells got higher and stronger, my shocked brain could only repeat two mantras:

I don’t know how to roll back up and I cannot lose sight of the shore.

Being denied air as I panic and hyperventilate is one of my greatest fears.  Now I could add drowning in the middle of a gigantic body of water surrounded by a blank horizon to that list.  But panicking would only increase my chances of rolling. So I forced myself to breathe deep.  In. Out.  In. Out.  And I began talking myself off the ledge.

Hey, a year ago, you swore you would never ride in a plane smaller than a 737, and you rode in two bush planes and a float plane.  And you never pictured yourself walking in hip waders through shallow rivers to stand six and half feet from a several pound grizzly bear yet you did just that.  And then just a few months ago, you swore you would never kayak and then you swore you would never kayak alone, but you’ve done all of that. You can do this.  You have on your life jacket.  You know the basics. You aren’t going to drown.

The wind.  The waves.  The adrenaline.  It all faded as I concentrated on using the skills Johnny had taught me.  But learning to angle over waves caused by the wake of a speedboat are a far cry from waves caused by fierce north winds sweeping across the lake face and building riptides.

But I was not about to become a jewel in Davy Jones’ locker.

There are so many stories of whales and sharks getting stranded on beaches, unable to get back in the water; trust me, they would have no trouble getting off the beaches of Lake Michigan.  I paddled my way up on to the sand, began to climb out and another strong wave crashed into me, soaking me and sucking me back in to the lake.  Maybe the Lady of the Lake just really liked me and didn’t want me to leave.  Diane finally had to come over and hold the kayak on the beach so I could get out without risking a runaway boat.

It was the shortest kayak trip ever and a part of me regrets not having the courage to lose sight of the shore. 

As we walked both kayaks back to the cottage, I realized my error.  By staying so close to the beach, I trapped myself on the wrong side of a sand bar – a sand bar which made the waves higher and stronger.  If I had forced myself out past them, I would likely have discovered a calmer ride and we could have stayed out longer.  But I don’t regret knowing my limits and following my gut.

And I walked away from the world’s most oceanic lake with a new goal: to stretch myself once again.  Once warmer weather returns, you will find me back out on the river learning to roll. 

River water never looked so good.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

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18 November 2015

Writing Under the Influence

Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk.
But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian,
or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.
~ Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben



eter De Vries (not Papa Hemingway as many mistakenly believe) was wrong.  Maybe he could write drunk, but I can say from recent personal experience that being zoned out on heavy pain meds does not a brilliant author make. 

Which is why you haven’t heard a peep from me since May ~ when the first of seven kidney stone attacks ruined all my grand summer plans.
Although, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely the kidney stone’s fault. 
At the same time I was writhing around in pain, I decided to quit my anti-depressant meds cold turkey because my new batch was coated in red dye.  While there are studies suggesting that synthetic dyes pose serious side effects, quitting any medication, but especially antidepressants ~ without telling either my naturopathic doctor or my therapist ~ tops the list of Things No Thinking Person Should Ever Do.
But that’s just the point: I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I was in almost constant pain (when I wasn’t sleepy or zoned out from the pain medication) and when I’m in pain, I forget my own name, let alone remember smart and healthy protocols when it comes to medications.
Why else would anyone quit taking medicine that helps you cope and live normally?

Don’t Know Whatcha Ya Got

In my defense, I had lived without anti-depressant medication for the majority of my life.  So I didn’t realize how much my meds helped my brain function as if it were healthy and well-balanced.  Until five days after I stopped and it left my system completely. 
I felt like I was on the set of a Sigourney Weaver film, with this dark mass of nastiness crawling out of my chest.  All the progress I had made in the year since I took my first dose was washed overboard in a storm of anxiety, extreme fatigue, insomnia, loss of focus, loss of balance, mood swings, and of course, a threefold return of my depression.
But when my depression returned, it brought along a new friend: social anxiety bordering on phobia. 

Plans eagerly made were then hastily cancelled, often at the last possible minute, in a haze of fear.  Then I would stew in a muck of guilt and shame and hopelessness.  What in the world was wrong with me?!  I had been coached to stop, review my surroundings, review my feelings, and basically talk myself down from the ledge.  But I was too bewildered by the onslaught caused by my brain’s return to a chemical imbalance; I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so wretched.  Conveniently, I blamed it on all the kidney pain and the subsequent pain medications.   

But it wasn’t until I finally reached out to my therapist that we discovered the source of the maelstrom.

Nothing! No incidents of eviscerating criticism and verbal abuse.  No disappointments.  Apart from the kidney stones and their debilitating effect on my social life, everything’s fine!

Oh. Wait.  I did stop taking my antidepressants suddenly. 

His text telling me to call my primary doctor immediately didn’t need a face-palm emoji to get his disbelief across. 

Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia

I fell victim to one of the classic blunders ~ never stop taking your medication without consulting your doctor first!  And never stop taking it all at once ~ your body needs to be weaned off of it to avoid the more debilitating effects of withdrawal.   

My issue may have been the dye on the pills.  But I have friends who stop taking their antidepressants (or antipsychotics) because they feel better.  And that’s the other classic blunder: believing that the medication is a cure.  That once you start taking them, they will “fix” whatever is missing or off in your neurological chemistry.   

Taking medication for depression or an Axis II personality disorder is like putting oil in a car.  You don’t pour in one quart and expect the engine to run smoothly for the next 100,000 miles without needing to add more oil or change it.  Medication needs to be taken all the time (and sometimes changed) in order to keep the car of my body and my mind running smoothly.  This, in addition to the gasoline that is therapy, helps me reach my destination ~ a whole and healthy life. 

Since the particular medication I take no longer comes in an uncoated form, I decided that the pros of being depression-free outweighed the cons of red dye side effects.  Even so, it was tough waiting for the meds to take effect ~ a pit of despair I’m not anxious to visit anytime soon.

Happily Ever After…for Now

It took me at least until the end of July to feel fully human again ~ no more aliens living in my chest.  But the damage to both my system and my Muse had already been done.  My meds had to be adjusted to a higher dose and switched to the brand name instead of the generic (surprise!  They aren’t always the same) and my writing Muse had gone into hiding and refused to come out. 

The thought of coming clean about my mistake was too terrifying, and my psyche had too much time crouched there in the dark.  The old records were playing again: you aren’t a writer and no one wants to read what you write. No one cares what you have to say.  But go ahead and write your pathetic scribblings.  No one is listening.

It took me a total of five and half months, plus a healthy dose of a new outdoor obsession and one powerful and healing writers’ retreat to silence those voices.  And only by continuing to take the medication, and stay in touch with my fellow writers who believe so strongly in me and my writing will I be able to silence them forever.

Only then, can I stay drunk on writing.

Oremus pro invicem,

~ Mikaela


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Posts on La Belle are written with the following fonts: Georgia, Times New Roman, Vivaldi, Edwardian, and occasionally Baroque Script.