Play Dead? Not This Girl

One summer, I worked as a counselor at a camp nestled in the Pocono Mountains in southern Pennsylvania. I had put on a couple of pounds and I thought that it would be good for me to start running in the early mornings, while my campers were still sleeping and my responsibilities for the day had yet to begin. And so, on a fine, crisp late summer day, I set out for a run, on a trail outside the camp grounds. No one warned me that this might not be a very good idea and so I didn’t think twice.

About 100 feet outside of camp, I heard a distinct rumbling sound. I thought, “That’s funny, there isn’t an airport in this middle-of-nowhere town.” The rumbling didn’t subside, and having grown up, not on a farm nor anywhere near wild animals, I thought that the noise I was hearing must be a motorcycle. As I turned around I saw neither a plane nor a motor bike but a big bear in search of breakfast.

The “fight or flight” response immediately activated itself and, although the bear had its nose to the ground and had yet to see me, I found myself faced with running from the bear, praying that my not so in shape legs wouldn’t betray me, or walking back towards camp, waving kindly to the bear hoping that he was a vegetarian. I decided to run. I ran and ran and ran and ran. I didn’t look behind me and when I couldn’t run anymore, I was even more in the middle of nowhere with nothing around be but a countryside shack. I banged on the door, at around 7 a.m. and after loudly banging, I realized that the person inside could very well mistake me for a trespasser and shoot me.

I didn’t have much time to dwell on that thought, however, because a loud dog came running out, barking insanely. I slowly backed away from the dog, and he must have not thought me too bad because he gently sat down on the dirt road beside me a few steps away from his master’s home. I sadly considered my options: I could either be shot, be bitten by a dog or be torn apart by a bear. I prayed to G-d that it shouldn’t end this way and I asked that if it did, to let my Mom know how much I loved her.

As I sat and wondered how I was going to get back to camp, I heard the beautiful sound of an almost broken down truck. I ran towards it and flagged down the driver. I told him that I was stranded and that I had run from a bear and that I stupidly forgot my cell phone. He said not to worry, that he’d take me back to where I needed to go. As we drove along, he warned me that I ought to not take rides from strangers in these parts of the woods. Wondering if I had just gotten myself into another sketchy situation, I told him that I was running for my life from an animal. He said that the four legged ones are better, sometimes, than the two. Noticing my skepticism at that statement, he assured me that he was a maintenance employee of the camp and was on his way to work. I thanked him for the advice and the ride and I have not run again since.

After that traumatic experience from which I still shudder, I have had more experiences that have left me traumatized. I think that we can all name at least a handful of events that we would rather not think about and we may actively and even obsessively avoid anything associated with these memories. Even as I sit here writing this article, my heart is racing as I recall the frightful event that summer.

All of us have a certain amount of anxiety. It’s an inherent survival instinct and without it our species may have not endured. While many people are able to effectively label stressful events as “difficult but not life threatening,” there exists a significant portion of the population who views mortgages, car payments, routine doctor appointments and difficult people as potential threats on survival. While this may seem exaggerated, it should not be viewed as delinquent rather as a (somewhat) exaggerated reaction to stressful life events.

Professionals in the mental health field will often say that it is important to distinguish between a bear and a standard difficulty in life.  A bear can eat you. Everyday struggles, while they can cause stress in your life, do not have to necessarily threaten your survival. And yet, so many of us see a bear everywhere: We mistrust; we mistake a sarcastic comment or a critical remark as a statement of alarming disapproval and we are left, constantly, running for our lives.

Since running from the real bear, I have run from other things that I perceived to be bears (or I didn’t approach them for a fear that they might be). I can honestly say that there exists a true physical effort in these emotional marathons. I have come to learn that anxiety may be normal, but not to toxicity.

If you run from people or events that you think are bears I encourage you to seek professional or amateur help and to feel no shame in doing so. In our world, where mental health is, unfortunately, still a taboo, therapy is frowned upon. Although a diabetic can (and should, obviously) shamelessly take insulin, an anxious or depressed person can encounter negativity in seeking psychotherapy. The strongest people, however, are the ones who are brave enough to admit that facing a problem, and not avoiding it, will give them strength to see it solved. And when they do so, they may just find that the bear that they ran from was not an enemy, but a friend who sounds like a motorcycle and hibernates in the winter.

By the way, I later found out that bears in those parts of the woods do not eat humans. Though it’s advisable to avoid the mountain lions.