The Next Steps

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There are times that I forget how much life has changed, where I started from as a self-doubting worrier to where I am now…comfortable in my own skin and experiencing genuine confidence.

Thankfully I have a few events that help me remember. One of which was 15 years ago, nearly to the day, so to celebrate I thought I would share it with you.

It’s one of the three stories that I share in the ‘If We Can You Can’ book and it is an event that truly changed my life.

Enjoy
x

 

The Next Steps

When you’re standing on a narrow path that even a mountain goat might think twice about, and very deliberately not looking down at the sheer drop below you because you have a fear of heights, the last word you want to hear from your guide is goodbye.

The man that had been helping me along the footpaths that twisted precariously up into the mountains of Peru simply turned his back and left me. Up until now, he had been doing a good job of keeping me moving along a trekking route that I would rather have chewed my right arm off than attempt alone.

“But you can’t just… where? …no!” I stammered in disbelief as I watched him disappear down the route I’d just nervously edged up. “*~?@!!!”

I instinctively clung to the rock face for dear life, my knuckles turning white, my heart thumping blood in my ears, and my eyes stinging with tears. As I hung there, frozen in terror and more alone than I’d ever felt in my life, the all too familiar voice in my head began its onslaught.

Who did you think you were trying to do this? You’re no good at anything. You were stupid to even try this in the first place.

So, how did a young woman with a crippling fear of heights end up glued to a rock face in Peru—with her nose buried in a rare species of lichen, her wrap-around sunglasses filling up with tears, and her heart sinking at the thought of never making it to the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’d always wanted to travel to Peru. Maybe watching too many episodes of Paddington Bear had engraved the destination somewhere on my subconscious, but I prefer to think some part of me knew that up there, on those treacherous paths, my life would change. Call it destiny; call it a soul calling; call it what you will. I just knew I had to go.

Somehow, though, I had reached 29 years old without ever getting near the country. At that time, my choices were controlled by the negative voices in my head. You know the ones. The “I can’t” and the “what if” voices.

I can’t go travelling by myself; I might get lost or hurt. What if all my money gets stolen? What if something really bad happened to me?

In 2001, I came across an advert for a trekking expedition to Peru in aid of Scope, the UK Cerebral Palsy charity. The trip would be a five-day, 100km hike through the Andean mountains, camping as a group, and supported by trained trekkers throughout the journey. It was the perfect solution for me. I could have my Peruvian adventure, travel with other people, and raise money for a worthwhile cause in the process.

A glossy photo of Machu Picchu was accompanied by the invitation:

“Would you like to discover the lost city of the Incas?” “Yes!” screamed my heart. “Yes, yes, yes!”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous,” nagged my dominant negative voices. “You can’t raise that much money. You’re not fit enough to walk that far. What if you fall and hurt yourself?”

Thankfully, and uncharacteristically for that time in my life, I listened to my heart, and I booked myself on the trip in spite of massive fears and doubt.

I had just come out of a turbulent relationship, and whilst my new freedom was a relief, my self-esteem was still badly scarred. It took a massive amount of courage not to back out of the trip. The voices in my head told me I was a fool and destined to fail, whilst the voices of love around me supported and encouraged me every step of the way.

And so, in May 2002, I approached the 60 strangers waiting by the check-in desks at Heathrow. Nervous tears started to roll down my cheeks. What the hell had I been thinking? Lifting a pint glass had been the most strenuous exercise I’d done for the past few years, and here I was, about to fly over 6,000 miles in order to hike 100km through the Andes up to altitudes of 4,500m above sea level. “!!!!!”

As I headed for an airport breakfast, it felt like fear was kicking holes in my stomach, and the volume level of those internal voices increased to pneumatic levels.

What are you doing?
You can’t do this; it’s too much for you.
Turn back now while you can and go home where it’s safe. Don’t do it you idiot. You’re not fit enough. You’ll die!

Through my blind panic, I could sense that there was a deeper importance to getting on that plane to follow the longing of that little girl inside of me who still dreamt of reaching Peru. I had no idea what it was but scared or not, I had to go.

Our first day in Cusco, Peru, was spent battling altitude sickness as we acclimatised to the thin air at 3,360m above sea level. Members of the group dropped one by one, with even the fittest retiring to bed in pain and nausea.

My worst battle, however, was still with the voices in my head. Our group briefing had tossed a whole new bunch of fears into the mix, and on the bus journey to our starting point, I was practically banging on the windows and yelling, “Let me off!” Luckily, my new friends encouraged me, and I found myself crossing a rickety little bridge with my fellow trekkers at the start of our adventure.

Within seconds, I was breathless. My rucksack felt like it was filled with rocks, and my entire body begged for me to stop. As more and more people overtook me, (included 60 year old Rita!) those internal voices were now screaming, “I can’t do this!” I felt like a fraud. An absolute fool. I sat silently at lunchtime, worrying, believing, that everyone else thought the same of me too.

The pace slowed after lunch, and I somehow made it to the end of day one. The sun sank quickly, and we heaved our oxygen-starved bodies into our tents straight after dinner.

The next day, I felt a shred of confidence return. The sense of encouragement from the group was clear, and I felt boosted by a faint sense of optimism that maybe, just maybe, I could actually do this. My hopes were soon to be shattered.

After lunch, Helen, our Scope leader, briefed us on the afternoon trek, advising anyone with an issue with heights to stay back.

My stomach lurched. I had been so focused on my fitness levels and the fact that I was lagging behind and struggling to breathe, that I had forgotten that we would, at some point, be climbing up into the mountains—me, the girl who couldn’t stand on a chair without panicking. We were crossing the Andes! All who had height issues were paired with a guide and luck, as it would seem, was on my side, as I was paired up with a Spanish doctor who would be holding my hand and guiding me through the trickiest parts of the trek.

Excellent! I thought. Not only did I have a personal guide, but he was one well-equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

And so, there we were, halfway across that insane mountain path with the rest of the group far out of sight, when some invisible beeper called him away.

Why he left isn’t important; the fact that he left me was absolutely petrifying.

After several minutes of sobbing with fear, my eyes started to burn as they drowned in the salt water trapped in my tight wraparound sunglasses. My head was bounding from the screams and doubts inside, reminding me that I was a fool to have even thought I could do this. This was where I was going to die. I’m such and idiot. I could hardly catch my breath.

I, tentatively, lifted my shades onto my head. And I heard a voice that was so distinctly different from the other judgmental screams, that I thought someone had come to rescue me.

“You can do this,” it said quietly. “Just take one step at a time.”

I slowly turned my head and saw an empty path. I was still alone.

“Just one step at a time,” it repeated. “Go on, Jules. You can do this. Just take it one step at a time; that’s all you need to do, one step.”

The penny dropped, and I realised this was me—a positive part of me that actually liked me and wanted me to succeed.

“Come on, Jules. You can do it.”

My heart started to do a little dance. I felt a surge of courage zip through my veins.

“You can do it!” exclaimed the new voice. “Come on. You can do this.”

I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and shuffled my left foot along a few inches. I moved my left hand and quickly clung to a new part of the rock. Next came my right foot, tentatively sliding up to join its friend, followed by my right hand.

I did it!

I felt like a whole team of cheerleaders had exploded into a jumping, whirling, whooping dance inside of me.

“One more step!” shouted the voice with delight.

I made another slow side-step up the mountain—and another, and another. I kept going taking it just one step at a time until I had crossed the mountain, all by myself.

All the time, I had felt my heart singing as I realised what I was doing. Step by step, I was moving forward, moving away from the terrified, self-doubting girl frozen on the side of the mountain and becoming a woman who knew she could believe in herself and conquer her fears.

When I got to the other side, I collapsed—not from exhaustion, but from the sheer elation that I had actually achieved something by myself.

Now, I spend my life actively listening for and to that supportive voice, and whenever I face something that initially seems daunting, I think back to that path in Peru. I tell myself:

“You can do it. Just take it one step at a time.”

 

 

This is one of the three stories I tell in my book, If We Can You Can. I also share the pragmatic solutions to everyday problems that five ordinary women used to live extraordinary lives. Buy your copy on Amazon.

 

 

 

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