I am terrified of sailboats. When I first heard the term “mast cell,” I immediately thought of a sailboat mast and shuddered.
Lake life is arguably the best part of Minnesota summers. Like many Minnesotans, I started swimming lessons as an infant and fishing as soon as I could hold onto a rod. I love motorboats, canoes, and kayaks.
But sailboats give me panic attacks.
Growing up, my family rented a cabin on a lake every summer. The water toys were always a determining factor in our selection process. When I was 10 years old, my mom picked a resort that offered Sunfish sailboat rentals and lessons–a seemingly idyllic family bonding experience.
On the morning of our lesson, the Sunfish looked deceiving cute bobbing near the dock, waving their bright, striped sails. My dad and younger brother selected a red boat, while my mom and I picked a yellow boat. As our instructor began rattling off sailing terms and warnings from his own boat, I was relieved to be paired with my mom, the more cautious parent.
We aimed our bows towards the middle of the lake and the wind whipped the boats to life. Our sails thrashed side to side, threatening to decapitate us. I slid aboard into the safety of the footwell, where I intended to remain the entire lesson. As my mom fought the sail into submission, the thick metal boom swung unpredictably above my head. When had inner tubes lost their novelty?
Somehow, all three boats made it to the center of the lake. My eyes were mostly closed. The instructor announced, “Now we are going to capsize our boats.”
I had not yet learned the swear words necessary to adequately express my shock.
The instructor attempted to explain how getting over the fear of tipping and learning how right the boat is the first step in sailing. He showed us how to stand on the deck, grab the mast, and pull it over the side using the weight of your body. So basically, fall into the water with a boat on your head.
I looked at our row of cabins, small like my brother’s Legos, lining the shore.
“I’m out of here,” I yelled, stood up, and jumped ship.
Luckily, I was wearing a life vest, because my fear of the sailboat somehow outweighed my fear of drowning. I doggy paddled for 40 minutes back to beach, only looking back once. To my horror, I saw my mom dangling from the top of mast like a monkey. Apparently, she didn’t have enough weight to capsize or right the boat alone. Back at the cabin, she blamed me for this, but it only further validated my fear.
When I was diagnosed with mast cell disease, suddenly everything seemed dangerous. My body no longer could discern real threats from healthy pleasures like sunshine, exercise, and joy. Faint fragrances on friends and family became one-way tickets to the emergency room. My own home wasn’t safe enough to coax my body out of fight or flight.
Even the path to healing was dangerous. I never knew if a new food or medication would cut off my vision or inflame my joints so badly that I couldn’t walk. Every mast cell disease patient is different, so there was no guide for cautious treatment. Many doctors refused to treat me because the unpredictability of the disease scared them. However, I knew if I didn’t overcome my fears, I never would get better.
A few days after my “flight” from the sailboat, my dad approached me, “Can I take you out for a very calm ride on the sailboat? We won’t tip and we can stop any time. I promise.”
My thoughts on the sailboat hadn’t changed, but I knew my dad sincerely wanted me to have a good experience. Plus, he actually passed the first sailing lesson, unlike my mom. I reclaimed my place at the bottom of the footwell, while my dad sat confidently behind me with a rope in one hand and the tiller in the other. I gritted my teeth as light wind gently propelled us to the middle of the lake.
“Okay, we’re going to turn. Watch your head,” my dad informed me. I couldn’t physically get my head any lower than it already was, but I appreciated the narration. My dad smiled at me, “See this isn’t so bad.”
It wasn’t bad. If I hadn’t been bracing for death, it may have actually been tranquil. We glided back and forth across the lake for a tolerable amount of time before returning to the dock. My dad steadied the hull and the sail, as I jumped into the water with glee. My mom was proudly waiting for me on the shore. I stood up in waist deep water to shout how brave I’d been.
That’s when my dad lost control of the metal boom, and it blasted me in the back of the head, knocking me out in the water. Luckily, I was wearing a life vest.
My parents no longer ask me to go sailing.
Mast cell disease has taught me healing is not linear and it takes an incredible amount of bravery. Healing is hard, slow, and can even feel counterintuitive. However, you’re allowed to go at your own pace. You’re allowed to declare you’re fucking done with sailboats, or whatever hurt you. Just look for the next tiny step and no matter what happens, know that you are braver than you think.