It Started with a Rollercoaster...

Earlier this week, I had the honor of witnessing my oldest niece experience a theme park for the first time. Not just any theme park, but Disneyland... Not surprisingly, I don't find myself at many theme parks these days, and I might've even been around her age the last time I went to Disneyland, myself. But taking her hand as she journeyed through new lands, new sounds, and all new experiences, it forced to the surface a striking core memory in me that has shaped the woman I am today.

No, the memory wasn't my first ride, or my first cotton candy, or even my first time at a theme park. It was a memory formed during my last time at one. A pinnacle memory of the moment I realized I didn't like thrill rides and I was ok with that. From that moment, a conscious journey into self-care was blazed. A trail I still walk, making new discoveries to this day.

I spent the majority of my life hiding my discomforts and fears from others. Not just hiding them, but actively hating them, gulping down my scaredy-cat, holding back tears to look strong. Hoping that would make me strong. This is sadly common. But, growing up, I was already braver than most girls. A tomboy who played in trees, wanted to race all the boys, jumped off cliffs and generally got my self into situations that kept my mother anxious, my clothes dirty and my hair a mess. So when things did scare me, I felt it was off brand. Like if I showed fear, the mask would be lifted and they'd realize I was just a helpless little girl. I had to maintain my toughness, or I'd lose my edge. More importantly, I'd lose the respect of my friends. This way of thinking lasted well into adulthood, manifesting into girl-bossing and shit talking through my entire 20s... 

Until one day, on my birthday, I went to a theme park. For the hundredth time. But this time, it was a simple quiet date with my husband, Theo. I planned to eat ice cream, walk around, maybe take a carousal ride, and end the day on the swings. All activities I'd never been able to do before in such a thrill-less itinerary. My friends would've never allowed it: "Come on Natalie, you'll love the Tower of Terror! We'll be here with you!! It's not that scary!! You're coming!". My dad wouldn't have accepted it: "What are you gonna do, stand there by yourself and watch your dad ride a rollercoaster?? Come on, be brave, take a ride with your dad!". And my boyfriends always seemed to have the most compelling, guilt-riddling case: "You gotta come with me! Face your fear! Don't be controlled by it.".  Fine.

This theme park date with my husband had planned to be different. Still as the day progressed, I felt pulled to go on a rollercoaster, of all things, and when I mentioned finding one, he lit up and wanted to ride one together. Here I was with the perfect day all for me, but I was so used to the pressure of going along and being traumatized for the sake of others that this time, I'd constructed the pressure all by myself. At the time, I had no idea why. Rollercoasters are not just 'uncomfortable', they are horrific. An ax murderer coming through my window and chasing me throughout my home would likely have my vital signs giving the same numbers as taking a ride on Harry Potter's Flight of The Hippogriff. But no, I had this acidic idea that I was going to conquer a silly fear, and be the better for it.

Following the disturbing thrilling sounds of screams and roaring metal, we found a line and thus began my cool-girl performance of being excited to ride a rollercoaster. It didn't feel the same this time though. Instead of disguising my fight or flight response with giddiness, I was erupting internally with questions for the first time: Why do I have to do this? Is it really going to make me a better person? Why can't I be allowed to just be scared of rollercoasters?

As we locked into our seats and started off, the unceasing thoughts turned angry: Why does everyone have to indoctrinate me into liking this so much?? I've ridden these things all my life and it's only made me hate them more. How the hell does riding a rollercoaster confirm I'm a brave, strong woman? I've done braver things countless times, but I guess that's just not good enough for anyone!

We whipped around, going through dark tunnels, not knowing when drops would come. As we reached our ascent, the clicking sound stopped. My body went cold, and I was mad as we plummeted down to the exit. As expected, the ride was awful. But I got out of my seat, stunned. I wasn't a victim, defeated by fear like all the other times before. No, I'd had an entire courtroom hearing up there in the twists and turns, putting on trial everyone that ever made me ride those damn things. Hating everyone I felt I would disappoint if I dared to stay back and hold everyone's coats and bags while they went on the ride. Hating myself for being fine with holding everyone's coats and bags while they went on the ride, and maybe having myself a cinnamon pretzel as I wait for them to come back. Hating how boring and soft I was, longing to just go on the swings or the carousal (not the Ferris Wheel, are they nuts, that's way too high for a wheel). Hating myself for caring so much all those years, not about a trivial ride that's optional by the way, but about being different and vulnerable. And that's when the moment hit me, and the core memory was formed. It was just me at that hearing. It was just me on trial. And I didn't actually care anymore. In fact, I was incredibly ok with being different. And vulnerable.

It tends to be the smallest aha moments that bring along the biggest change. The internal, quiet instances in a bathroom or kitchen, or a theme park that suddenly unshackle you, leaving you standing there, a freer person than the moment just before. We walked out and my perfect day at the theme park began. The anger in me vanished with the realization that it had only been myself I'd been fighting with all those years. I practically skipped to the churro stand. We took a long stroll, passing by all the rides. We sat on a bench, and finished off with Theo taking pictures of me on the swing ride. Bliss. 

That day opened a lot of doors. Suddenly I was ok saying no to things that used to cause fretting and overthinking. I was more honest with my opinions and thoughts, and boundaries. It even gave me clarity to see when my boundaries were being disrespected. I'd taken a huge step closer to being friends with myself. 

As I followed that 6 year old around Disneyland, the memory of that day I got off my last rollercoaster burdened by one less thing stayed with me through the whole day, and reminded me how much I actually enjoy the person I've become. Funny enough, while my niece's parents absolutely love rollercoasters, my niece learned that day, she can't stand them. I gave her a high five and we all got on the It's a Small World boat ride. Would've rode it twice but she wanted to take a trolley tour of the grounds after. Maybe I'm not so different after all.

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