Scared Shitless

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up like this. Like how am I the type of person who can sit on an outdoor toilet, in the dark, knowing that there is a scared little Coqui frog tucked up under the edge of the bowl, right under my naked bum, and be totally relaxed?

I mean, I guess I grew up like this, but what are the actual defining moments. Because you don’t just become something by osmosis, but by living through little things and adjusting your tuners to reality you must manage.

So, what little shifts had to occur to become this calm, nighttime, frog-sharing, outdoor squatter. This from the kindergartener who imagined dinosaurs (miniature brontosauri, “long necks”) sneaking up from the toilet bowl while she sat. And imagined it so hard that she’d retreat back to Mrs. Kitsen’s class, determined to just “hold it”.

Or the preteen on a camping trip who would wake to pee in the middle of the night, and panic, and deliberate for an eternity, rocking in the dark, because she wanted to be brave enough to go out there alone, but still couldn’t bring herself to do it. And then teenager on overnight field trips, who would offer out to her friends, on the brink of sleep, that they could wake her up if they needed someone to go with them. Offered it generously, but also desperately, so that maybe she could be awarded the favor in return.

Maybe it was a gentle schooling. Our island bathrooms were exposed pots or bottomless holes or dark spidery outhouses with ant-nibbled toiled paper, and powdered lime to sprinkle on top. But they were usually down benevolent paths, on an island where the worst you’d encounter was a tarantula who was unlikely to bite you. There were no bears, no snakes, no predators of any kind. It was not by any means the summer I spent working on the Pacific Crest Trail, where a nighttime poo would mean a walk through the Pacific Northwest wilderness to the trench we’d dug in the middle of the dense woods.

And so as I got older, I learned to talk down my fiercely beating heart, or at least make the walk in spite of it. It was maybe my first training in controlling my nerves. A resolve occasionally challenged by the more extreme bathroom situations.

Such as the summer of our poorly composting toilet. Several species of cockroaches (in a wide array of sizes), would skitter from your light (if you had managed to find a light that worked, between old solar-rechargeable batteries or typical island corrosion.) But they would skitter just out of sight, just under the toilet seat you were about the plop on. So there was that, breathing through the anxiety that something might just crawl on you at some point in this whole grueling process (a process which you tended to hurry as much as was realistically possible.)

Or that tarantula who decided that he wanted his summer home right up there in the left corner, which, due to the compact build of the outhouse (economy size), was not all that far from your face. We brought a friend that summer to experience the island side of our life. Poor thing, try as she might, didn’t use the bathroom for nearly a week.

(I must say here, that there have been lovely outhouses too. Like those at Rancho Mastatal, Costa Rica. Composting toilets built as their own little three walled cabins, up on a hill and overlooking lush jungle. No stink, not too many cockroaches, the seat raised high above the well-functioning pile, well on its way to being healthy soil. These systems deal delightfully with our undesirable predicament. Without wasting fresh drinking water, or toilet paper. Not even our own waste is wasted. Check out the Humanure Handbook if you’re still squeamish;) I say this to counter the traumatic impressions I might be painting, and as a PSA, as I am all for composting toilet systems, despite, or maybe because of, my experience.)

My potty-training therefore was a process of learning to control anxiety out of necessity. Of reaching a certain age when I couldn’t reasonably ask someone to come with me anymore. Or maybe a few moments when I just had to go. And there was no light and I just had to accept that something…uncomfortable, might happen. So I used that logical mind to assure myself that in the end, I would be alright. And if I let those nerves take over, then it would be just that much more uncomfortable.

Nighttime bathroom runs started to become an achievement. As I grew, so did my taste for adrenaline. The whole cycle of waking up, of beating back panic, of pushing myself to get up, to walk out of the bubble of light in our house, became a sort of grumbly adventure. Maybe it was raining, some sudden downpour or days on end of a tropical storm, and you’d be making a “run” for it, your feet splashing in water adding to the urgency.

Over the rickety wooden bridge, or the rocky trail, or through the bushes (the surrounding darkness all the more apparent against the small beam of a flashlight…sometimes a flickering flashlight, a flashlight that might not make the whole trip, abandoning you in the dark.) And finishing up, coming back successful, running through the door into the silent light of the house, the rush of relief the payout of the anxiety. Maybe in a way I actually came to enjoy the flood of hormones that came with what, for many, is a pretty unremarkable part of living.

So all those little moments must have been the training. It was a gradual progression, I’m sure, marked with moments of sudden leaps forward, of self realizations and shifts. Like when I’d been running on residual nervousness, just to realize one night that I actually wasn’t scared anymore, I was just in the habit of making a big deal out of it.

I mean, I’ll still grumble about the miniature red ants that bite my ass if I forget to brush off the seat, leaving burning red bumps for an hour. But do I really actually care anymore?…Well, yeah, kinda.

OK, so I brush the seat.

And it’s not like the time at Rancho Mastatal where all the other interns went out to the town dance and I couldn’t find a flashlight to walk back to my shack. Down several paths, across the village dirt road, through the woods. So I tried a candle. But you know, a candle doesn’t really project its light, it just kinda blinds you worse, and kinda burns your hand if you try to keep it from flickering out.

So I fumbled along. Not too bad, unless you consider…the Terciopelo! The highly venomous Fer-de-Lance. A snake which comes out a night and tends to stand its ground if you come upon it. Aggressive you could say. They sometimes ended up in our showers, or our beds, or, you guessed it, our bathrooms. Nights like those is when fear serves you well, when it is practical, when there is actually a danger. I made it though, and collapsed into my bed high on yet another adrenaline-charged walk home.

It becomes a matter of perspective after a while. When you experience a lot, you stretch out your limits, and usually, after traveling, or more extreme phases of life, you can easily come home to some little shack, where the toilet is really just down the hill, down some sturdy steps, not through a dark, rocky forest, or snake-infested village. And it’s really just a little frog, not a big spider (for now), and not cockroaches, and you can just kinda shrug and say, oh well, I’ve seen worse. I hope I don’t pee on the poor little guy.

So, in a way, shitting became a lesson in taming fear. In noticing how it feels, when it’s important, how to deal with it. That, or be scared…shitless.

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