Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while. Back in September, I got a chance to meet a bunch of crew members from several different boats on The Deadliest Catch. It was a neat moment for me, not so much because I’m a fan of the show (I am, but that isn’t the point…) but because Alaska is ingrained into my getting healthy on many different levels.  I started watching The Deadliest Catch a few months before I moved to Alaska in 2007 to work for the Alaska State Parks system. I had zero interest in the first few seasons; it wasn’t until I signed the paperwork for my contract with the state parks and bought my plane ticket for Kodiak that boyfriend insisted I watch the show so I’d know which boats to look for and take pictures of once I got there. I relented and watched a few episodes.

Moving to Alaska was a huge turning point in my quest to get healthy. In a lot of ways, it was the moment after which I started making real changes toward getting better. It was the point where instead of giving up and missing out on an amazing opportunity because I was afraid of the panic, I took charge and sought help because I was tired of missing out on opportunities because of anxiety and panic attacks.  Instead of forcing myself to go to Alaska and spending several months being miserable the whole time, I made the decision that I wanted to go to Alaska and be capable of embracing the experience. Prior to moving to Kodiak, the last time I’d forced myself to suck up the panic and travel was to spend two weeks in Europe in the summer of 2004. I spent the entire time shaking – literally, physically shaking – and absolutely desperate to go home. I thought if I could just get through that one experience it would make all other travel experiences easier. It didn’t…it just made me fear the panic more. I did get a doctor’s prescription for an anti-anxiety medication before I went to Europe, but in the Catch-22 that is anxiety, I was too afraid to take it, so it sat unopened in my suitcase the whole time. In fact, it’s probably still in my medicine cabinet.

When I went to see the doctor a few months before leaving for Alaska, something had changed. Instead of just saying “I don’t want to have panic attacks while I’m in Alaska,” I made the transition to saying “I’m tired of having panic attacks period. I want to learn how to overcome them. I just want to feel like a normal person for a change.” The doctor prescribed a different anti-anxiety medication (Cymbalta), but refused to send it through to the pharmacy until I made an appointment with a therapist. I kicked and screamed right up until the first appointment, because by that point I had very little faith in what simply talking to someone could do for me. I left for Alaska with medication in hand and a sense of trepidation. What if I really couldn’t be fixed? Then what??

I arrived in Kodiak terrified and homesick, but determined. A big reason why I credit Alaska as a major turning point is the length of time I stayed there – over the course of four months, I had to learn to face the anxiety because there was no imminent departure to look forward to. It was like a lengthy exposure therapy. It didn’t solve all my issues in one swoop (which I initially found disappointing) but it was a major turning point that opened me up to the idea that I could take steps to get better. I could survive four months in Alaska. On an island. Maybe I really could do anything.

That isn’t to say that Alaska wasn’t a struggle. It was – a huge, but very rewarding one. One of the things I did to calm myself down when I was having a rough day was to drive out to the Kodiak harbor and watch the boats come in and out. It was a strangely relaxing thing to watch them. I grew up near the ocean, but I was never a particularly huge fan of it. There was something cruel about it really, being dirt poor and living in a miserable home in an otherwise absolutely beautiful location. In Kodiak, however, I learned to really love the ocean for the first time. I found solace in the idea that the men who worked on these boats went out for months at a time, and for that time, the boat was home – that kind of strength can only be inspiring. In addition to that, it made me think of my mom, who worked on a processing boat in the 1970s during the Alaskan King Crab boom. Before she married my dad, she was a little bit fearless. She lost that by the time I was born, so in a strange way going to Alaska helped me reconnect with the woman my mother used to be. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a powerful thing.

Back to last September when I met Jake Anderson… For anyone who isn’t a fan of The Deadliest Catch and missed this story, Jake’s dad went missing over a year ago in the woods of western Washington and hasn’t been found yet. (You can read the full story here and here ) When I had a chance to meet Jake Anderson, along with Jake and Josh Harris and several other crew members from Deadliest Catch boats last September, they were collecting donations to try to find him.

I donated, of course, but something else was nagging at the back of my mind. As I left the craziness that was the autographs table, I gave Jake Anderson a hug and told him I hope he finds his dad. I told him I lost mine too, once, and he’ll find him. Then I rushed off and let 14 crazed screaming teenage girls behind me sweep in, cursing that I hadn’t taken an extra five seconds to clarify – my dad never went missing. But my Great Uncle, Jim did.

My Great Uncle Jim disappeared when I was nine. He had Alzheimer’s disease, and one day he just wandered away from my grandmother’s house, where he was staying, and never came back. There were a lot of days out on horseback searching through fields and ravines, and I remember being deeply impressed with certain aspects of the next few weeks – the rain and the rush of posting fliers and the crushing presence of search and rescue people. I remember most of all the uncertainty – the wanting answers. Did Uncle Jim just wander away? Was he kidnapped? Was he murdered? Was he still alive? A volunteer search and rescue worker found his body several weeks later at the bottom of a drainage ditch, under two feet of water. It was an El Nino year, and it had been raining for days. They only found his body because one of the members of the search team slipped and fell, and landed on him.

Most of all, I remember cleaning out Uncle Jim’s wallet. It had been under water for days, and everything in it was wet and covered in mud. It smelled like silt and decay…and death. I’m still not sure what my parents were thinking when they allowed me to be exposed to so much trauma without any consideration for what it might do to a little kid. (This is a big theme of my therapy lately…) When we cleaned out Jim’s house, a lot of his things ended up coming back to our hoarded home. For years, the comforter on my bed was from his house. It was impossible for me as a nine year told to separate these physical things from the idea of death, which I had trouble comprehending. (Again…this is a big theme of my therapy…)

Years later, I still think about my Uncle Jim and how traumatic it was to lose him that way. I wasn’t particularly close to him (then again, I’m not particularly close to anyone in my family) but it was a sudden and dramatic loss that was never mitigated for me. It was followed by more losses (Jim’s brother and sister) that were also never dealt with in a healthy way. Though my dad always claims that family comes first for him, he’s never followed through on what I’d consider a basic responsibility – getting tombstones for their graves. My Great Uncle Jim bought his own tombstone after his wife died. (My earliest distinct memory, coincidentally, is of her funeral, when I was three). Family legend is that he carried it around in the back of his truck and proudly to everyone before it was placed over her grave. My dad never had his date of death engraved on it.

So, Jake Anderson…I sincerely hope you find your father. I think the way your support your family is amazing, and I wish I’d had a big brother like you when I was growing up. You deserve to know what happened, and the comfort of finding out the truth. Wherever he is, I hope your father finds safe passage home.

My Great Uncle Jim's headstone, still missing his date of death.