Elephants and Panic Attacks

Looking down over the elephant’s ears and trunk, the ground started to spin and the midday sun suddenly became both blindingly bright and oppressively dark. My breath came in quick gasps and my vision blurred with tears as I tried to find the rest of the group, fixated on a cute baby elephant sitting in front of them. My elephant’s mahout, or caregiver, shouted commands and encouraged me to shout along with him but my voice was caught behind my heart, now a painful lump in my throat. I heard him from miles away, dimly, through the ringing in my ears. I croaked out whispered gibberish as my lip trembled and the tears spilled over. My elephant lowered her front legs, time froze, and I thought I was going to topple forward and be trampled. I somehow very ungracefully removed myself from atop her shoulders, stumbled backwards, and tried to hide myself behind a pole to lick my wounds to dissect what had just happened. The truth was, I didn’t really know.

Now, I consider myself a brave and confident person. I would even go as far as calling myself a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I can surf, snowboard, ski, drive a jet ski, wakeboard, ride a motorcycle/dirtbike/ATV, rock climb, play softball, zipline. I have flown a plane, piloted an 85-foot former America’s Cup sailboat, ridden horses. My past jobs include working as a butcher, navigating office politics (scary!) and most recently, stabbing thousands of people with needles to collect and process blood. Heights don’t bother me, and typically I say the faster the better. You want to go sky-diving? Right on! Race a tuk-tuk across India? Hell yeah, I’ll see you at the finish line. There are very few things in this world that scare me (childbirth! Aack!) and even fewer that I absolutely won’t try (bungee jumping!) So why did riding an elephant cause me to melt into a whimpering mess?

Earlier that morning as the nine women in our group arrived at Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre (http://www.elephant-training.com/,) we poured out of our van and were immediately slobbered on, shoved, and felt up for food by the curious Asian elephants. It was overwhelming to me, though fun, but I feel it may have set the tone for my reactions later that day. I enjoyed getting close and staring into the molten amber eyes of these grey giants, running my fingers over the endless wrinkles of sandpaper-like skin. Such power and weight in these amazing animals, yet they were used to people and were very gentle with us. Feeding them little bananas was like holding a dust bunny up to the hose of a vacuum; too close and your hand might become part of the gooey meal!

Enjoying the shade and a rest while tethered in the barn.

Enjoying the shade and a rest while tethered in the barn.

After the initial meet and greet, our guides took the elephants up a hill to their shaded enclosure. After gulping down cold water and listening to a brief orientation, we were told it was time to practice our riding skills. I met this challenge with hesitation. The elephants at Ran-Tong are loved and cared for and have a huge area to roam which includes a beautiful natural swimming hole and trees and shrubs to graze on whenever they like. I knew these elephants were treated very well, and we would be riding them bareback, just above their shoulders, which in moderation is not harmful (unlike the raised seat or saddle placed in the middle of the back, like many tours use – these are painful to the elephants and extremely damaging to the spine.) For some reason though, I just felt guilty about riding them, but my adventurous side convinced me to try it. Damn that adventurous side.

 

The sassy, spotted elephant that humbled me. Look at those eyelashes!

After my unpleasant reaction, I had a few minutes to think and try to calm myself down. I should mention I am a bit of a control freak. I don’t like to admit that, but it played a huge part in my experience. I realized that being fifteen feet off the ground, feeling every movement of this beautiful animal’s powerful body, felt so foreign to me. I had not one shred of control over what this elephant did from one moment to the next. Typically I can keep a cool head in stressful situations, but this terrified me and I lost all logic.

I had mixed emotions when the day was over. I had failed. I was a little embarrassed, but also felt defeated, sad, and most of all, old. I turned 30 last year and worried that this elephant escapade signified the loss of my inner dare devil. What if, like my mom, I would now start getting panic attacks on roller coasters? Or when someone else is driving? I don’t want to say goodbye to Amanda the Thrill-Seeker, because that’s part of who I am. I am not Amanda the Rule-Follower, or Amanda the Meek. I refuse to lose my courage and passion.

Next time I have the chance to ride an elephant (or camel, or polar bear? Who knows?) I will know what to expect, and I will be ready.

Nancy enjoying the ride with her elephant.

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