A Cure for Fear On Anxiety, Writing, and Taking the Nature Cure
The nature or “West cure” was developed in the nineteenth century to treat men with anxiety. Women were sent to bed.
This is A Cure for Fear, a monthly column by Laura Turner on working, creating, and living with anxiety.
The sun hits Mount Tallac, on the western shore of Fallen Leaf Lake, at 5:30 in the morning during the early part of June. It’s a time usually reserved for dads on vacation to sip coffee on the deck while they plan which activities to drag their kids on that day, and yet I, neither a dad nor on vacation, find myself awake and alert and unable to resist the beauty of the sunlight on Tallac and the snow still fleecing Desolation Wilderness to the south and, above all, the silver calmness of the lake. I have been dealing with a bout of anxiety-induced insomnia, and my therapist recently told me to get out of bed whenever I wake up after 5:00 a.m. So here I am, coffee in one hand, dog at my feet, researching day hikes with the spotty Wi-Fi that sometimes extends to the cabin.
I came here for two days to work on my book proposal, a project that has been alternately exciting and terrifying me for years. An inspirational view and lack of regular internet access seemed like just the thing to help me get over writer’s block, but I’ve done as much hiking and reading as writing, and plenty of sitting and gazing at the view.
Writing isn’t the only reason I’m here, though. Anxiety has been following me especially closely in recent months, and I needed to snap out of my routine and, I suspected, life in the city. San Francisco has the reputation of being relaxed and laid-back, but beneath the veneer thrums a relentless pursuit of improvement that leaves little room to be a peaceful person. So I’m taking the nature cure.
First proposed by Silas Weir Mitchell in the late nineteenth century, the “West cure” was developed to treat men suffering from a version of anxiety known as neurasthenia. (Women suffering from neurasthenia got “the rest cure”—they were sent to bed for months on end and spoon-fed milk.) Known as the father of modern neurology, Mitchell was a sort of Renaissance man, interested in medicine, psychology, and the arts—he was the author of several historical novels and short stories.
The use of the term “neurasthenia” to encompass a set of psychological maladies was introduced by the neurologist George Miller Beard in 1869. It included anxiety, depression, insomnia, weakness, dizziness, and heart palpitations, among other problems, which made it a catch-all diagnosis. The psychologist William James called it “Americanitis” because he believed Americans were particularly susceptible to it at that moment in time, when the Industrial Revolution had thrown the familiar world into a technological tailspin. So it’s no surprise that the men who most embodied Americanitis—among them those eminent bundles of nerves, Walt Whitman and Teddy Roosevelt—were told by Silas Mitchell to go west. Fresh air, cattle roping, hiking, and generally tromping about in the great outdoors would do wonders for the agitated male spirit, Mitchell thought. (And it is true that spending time outside in natural settings as opposed to urban ones can be an effective antidepressant .)
Had I been born a hundred years ago and told Dr. Mitchell about my anxiety—the racing heart, the insomnia, the constant fear that everything in my life is one step away from falling apart—I would have been consigned to my bedroom, much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, famed author of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the short story, Gilman’s narrator is instructed to take the “rest cure” after giving birth and consigned to the former nursery upstairs. With the windows barred and nothing to stimulate her mind, she slowly loses her grip on reality and begins to imagine that she is one of many women who live in the room’s yellow wallpaper. The story was written in direct protest of Mitchell’s rest cure when Gilman had her own near-breakdown. “The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways,” she wrote . Mitchell never responded to the copy Gilman sent him.
Sitting in a room while slowly going insane was not an appealing option to me, nor should it ever have been recommended with such frequency to women, who were thought to be less mentally stable and more fragile than the men who suffered the same symptoms. Instead, I drove out of the city and its long reaches, along the oleander bushes lining the center divide of Highway 80, through the artichoke fields and vineyards of Davis, past Sacramento and into Placerville (formerly known as Old Hangtown due to its reputation as an execution grounds for lawless men during the Gold Rush), and up into the Sierras along Highway 50. A lodge in the town of Kyburz (population: 167) greets drivers with a sign that reminds them of its fleeting nature along the road: “Welcome to Kyburz. Now leaving Kyburz.”
Fallen Leaf Lake is just south of Lake Tahoe, separated by the east-west ribbon of Highway 89. The cabin was built by my husband’s grandfather in 1964 and sits on the southeastern bend of the lake, a few minutes’ walk from the store and marina, the social hub of Fallen Leaf. Beyond the store is a small chapel. My husband’s parents were married there, the large crowd spilling out onto the walkway, and they honeymooned at a small cabin just down the road from where I type. Between the chapel and the fire station is a small sign that marks the trailhead to Angora Lakes: my nature cure.
The hike to Angora is steep and running with water this time of year. The snowmelt is almost complete, though there are a few places where Artie (a small Yorkshire terrier whose Christian name is R2D2) and I have to forge ahead over slush. The first half is almost entirely slippery shale and granite, so a watchful eye is necessary to avoid falling. Artie runs ahead trying to lick up all the water falling down the rocks while I pick out the best place for my next step. It is early enough in the morning that I don’t see anyone else until I get to the shaded part of the hike, where I pass by two women coming down from Angora, gripping their trekking poles and moving slowly on the loamy hillside. The air is a mixture of fresh pine, running water, and some kind of deadly-smelling animal shit. I breathe deeply anyway.
It is the nature of nature to envelop a person completely in the present moment, which is precisely why it is such an effective antidote to anxiety. With anxiety, I am always anywhere but in the present moment—I travel to the past to upbraid myself for the stupid thing I said when I was at a party, or to the future to predict the worst possible outcome of every foreseeable circumstance. The book I want to write will not sell. Worse, it will be a failure. The friends I have now do not really like me. I am a drag on my husband. Everyone else is more productive than me. Fear greets me first thing in the morning and walks familiar pathways through my brain.
Here, though, I am greeted first thing by the light on Tallac and a still lake, and something about that external calmness seeps into my psyche. Winding my way up to Angora, I sing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” the whole time—mostly to myself, although occasionally aloud when I am reasonably sure there is no one in earshot. It keeps the pace for my hiking, and reminds me of family hikes we went on when I was a girl. It is the pleasant company of my own voice, a voice I rather like when I am alone with it in nature—as opposed to alone with it in my own head, or at home, where I begin to distrust and detest it. Breathlessly, I greet the chipmunks and blue jays we pass on the trail. Artie makes friends with everyone along the path, and I congratulate him for his intrepid spirit.
Once I reach Angora, my heart still racing from the effort and the altitude, I buy a book and a glass of their famous lemonade and watch dads try to coax their children onto kayaks and into the water. Artie and I take our time on the descent. We stop frequently to take in the views of Fallen Leaf Lake and its large cousin, Tahoe, to the north.
That night, back at the cabin, I reheat turkey chili for dinner and read about the Pacific Crest Trail. I wonder if I could ever be brave enough to put everything I need in a backpack. Would I, the world’s lightest sleeper, be able to spend a night with only the sounds of nature for a white noise machine? I shiver and look at the silvering lake. The sun has passed behind Tallac but hasn’t yet set. The night gets cold. Inside, I check Twitter and see that someone has shared a picture of the sunset in San Francisco. All of a sudden I think to look outside and am rewarded with the most magnificent sunset I have seen in years, a nightly occurrence in the summer in the Sierras. The lake, blue-gray just minutes ago, is on fire with refracted light, and the sky around Tallac is every shade of pink—neon, dusky, orange, cotton-candy. “Wow,” I say to no one in particular. “Wow wow wow.” I take pictures, as many as I can, of the sky and the lake and of Artie sitting on the chair out on the deck. “Wow.” I almost missed it all. I was inside in my bedroom.
Anxiety is part and parcel of the modern human experience. But not just the modern; it may well be one of the defining characteristics of the human condition. How do we square knowing so much with having control over so little?
I still haven’t figured it out. Rather than stare at the wallpaper in my room, I see a fraction of the solution when I am in the natural world: Surrender. Accept the things I cannot change. Go breathlessly up a mountain until no thought but my own heartbeat can occupy my mind. Watch the sky change color, and then do it again. See the sun rise. “Cure” is a misleading name, because there is no cure for fear. But sometimes you can put yourself in the right place at the right time and remember that, along with the fear, there is glory, there is hope.