Freezing in the Desert by Heather Maat

I ditched my university convocation to skip town with my Nana. 

I had grown up watching her and my grandfather travel the world. For the first ten years of my life, they brought me dolls from the far-away places they visited; keepsakes from Kenya, Spain, China, and Turkey. Then, after I lost interest in little girl things, they sent postcards. I read about her rafting down a Class 4 rapid on the Tatshenshini River in Alaska. I read about a black bear wandering through their Northwestern Ontario campsite while they were preparing dinner. Once a postcard arrived 15 years late, lost in the bottom of a pile in some mail room in Egypt. 

She was the coolest person I knew.

After my Grandpa passed away, the family assumed she would hang up her travelling pants and settle down. It wasn’t her style though to stop doing something she loved to keep other people comfortable. She kept on leaving to explore farther away places she hadn’t seen yet. She cruised down the Danube, she went to Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands. 

I wanted to be just like her.                                                                                                     

So, when she said she had a group tour to India in mind, I jumped at the opportunity. Experiencing a new part of the world with her was far more appealing than walking across some stage, degree in hand. She was 80 and I was 25, representing the oldest and youngest members in the group. 

We were travelling overland in Rajasthan, a state in the north of the country. All the cities we stopped in looked like an oasis. A blurry vision of a city in the distance surrounded by the inhospitable Thar Desert. We looked out from the turrets of ancient castles at the roof tops of houses all painted pink. And the next day we would do it all again; climb the stairs to the top of another old fortress but this time, look out at houses all matching in their baby blue hues. 

On this particular evening, all 17 of us were about to embark on a short journey by camel into the heart of the Pushkar camel fair. Our whole trip was organized around being in Pushkar on time for this annual event. For 5 days in November, the small desert city bursts at the seams as its population grows by hundreds of thousands. Hindu pilgrims from all over India visit around the Kartik Purnima, or full moon, for a holy bath at Pushkar lake. The main draw of the fair though is the opportunity it provides farmers to trade their livestock, especially their camel, the pillar of Rajasthani pastoral identity and livelihood. The fair draws tourists from further afield as well, like my Nana and I, not interested in purchasing a camel but fascinated by watching them race and maybe seeing who wins the longest mustache competition. 

As the sun began to sink low in the clear desert sky, our guide was running around yelling instructions to all the young camel drivers in Hindi, giving us instructions in English. Like the streets of New Delhi, the scene was chaotic. He told my Nana to get on a camel. The driver was not paying attention, he was talking to another driver beside him, his camel lying down in the sand, its legs all folded up underneath. I was standing back ready to take a picture of her once she was up. Somehow, no one was helping the 80-year-old up onto this massive animal, including me. I was going to get the perfect photograph instead.

I thought I knew all about the acute stress response model. I had just finished my undergrad in psychology after all. There are two options when faced with a stressor. Fight. Or flight. When our body recognizes a threat, our brain and our autonomic nervous system react quickly and release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger bodily changes that help us prepare to handle that threat, either real or perceived. And we handle it by doing one of two things; we stay and fight or we flee. But when I saw that beast of an animal dip his head down and I realized that he was going to move, I didn’t do either of those things. Instead, I froze. I suddenly lost all ability to form words. I couldn’t make myself yell a warning to my Nana. 

She had only one foot in the stirrup. She was about to swing her other leg over and onto the saddle when the camel committed to standing up. It all happened in an instant. He got up on his front knees and stood fully with his back-legs. At this point she began falling. Then, as the camel finished standing up, she swung down and was hanging by one foot upside down from the saddle’s stirrup. In the two seconds it took for it all to happen, I was certain I was witnessing something terrible. I was terrified. Scared stiff, literally. But somehow none of the terrible materialized, she never hit the ground. She didn’t get stepped on. She didn’t fall and break her hip. She didn’t die. She was just hanging there. 

Still, I didn’t move. I was frozen in the same position I had been before the whole thing started; holding my camera up, ready for that shot. What I didn’t know, in that moment, is that I was experiencing a third acute stress response called ‘freeze’. It took me 15 years to discover that the model is actually broader than most of us know. In fact, it is fight, flight or freeze. The freeze response is kind of like a stalling tactic. Your brain presses the ‘pause’ button but still remains hypervigilant, waiting and watching carefully until it can determine which option brings you closer to safety: fleeing or fighting. 

Our guide noticed her hanging there. He scrambled over as fast as one can scramble on desert sand and picked her up. The camel driver ran too. He freed her foot. They got her down, standing on the ground again. Only then did I snap out of it. I ran over to her. 

“Oh my god, are you okay?” I said with a shaky voice.

She was laughing. “I think so! Whatever you do, don’t tell your parents about this!” she said while giving me a knowing wink, “They’ll never let me go anywhere again!”

“What do you want to do now Nana? Should we go see a doctor?”

“Get back on the camel of course!”

And she did. She rode off into the Rajasthani sunset. She was stubborn and determined not to let ‘a little tumble from a camel’ stop her. I respected that. And supporting her in that moment meant me mounting my camel as well, following behind. But in no time at all, she had left me in her dust, in a cloud of shame. Thoughts of inadequacy swirling around in my brain over my inability to react or do anything helpful while my 80-year-old grandmother dangled from a camel saddle. What was wrong with me?

Fight, flight, freeze is involuntary. We all have a natural inclination towards one of these responses. And which one we go to depends on both the situation and how we were taught to respond according to our upbringing and our culture. 

Turns out, it’s not situational for me. Ten years later, my youngest son fell off our trampoline onto a concrete pad. He screamed a scream no mother wants to hear as his collar bone broke. My husband ran to him, not me. I was a statue. A couple years after that, my second oldest son tripped while running for a ball at a vacation rental in Wilderness, South Africa. The first thing that hit the edge of the concrete bench was his eyebrow. He made no noise, even scarier than a scream. The amount of blood gushing from his face was incredible. My husband ran to him. I froze. Doesn’t matter the situation. I freeze. Every. Time. 

My upbringing and the culture I grew up in then; maybe that’s to blame. I am a child of the 80’s. I grew up on Disney classics like the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, both of which are rife with examples of sexism and gender stereotypes. My parents too were very traditional in their gender roles. Was I was freezing because I had internalized all this messaging; that men had it handled and my weak, womanly decision-making in a stressful situation couldn’t be trusted? Totally possible, I’ll add it to the list of things I need to talk to my therapist about. 

But there’s this other thing I do when I snap out of the frozen. I take care of people. I am the warden of all things that need love and attention. The afternoon my youngest son fell off that trampoline, my husband immediately handed him over to me and I took him to the hospital. With my older son’s eyebrow gash, I held his head while he shook in pain on the drive to the hospital. I breathed with him as deep stitches were placed by an ER doctor.

The more I dug into fight or flight, the more I found that historically the attention and research has centered around males. Kind of like those Disney classics. Women have been left out of studies or their results have been deemed inconclusive because of the very fact that our biology, our reproductive cycles, somehow make our test results unreliable. Imagine if that interpretation were too limiting though. This male-centric model of acute stress we’ve all been operating with has simply failed to accurately represent females. Perhaps, our biology predisposes us to respond to threat in an entirely different way.

Back in 2000, Shelley Taylor proposed that human female responses to stress are not well characterized by the traditional fight or flight model but rather are more typically characterized by a pattern termed ‘tend and befriend’. Tending is about caring for your offspring when a stressor occurs, while befriending refers to seeking out social support when under pressure. I am not just a freezer; I am a tender too. When in a stressful situation, especially if it involves my family, I tend to the things that keep them the safest, keep them alive. 

And the world needs tenders. Especially now. We can’t all be fighters and flee-ers. They are critical but so too are the ones who are around after the dust settles to stabilize the broken arm and hold the gauze on the gushing wound. To drive the kids to the hospital and talk through their experience with them and a psychologist. 

The Pushkar fair was like nothing I had experienced before. We glamped in fancy desert tents and sat on rickety wooden bleachers under the scorching mid-day sun, cheering on as the best decorated camel was crowned. My Nana seemed fine for the rest of that trip; no harm done after her camel misadventure it appeared. A few years later though, as I mailed her off a care package of books and crossword puzzles, she lay recovering from hip surgery in my parents living room. My mom, her nurse over the next few weeks.

Fight, flight and freeze are about the moment of a crisis. They are about a reaction to that split second. But tending? That is about the moments that come after. It’s about helping someone else manage all the tiny splinters that fly at them off a stressful situation. It’s about gathering up your people and riding or limping or crawling on together, into that sunset. Bringing up the rear, not just following from behind but leading from behind. There’s nothing wrong with that. 


BIO: Heather Maat is a wife, a mother to 4 boys, and a writer. She has also been known to seek out adventure both near and far.


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