Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Explanation After Many Years

Many years ago, when my daughter Kat and I were living at Altamira, we were walking in the woods at night. I don't remember why. There must have been some good reason, because usually we stayed inside the fenced area around the house at night. There were two types of mainly nocturnal animals I especially wanted to avoid: pumas and javenlinas. Pumas typically avoid humans. I was aware of at least one puma who lived on our land, or at least passed through from time to time, and she always kept her distance. On the other hand, the javelinas were not in the least afraid of humans. When I was first building the house,  before I'd put on the doors, the creatures would come right into the house. This is why a fenced yard around the house and outbuildings was one of my highest priorities.

Photo from Carnivora website

Javelinas are omnivorous. They eat lots of nuts and roots, but I have personally seen them break into a chicken pen to kill and eat the chickens. I've also seen them tear a large dog to shreds, and they have been known to seriously injure or kill people. One evening, a couple of years prior to the evening my daughter were walking in the woods at night, I was walking in the woods with my dogs late in the afternoon (although javenlinas are mostly nocturnal, expecially when the weather is hot, they seem to start foraging shortly before sundown and continue until shortly after sunrise) and found myself surrounded by javelinas. They usually make quite a bit of noise as they go through the woods, digging around for food and grunting to each other. But that evening, they were very quiet. I did not notice them until they had surrounded me, nor did my dogs notice them at first. They must have kept downwind from us, so we didn't smell them (they have a fairly strong, distinctive odor). It's possible they were just curious about me (they are highly intelligent, curious animals), but I got the distinct impression that I was prey, that I was to feature as the main course for their dinner that night. I went up the nearest tree, and the dogs ran off in the opposite direction. I stayed in the tree until I was sure the javelinas had gone.

Anyhow, this one night Kat and I were walking in the woods well after dark, and we heard a pack of javelinas approaching. Javelinas can run surprisingly fast (the Carnivora website says they have been clocked at up to 21 mph); there was no way we could be sure of  outrunning them for long in the woods. It was dark and cloudy, so there was little light from moon or stars. We would likely have tripped over a vine or run into a branch. However, there was a fenced enclosure not too far from where we were. "Go over the fence!" I said to Kat, and ran to the fence and leaped over, putting a hand on the top wire and vaulting over, something I never could have done if I hadn't been pumped up with fear. Once I got over myself, I helped Kat over.

This incident has always disturbed me, because I believed my first thought should have been to save my child. I don't know whether or not the javelinas would have hurt us. But at the time, I certainly believed that we were in great danger.  How could I jump over the fence and leave my child on the other side, even for a few seconds?  When I talked about it with friends later, they all said they thought I did the right thing. They said it was like putting on one's oxygen mask first before helping one's child, in the even of cabin depressurization in an airliner. This makes sense. If the javelinas had gotten me, they probably would have gotten Kat as well, because she would have had trouble jumping the fence herself, and there was not enough time to climb through the wires. But I didn't stop and think this all through at the time. I just leaped the fence and only thought about Kat once I was safely on the other side.

I'm reading a book by Jeff Wise, Extreme Fear. It says that when one is in an immediate life-or-death situation (or believes one is in such a situation), the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex stops working. We don't think. There isn't time to think. If there's an escape route, one flees; if not, one stands and fights. So it would have been my amygdala that induced me to leap over the fence and my prefrontal cortex kicking in after I was safe, directing me to rescue my child.

Wise writes: "Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time appreciating before the fact how nonnegotiable this [amygdala driven] effect will be. We get so used to making our way through the wold under the stewardship of our complex and sophisticated C-system (prefrontal cortex) that we tend to assume that we will always have it at our disposal When we suddenly find ourselves drowning in a flood of noradrenaline, it can be shocking how little brainpower we have at our disposal."

The more you practice facing certain kinds of danger, the less likely you are to end up running on fear's autopilot. With events that are relatively likely to happen, you can think ahead before you're in a desperate situation. For example, when I was a teenager learning how to fly a single-engine Cessna 182, my instructor taught me to always be on the lookout for a place I could land if the engine quit. I got into the habit of doing this sort of thing when driving as well. So, for example, if I'm approaching a truck or car, I think of where I'll go if the other vehicle suddenly veers into my lane (or if I noticed that there's no escape route, I'll usually slow down). When I'm listening to an audio book or talking on the phone while driving, I'm not as likely to be scanning ahead like this, so I'm more likely to crash the car.


  1. Scary scene, but exciting.

    It's the type of thing you want to read in an adventurous novel, and not have happen to you in real life.

    I'm guessing you often see that scene in your head...go over the what if's.

    I have a MUCH less dramatic scene, but it haunts me sometimes.

    When we were in Sydney, we were all running to catch a train. I quickly rushed on...and I didn't have Jack with me. Jack was behind with my friend. She had him. But I HATE that I got on that train without making sure I had my child first.

    I try to tell myself that a part of me KNEW he would get on that train. But sometimes I worry that selfishness (me before my child) took over. I am totally freaked out by the idea of the story not turning out the way it did. I imagine him stranded, and terrified, at the train station.

    In your case, I think there was a part of you that knew you had to get over the fence order for you both to survive.

    In my case, I think I have issues where I believe I'm the ONLY person who can truly take care of Jack. I have a lack of faith and trust in others. But I think there was this small part of me that trusted my friends to get Jack on the train with us. Jack's dad was there as well (either on train already or behind with Jack. I don't remember). So it really did NOT need to me being the one who has complete responsibility for taking care of Jack.

  2. Yes, this was your body saving itself. And really, your body did the best thing -- for both you and your daughter, IMO. It surely would have taken longer for your body to run to the fence, stop, lift her over and then climb over from a stationary standing position than it did to run, vault, and then pull her over.

    In these situations time slows completely and everything happens in a freeze-frame scenario: not that our ego can make decisions any better that way, but our body does. My husband and I have both experienced it with situations with our own children. Your body knows what to do, more than we give it credit for. One common example is when we are driving on "autopilot" without really consciously navigating... It's almost like time traveling. lol.

  3. Healinggreen, I know what you mean about time seeming to slow down. It's a very strange sensation, as though you're simultaneously experiencing the event and observing it from another viewpoint. This has happened to me when I've been injured in accidents. One doesn't feel any pain at the time the injury is inflicted. Wise writes in *Extreme Fear* that one of the physical effects that automatically kicks in when you're in "emergency" mode is a "disconnect" of the pain centers in the brain.

  4. Hi Dina,

    For me, by far the hardest part of being a mother has been letting go, as Kat got older and more independent. Your incident with the train in Sydney sounds like one of those letting-your-child-grow-up milestones. I find there are always conflicting emotions - happiness for your child's increasing independence, worry that something will go wrong, sadness at losing part of the relationship you had with your child. Sometimes when I'm shopping, I'll hear a child call out, "Mommy!" and will automatically turn toward the sound. And then feel sad, because the little girl who was my child no longer exists. I'm very happy that she's now a happy grown woman and wouldn't have it any other way; but I still feel sadness for the loss of the dear little girl.