Anxiety: Sweet Lava: an insider’s look at the power of panic attacks and how to accurately illustrate the struggle
There is this island in the Pacific called Binalope, but before you go google it you must realize it isn’t on any maps. It is so small and so remote that unless you were told about it, you would never even know it existed.
Binalope is only seven miles from the East Side to the West and four miles North to South and the nearest land is 30 miles away by boat. In the middle of Binalope is a huge volcano which leaves each side of the island at a large swooping incline and nearly uninhabitable. The beaches that make up the parameter of Binalope are laden with pink sand and dotted by yellow wild flowers. The winds are soft on the beaches, blowing the flowers ever so slightly and cooling whoever’s face is resting on the sandy shores, but as you walk in and up towards the central volcanic rim, the winds become gradually stronger so that by the time you get to its rim you have to get down on all fours so as not to be blown into the pit of lava and burned up.
There are only 200 people who live on Binalope and they are divided into four directional tribes. The north tribe lives off the north shores. The south tribe on the south, the east and west accordingly. Each tribe lives in separate locations and operates under different names but they rely on the same sustenance: the volcano. Because seated just inside of the volcano’s rim, smothered in the heat of the lava and the steam regurgitating into the air, grows the island’s most abundant food source and the sweetest of fruits. A velvety smooth yellow, pink sphere as large as a watermelon, but as light as a feather. The tribes call this fruit Sweet Lava.
There are four paths that lead up to the volcano, one in every direction leading from each of the tribe’s camps. Every morning it is a race between the tribes to prepare the carts, climb to the rim, and excavate the richest of the fruit’s supply to carry down as an offering in the evening. It is a dangerous task, one only the most skilled of climbers is able to complete. Therefore, to be designated as one of the tribe’s climber is a prestigious and honorable title.
Though you may think it is manning the upward climb every day that would be the most draining component of this job, that is not the case. Each climber rides up in the carts lead by mules so the mornings are rather peaceful because as they ascend the rising sun peaks over the horizon and illuminates the island’s hills in an orange glow. It is once they arrive at the rim and the winds are whipping and the lava is spewing that the true treachery of the job comes to light. The climbers must get down from the wagon with the intensity of the lava’s heat painting a thick layer of moisture across their backs to tether all four sides of their carts and the mules to stakes in the ground so as to prevent the winds from throwing either into the lava. After securing the carts and mules, the climbers then proceed to crawl on all fours towards the lava. There are close margins up there on the rim and with one slip of the foot into the lava you will fall. So with careful and steady movements the climbers lower themselves onto the thin ledge that surrounds the pit of lava because it is here that Sweet Lava grows.
Havana has blood orange hair that has a life all its own. It is thick and curly and sticks out in every which way. The woman of the tribe would whisper ever since he was a child that it was the mark of the lava, that he was destined to become the next climber, that surely the spirits had gifted him but the elders of the tribe had other thoughts on the matter. The role of a climber was almost always gifted to generations of climbers and Havana’s lineage consisted entirely of fisherman. Therefore, the fiery hair proved to be nothing more than a distraction towards gossip and beginning at the age of 4, Havana was taken before the elders to have his head shaved and painted black so as to reflect the rest of the tribe.
The christening of the next climber happens at the turn of the year only when the previous grows old and grey. The tribes believe the spirit of the ocean chooses the next and so they send out all the young men and women who are of age to the shores to await the calling.
This new year held the passing of the east tribe’s climber and Havana was sent out to the shores along with the 12 others who were of age to await the ocean’s calling. With each passing hour the men’s and women’s toes became evermore enmeshed in the pink sand, sinking deeper and deeper so all were becoming one with the beach until around the sixth hour one started to stand apart. Havana’s bald head started to shed the layer of black paint that had covered it for so many years and from the newly naked and exposed layers of skin grew his fiery hair. Wild and untamed. Sticking out in every direction. His blood orange curls were revitalized with such intensity one could argue it was nature’s call of revenge for the years the tribe had denied Havana’s true uniqueness. Once a complete head of hair blanketed his previously bald scalp a massive wave in the shape of a triangle came and penetrated Havana in the center of his chest. Wet, renewed, and chosen. Havana was christened the next climber of the east tribe.
Before the rising of the sun, when the waves crashing against the shore were the only sounds to be heard, Havana slipped out of bed to greet the morning air of his first day as the climber.
He tied the mule to the cart, swung his strong, sturdy frame into the back, and began the ascent to the volcanic rim. No one was to come with him. No one was to show him the ropes. The climber was a solitary job. Meaning, that whomever was destined for it must come to understand its trials alone. The sun spoke to Havana as it peaked over the horizon, whispering about his capability and strength, but Havana couldn’t help but find falsehood in her words.
“Who am I to have been chosen?” he asked the sun.
“Never underestimate the power of the unusual child, my dear,” the sun whispered, her voice rising and falling through the waves of the wind.
Havana fell quiet and his shoulders were heavy as he contemplated her words. The son of the fisherman with fiery hair being chosen to hold the most honorable title of the east tribe. The unusual dominated every proponent of his life.
His cart was the first to the rim which should have been a relief, but it instead filled Havana with panic. Besides from stories passed through the tribe, Havana had no clue what was expected of him.
The winds were howling and Havana could hardly get off the cart to tether it down. He tied down the left side, then the right, and lastly he tethered down the rope around the mule. But that was all he could manage. The winds were too strong. His body was gradually plastered to the ground and he did not have the skill or the strength to get back up.
Only after Havana tethered down the car, did another tribe’s climber arrive. Havana peered across the rim with squinted eyes because it was difficult to open them in the harsh winds. He knew it was the west tribe’s climber that arrived because whomever they were stood directly across from Havana on other other side of the volcano’s rim. The climber was waving his arms which Havana took as a greeting. He felt a slight ease in the power of the wind over him and with a new found strength from kindness of the west tribe began, just as legend had instructed, to crawl towards the rim.
What Havana didn’t understand was that the west tribe’s climber was actually trying to tell him that he had forgotten to tether the front and back of the cart in addition to the two sides and because of it his cart was rocking violently back and forth against the powerful winds. All four sides always, always had to be secure. The winds in Binalope were not like other winds. They did not have a directional path. They blew from all four sides, in every which way, a tornado of invisible forces bound to overtake anyone in its path.
Havana dipped down onto the ledge and started evaluating the day’s Sweet Lava. A few minutes passed and the west tribe’s climber appeared on the ledge across the steaming pot of lava. He started calling to Havana, but Havana didn’t notice. Here on the ledge between the growling pit of fire and the whipping invisible army, the small calls of a climber were swallowed and digested. But then the south climber joined the west and they both started calling to Havana and combining both of their voices, it was enough for Havana to notice.
“Your cart!” the west and south tribe climbers called, “Your cart!”
Havana peered over at the blurry figures, but it was hard to make out anything through the steam from the lava’s burning temperatures.
“What!” Havana called back.
“Your cart isn’t secured!”
“Your cart-…” but their screams were lost as they both scrambled back over the edge and into the safety of the upper rim. Because they had a view of the danger churning above whereas Havana was directly beneath, blinded to the raging, rocking, dancing cart. And just as the south and west climbers finished retreating, Havana’s cart flew over the rim’s edge into the lava’s pit where its massive size caused a huge wave of fire to fly at Havana and scold him with its burning temperatures.
The lava swallowed the cart and disintegrated its wooden structure into the fiery midst. Havana laid there on the ledge in searing pain from the burns covering his skin and touched his scalp to find nothing but skin resting beneath his palm.
His fiery hair was gone, burned off in the wave of lava.
Honestly, “Sweet Lava” developed quite organically. Not only have I myself struggled with debilitating social anxiety, but I have watched the people I love be nearly crippled by anxious thoughts, worries, and fears. Therefore, writing about anxiety did not feel foreign for me. In fact, I had the opposite problem and struggled to narrow down the hundreds of directions I could take this story while attempting to illustrate the illness.
In the story there are multiple elements meant to symbolize different components of anxiety. Havana is obviously the struggler, or the person in which the anxiety lives. The lava is the mind, or the source of the anxious thoughts, feelings, and worries. The cart is life such as work schedules, social gatherings, school, hobbies, etc. The wind is life’s triggers. Things like traffic in the morning resulting in being late to work or school, not being able to control who is going to be at a party on the weekend, the delayed flight misplacing travel plans. Then the Sweet Lava is healthy coping mechanisms used to successfully manage the illness such as deep breathing, journaling, or music.
The series of events in the story are meant to reflect a hypothetical panic attack. But remember everyone’s anxiety looks different and each scenario resulting in an attack is unique. This is just one situation that I created from a collection of past experiences to use in the illustration.
Havana is given a new job. Life transition. Havana takes the cart up for the first time. Begins on a new path. The winds are howling. Unexpected triggers are being thrown your way. He forgets to tether down all four sides of the cart. Life is overwhelming, breathing is getting faster and shorter, the mind is racing, and the triggers keep flying your way. Havana goes to retrieve the Sweet Lava. Tries to search the mind for coping mechanisms to practice. The other climber’s call out to help. People around try to intervene. Havana’s cart flies over top of his head and into the lava. The mind blows life up to an unmanageable level. The lava singes off Havana’s hair. The attack takes over and leaves you physically impaired in some way- can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think.
Remember, anxiety is real. Panic attacks happen. They infect the mind and debilitate people from living a full and meaningful life. This short story is meant to illustrate the power anxiety can have over people in hopes that those who struggle or those who know someone who struggles can connect.