How A Sweat Lodge Cured My Crippling Anxiety
After a year of frightening panic attacks, the very thing that caused my anxiety would also cure it.
It was pitch-black, the temperature hovering somewhere around 102 degrees. I sat cross-legged on the bare earth as thick, steamy heat painted my damp body.
Kitty was curled up next to me. I couldn't see her, but I imagined her blond locks pressing against her forehead while she sang, without a trace of irony, "We are one with the infinite sun, forever and ever and ever." We were both 15 that summer.
There were probably 40 of us crammed inside the shed-sized sweat lodge, all antsy teen girls except for Medicine Bear, a burly contractor with a white beard who went by Bill on the weekdays. We knew him for building the sweat lodges for this camp, Girl Scout property converted into Hippietown, USA, in summer months.
We mimicked Medicine Bear's tribal song, the already foreign syllables twisting together. Our chanting got louder, becoming a disjointed shout. It was the only thing that helped forgive the relentless heat, the steam and sweat and dirt that streaked my legs, clumped in my knotted hair, the branches of the wigwam that scratched against my back. I squeezed my eyes closed and sung back, pushing the next verse about being in tune with the luminous moon through the clouding steam.
If you had told me three weeks before that this is what I would be in for when my mother hastily signed me up for a holistic teen camp in upstate New York, I'd have laughed right in your face.
"Like, yoga? Does anyone shower? No thanks," I'd have said before promptly retreating back into my unfinished basement to stare at the warm light of my computer monitor.
That basement was where I had spent most of my time that winter — most of that year, if I'm being honest. Nowhere else felt as satisfyingly cold, a sensation that made me feel safe, and safe was my biggest priority those days.
On a hot day in August, shortly before my second year of high school, I fainted from the summer heat in the middle of a Manhattan crosswalk. I came to on the concrete a few seconds later. Dripping wet after a stranger doused me with water, I looked up and saw a crescent of taut, foreign faces, among them my inconsolable mom.
We chalked it up to the scorching weather and went home. But I was so terrified of it happening again that I began experiencing constant panic attacks, reliving the moment I lost control. School started, but in class I'd be hit with lurching spells of feeling hot and dizzy. Sensing a tremor in my hands that would climb up my body like a glass filling up, I'd bolt out while my teacher was mid-sentence, squeezing past the girls applying lip gloss in the second-floor bathroom to sit on the cracked toilet with my head between my knees.
The anxiety led to the agoraphobia. In crowds, I'd feel my face get fiery and the room would begin to tilt, that closed-in sensation soaking in, and I'd gape desperately at whoever I was with to take me somewhere else. When a trip to the mall over the holidays resulted in an ugly, disquieting meltdown, I determined it was easier for everyone if I just stayed home.
Home, school, home became the ritual of my daily life. I had grown mostly inured to my solitude, a constant since growing up filled with an ADD-infused aggression, though I had basked in the company of having one friend the year before, a giggly horseback-riding blonde named Jenn. But at some point that fall, Jenn quietly decided my ceaseless vulnerability wasn't worth her tiny bit of social stock, and I promptly found myself alone, spending lunch in my English teacher's room while she graded papers.
It was just my mom and me then, crowded into a small ranch house in rural New York, the closeness edging us more into resembling sisters. I'd crawl into the bed she used to share with my dad and she'd hold me, pushing back my hair with her hands as tears quietly leaked down my face. I didn't know what had happened to me, once so audacious and plucky, or how to be that person anymore.
In the spring, a brochure for a camp arrived in the mail tucked into the newsletter for the Omega Institute, a famous holistic retreat my mom had always wanted to attend. She called down the stairs to me to come take a look.
"It seems so fun!" she said excitedly while I frowned down at the pamphlet. "The kids are probably a blast."
"They look like hippies," I mumbled, thinking about the lush arts camp I had grown too old for the year before. I knew I was in teen-summer limbo.
Life at camp had always been my favorite state of being, the magic of languid days that edge by so slowly, a few hours could completely rearrange everything you knew. Plus, the summer was the rare chance for my single mom to have a taste of alone time. Our gray basement would no longer be my only refuge once school let out.
I didn't need to be told I had fallen into a dark place — my new creeping fear when I thought of whether I'd be able to uproot to a city for college in a few years, once my favorite fantasy, spoke for itself. And the glossy photos of the camp's wide fields combined with their breezy, unhampered scheduling seemed like a manageable alternative. So come August, I found myself watching the tires of my mom's car spit up gravel after she dropped me off at Omega Teen Camp.
I was led up the road to camp by a counselor with purple dreadlocks who animatedly peppered me with questions about whether I meditate, or if I liked seitan.
I had been to many camps before. I was a camp kind of kid. There was the day camp in New York, the sports camp in Pennsylvania, the prestigious arts camp in Maine.
But not one had a massive bonfire blazing on the front lawn when I first arrived. A dozen teens spun wildly around the flames, the more enthusiastic girls wearing only sports bras, their discarded shirts laying crumpled around the field.
I turned to the other girl who had walked up with me, Casey, whose face hid behind long hair the color of lemonade. "What the fuck?" I sputtered. She shook her head and we melted into a fit of laughter, lingering awkwardly on the outskirts of the bedlam.
Casey and I found the other girls who we would be bunking with: Zoë, willowy with a warm, toothy grin; Sarah, who had arrived that morning from Paris; Kitty, a raucous lesbian from New Jersey; and Paige, a pudgy goth who would eventually be sent home after punching another girl in the face. We huddled around our counselor, Molly, eyeing her short red mohawk and the colorful sleeve of tattoos that wound around her right arm.
In the bunk that night, after everyone nestled in their beds, Casey and I wasted no time unspooling our year of baggage. My panic attacks felt petty as she told me about her weeks spent in a psychiatric hospital; I listened quietly and nodded, trying to avoid looking at the pale, puffy lines that crossed her arms, burning white in the harsh glow from my flashlight.
The days passed by. I hung out at the pool, painted mandalas, wove string dreamcatchers. But I braced myself for the annual sweat lodge that was the camp's big attraction, which I had told my mother repeatedly on the car ride up that I would not be participating in.
Though the concept of intentionally spending hours in a tiny, overheated, and crowded space was completely nonsensical to me, I was insolently impartial to the annual Trance Dance, which happened during Boys and Girls Weekend. For two days the genders were split up, couples in their seemingly permanent lip-locks forcefully pried apart.
While the boys traipsed through the woods and learned to make fire, the girls essentially took part in a sober rave, where we were blindfolded in a field to let loose as trippy electronic dance music blasted over the scratchy sound system.
The only people who weren't blindfolded were the counselors, who kept watch to make sure we didn't slam into each other as we thrashed around, and Parashakti, the serene Israeli woman clad entirely in flowing white cotton, who led the dance.
We crowded around her underneath the huge white tent we called the Mothership. "Let the music crawl into your body and take over. Go wherever it moves you," she said, the last few syllables warped as she convulsed emphatically to demonstrate, her white head wrap unraveling. "Let it eat your self-consciousness right out of your body!"
I told Molly I didn't want to participate. "You sure?" she asked gently. "It couldn't hurt to try it." I made a face, so she led me to sit at the edge of the hill, looking out into the field. I could sit out the dance, but the blindfold was non-negotiable.
It had poured all day, and the field had turned into a muddy, sloppy swamp. I found a dry patch to sit in and fidgeted as the music played, growing increasingly bored listening to the other girls stamp and howl.
Maybe I'll just stand up to sort of look like I'm participating, I thought to myself. I gingerly took a few steps down the hill and bopped in place self-consciously behind my blindfold, sneaking a peek at the brown water bubbling over my bare feet. I swung my arms around, shuddering in the cool breeze.
Someone next to me whooped loudly, and I attempted a weak yell in response. "Yes! Yes!" Parashakti called out from the hill. "Dance harder!" It did feel good to move; I started to spin slowly in time with the beat, cautiously trying to sense the other girls around me, screaming to distract myself when I started to feel lightheaded.
Without sight, the music seeped into my head, latching on like a virus. The permission slip to be uninhibited was intoxicating. I punched the air, whipped around, kicked my feet out, slapped the mud, the panic easing out from under me. Dropping to the slippery ground, I pushed my palms into the earth, overcome by a blossoming primality.
Parashakti's voice rang through the air, ripping me out of my haze. "Powerful women!" she called, sounding far away. "Now is the time to begin to wind down, if you will come up to join me."
The music stopped, and I realized that in the hour we were dancing it had become dark. I stared up at the sky, surprised to find myself crying. Kitty and Casey materialized next to me, hugging me hard as other girls staggered past us, dazed.
After the dance finished, my blanket of anxiety felt less like a safety net. The high of cracking open my self-consciousness sparked a fresh momentum — I knew I had to swim to the bottom to see how deeply my newborn moxie could go.
And so the next night I found myself lined up in a bathing suit, blessing the mother stones before I crawled haphazardly into the clammy wigwam Medicine Bear had spent the week building for us to sweat in.
The sweat would be five rounds, each increasingly shorter and hotter. We would be allowed to leave at the end of each round, and could come back if we wanted, or sit outside until the ceremony finished. If we felt too hot in the middle, we could call out for them to open the door; no one was trapped. I recited this to myself like a mantra as I staked out a spot near the entrance.
Bright, burning stones were brought inside from the fire and placed into the middle of the hut. In three circled rows around them we sat cross-legged, whispering nervously. "Shut the door!" Medicine Bear called out, and we were plunged into darkness.
He poured water onto the rocks and they sizzled with steam, rushing in a swirl around our heads, clouding the thick air like frost. I put my face to the ground, where it was coldest, feeling eased by the strings of cool air that leaked under the branches.
Medicine Bear told stories about our ancestors. The smell of sage danced around the space, the heat squeezing me into a brief delirium. I clung to his deep voice, and when we finally sang, I shouted the words until my mind went dark: "Earth my body water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit," everyone using their last breath to say the last few words loudest of all. I melted into the music and the sisterhood, the howls of bliss around me, and Casey's hand grasping mine as our slick shoulders bumped together, like twins in a womb.
"Open the door!" Medicine Bear called abruptly, and air and light swarmed the space. I peered outside as girls around me jumped to file out, their laughs edging into the cool night.
In a few weeks I'd be back at high school, and camp, the sweat lodge and the Trance Dance, plus my gradually waning anxiety, it would all feel like the last licks of a fever dream.
But it was still summer, and I was surrounded by new friends who loved me. I had let myself be surrounded by heat, the crux of my biggest fear, but all I could feel was warmth.
I looked at Casey collapsed happily on the ground, her glowing face streaked with dirt. I stayed where I was. Soon, the door flap closed again, opened, closed, again and again, until there were no rocks or water left and it opened for good, leaving me to crawl out into the night, soaked and buzzing with a fragile newness and feeling so keenly alive.