by autumn phillips, as told to Suzanne Pollak
When Autumn Phillips asked if I wanted to go with her to Lebanon, I (Suzanne) jumped at the chance. I was born in Beirut, but the reason I said yes was a chance to travel with a real adventurer—to travel in a completely different way than I ever had. There is no time like now to overcome fears and obstacles, something I think we can all learn from this incredible woman as she shares her story here:
For my first trip out of the country, I bought a three-month ticket to Nairobi. I didn’t know what I was going to do and didn’t have an itinerary. I just went. Back then, I wasn’t afraid. At twenty-two, I didn’t understand there were things to be scared of in life. Fears are something you accumulate over time. For me, fears accumulate by listening to other people telling me to be afraid or because I had a bad experience and couldn’t let go of it. When I look back at all the adventures I had in my twenties, I realize I was fearless. Now that I am in my forties, many of the adventures I go on are all about overcoming the fears I accumulated over the years.
This morning I was writing about trying to get over my fears about sailing—which I have done—and how long it took. I was in a sailing accident in my thirties. I learned over the years that if I had immediately gotten back in that boat, shaken it off, and started sailing again, the fear wouldn’t have set in the way it did. The trauma wouldn’t have calcified into something that was hard to get over.
When it came to that sailing accident, I didn’t immediately get back into the boat. In fact, I got towed to shore, put the boat away, and walked off without saying anything to anybody. I didn’t get back into a boat for a very long time. When I did, I was shocked at how terrified I was. I got over the fear of sailing by deciding I was going to get over it and then making myself sail. I took a sailing course and started all over from the beginning. I wasn’t afraid to admit to other people that I was scared—I purposely told them my goal was to get over my fear, knowing a little peer pressure would help motivate me. I didn’t succeed right away. It required repetitive motion until I got over it.
On my trip to Kyrgyzstan in December, I experienced a moment of deep, deep fear when I was on a horse going over a mountaintop. I desperately wanted to get off that horse, but the snow was too deep, and also, I was on the top of the mountain and had no choice! So, I paused, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that I was supposed to be having fun. I was scared because I did not trust the horse or my own skills. But I pushed through it. When it was over, I had survived.
I think it is good to put yourself in situations where you are in over your head to a degree, not in a reckless way, but in a way that lets you overcome your fear because you have no choice. Overcoming such fear is exhilarating. You feel strong; you feel that you can tackle anything. Riding a horse over a mountaintop translates in regular life to being able, for example, to respond to someone pushing back at you in a corporate meeting with a feeling of confidence like, “I am a badass, don’t push me.”
I think that one of the reasons the pandemic was so difficult is that we couldn’t do hard travel. Hard travel is something I have used over and over in my life to wake myself up. After getting a divorce at forty and feeling defeated, I went to Cameroon and climbed Mount Cameroon. Even though the trip didn’t fix everything, it helped me feel strong. Fear snaps you out of it. You can’t indulge in self-pity when you are sucking for oxygen at twelve thousand feet. All you can think about is your feet. So you take another step, and then another step. The challenge is good for you in that way. If you get rigid in life and think there is only one path forward, it’s good to get on a plane and go to your version of Kyrgyzstan.
Fears are something you accumulate over time. For me, fears accumulate by listening to other people telling me to be afraid or because I had a bad experience and couldn’t let go of it.
When it comes to travel, conquering fear is about following your imagination—not finding a way of punishing yourself. I don’t think I need to go to Siberia even though I hear Siberia is beautiful. It’s not like I pick the most horrible places to punish myself. I follow my passion and curiosity. For example, I want to go to Sudan because when I was climbing that mountain in Cameroon, I met some really interesting international Red Cross volunteers who showed me a picture on their phone of this beautiful desert with pyramids, completely quiet and alone, in northern Sudan. That image has never left me. I have that on my list. I went to Ethiopia because somebody gave me a photo of the pilgrims dressed in white carrying what they believed was the Ark of the Covenant. That description captured my imagination, and I couldn’t let go of it. I went to Ethiopia for three months, and it was amazing, incredible, inspiring—and hard.
On that first trip to Nairobi—three months by myself at age twenty-two—I went as the person I was taught to be by my parents. During my first day there, I met this guy who was a real estate developer from London. He bought a Land Rover and put a refrigerator and golf clubs in the back. His goal was to play golf in every country in Africa. He had been doing it for years. He was capable. He understood the politics of the world. He understood how to behave in just about every situation, from crossing the sketchy checkpoint in the middle of nowhere to walking into the country club perfectly dressed for his golf game. Watching him taught me how I could be. I had never met anyone like him.
I think it is good to put yourself in situations where you are in over your head to a degree, not in a reckless way, but in a way that lets you overcome your fear because you have no choice.
I met other fascinating people from all over the world who were so good at life. I learned so much; it was like a crash course on how to live. I ventured to the very far west of Uganda and saw the gorillas. I sat on the banks of Lake Victoria for Christmas. When I came back, I felt like everything in the world was an option for me, not just the things I had been told.
I got back from Kyrgyzstan on December 20, had a mammogram on December 23, and on December 27, my 48th birthday, I had several biopsies. I learned that I have Stage IV breast cancer. It has made me look back on my life and look forward to what I have left. When I think of how I want to spend the future, one of the core things I want to do is travel more, to experience the exhilaration of overcoming my fears. I have started writing a book about travel. In June, I am going to Lebanon and have plans to go on an adventure after every twelve-week scan. There is a new urgency to say yes to the things on the long list I have always wanted to do. Now I understand it is a gift to know you have a limited amount of time, and you shouldn’t waste it.
— V —
Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.