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  • Jason Wood

Chasing Freedom

I’ve always been fascinated with the weather. When I was a little kid, one of my favorite books was Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs. I remember one time I got to do a book report in which I was a weatherman reporting live from Chewandswallow. From that point on, any time a storm was coming I was ready to cover it. In the winter, I’d don my snow boots and gear and head to the backyard to do a news report on the impending blizzard. In the summer, I’d draw maps of hurricanes and tornadoes and track them from home.

Once I got my driver's license I started chasing storms. There was just something about the freedom of being in the car in the middle of nowhere and witnessing the full power of nature. I’d drag my friends along, who would usually complain there weren’t enough bathroom or food breaks. Or they’d panic as soon as the sky turned dark and would want to go home. That’s when I started chasing by myself. Those chase days were my me time. Just the wide-open road, mother nature, the radio, and me.

As the years went on it became difficult to chase. Matt and I moved around the country, plus the unknown schedule of mother nature and a full-time job don’t mix well. That never stopped me from watching The Weather Channel all the time, streaming live chasers, and watching every weather documentary ever made. I even go back and rewatch news coverage from storm events, thanks YouTube!

Now in Colorado, I can chase again. But Matt will often ask me why would I want to go and chase. He expresses his (very valid!) concern about my safety. Why would I want to deliberately put myself in harm’s way?

I’ve reflected on this question. In my search for answers, I’ve discovered a connection between my battle with mental illness and my passion for chasing. Allow me to explain…

Anxiety and OCD make it pretty obvious that my amygdala is very active. I don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know that one. My mind is almost constantly in the fight-or-flight response. Mental illness tells me the worst-case scenario is bound to happen at any time.

I face anxiety over mundane items such as the way the curtains hang, what I am going to eat, or getting a head start on tomorrow’s to-do list. I look for control in everything I do to try and prevent the worst-case scenario from happening. Living with mental illness is exhausting. My amygdala never seems to quiet down. Medication and therapy help manage it, but storm chasing also factors into the healing equation.

Ok, so at this point, you’re probably like what? This guy with anxiety and OCD finds comfort in chasing tornadoes.

Yup, I do!

Storm chasing requires planning. I have to plan days in advance by studying models, listening to forecasts, and mapping out my target area. My mind thrives on planning and logistics. Planning a chase day prevents me from trying to plan other things that my anxiety and OCD might want me to such as my menu for 10 days from now. In a way, it reroutes my obsession-compulsive nature to productive activities; turning a challenge into a strength.

I also realize that when dealing with the weather, it’s out of my control. This is one of the few times I am able to cede control and simply focus on what I can control, such as my travel routes and strategy. Essentially, I am being pulled out of my comfort zone but in a way that is enticing because I love the weather!

When it’s just me, the radio, and nature, I can forget about the daily stresses of work and life. Meditation, yoga, and bubble baths may work for some but my favorite form of mindfulness is storm chasing. After all, when a tornado can come at you at any moment, you have to be in the present! There is no time to dwell on the past or worry about the distant future.

Living with mental illness is a lot like dealing with the weather. There are clear days and there are stormy days. We should embrace both the sun and storm because that’s what makes us who we are. My love of storm chasing has shown me the beauty in the stormy days, it’s taught me that even when things are outside of my control I can survive and that living outside of my comfort zone can create some incredible memories.

I acknowledge that storm chasing is dangerous and risky but I already live with a mind that seems to point out the potential danger and harm in everything. When I’m out there observing a severe storm, it’s like giving the middle finger to my mental illness and letting it know that I refuse to continue to live in the world of fear it tries to sell me.


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