"Wait a second, you're going WHERE?" my friends asked. "Are they filming this?" "Please tell me you are not doing some new reality show." "No. No one is filming it, I'm just going to survival camp because I, ya know, want to learn how to survive," I responded.
Now you might think that, having been through failed marriages, child abuse, mountains of tabloid insinuations, and a 30-year-long roller coaster ride of a career in Hollywood, I already know how to survive everything. In fact, when you think you know everything, you really know nothing. I'm a woman who feels fear (and I sure wish I didn't), but when I do, I go out of my way to say, "OK fear, I'm looking you straight in the eye. Bring it on, whatcha got?" I'm embarrassingly obsessed with reality survival shows. And when I found myself with a quiet July this year, I tweeted a total stranger, John Hudson, star of Dude, You're Screwed, and asked if he'd help me tackle new personal survival heights. I told him I hoped to bring back a few philosophical gems to Los Angeles, where as an actress soon to be turning 50, I was going to need them. Here's what I brought back.
1. First and foremost: Make a cup of tea. Whenever the shit is hitting the fan and you are lost, literally or metaphorically, don't go running off into the forest frantically yelling for help because you are liable to trip on a log and face-plant into a puddle of mud that just happens to be next to a coiled rattlesnake. Instead, stop, sit down, build a little fire, and make a cup of tea. If you were in the wild and able to do this, it would mean you had found some form of shelter, gotten yourself out of the wind, managed to sort out some bits of dry wood and kindling to start your fire, found a water source, boiled it to purify it, added some sugar (glucose is brain fuel), then thought for a second about your plan. If you're in the big, bad city, a relationship, or a tense moment at work, it can mean stop, take a few breaths, and don't just react. Ask yourself, "What will happen if I do this?" "What will happen if I don't do this?" While you're taking a minute to think about your next move, make a cup of Pukka's Revitalis tea; you'll most likely make a much better decision leading to better results (and survival).
2. Know where you stand.On my first day with John Hudson, one of the founders of Survival Wisdom and the cute English guy on Dude, You're Screwed (you know the one), we went out hiking the Cornwall Coastal path. At one point John asked me if I could point north. I've always thought I had a pretty good sense of direction. Well, so much for instincts, because when I pointed north, it was indeed south. So I suppose while you probably don't want to ignore your "gut decisions," you may want to consider adding some actual facts to help you evaluate where you are.
On this day, we did a very long hike over Bodmin Moor to find a small phone mast. With no compass, they taught me to read the landscape and tune into nature. We climbed boulders, squelched through bogs, and pushed past a windblown forest and wild ponies. I learned that in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun is at your back, that will always be some form of south. At the end of the day, I was able to point to my home in Los Angeles. Knowing the way home is a good feeling. Take the time to get a better sense of where you are, 'cause knowing where you are makes it a whole hell of a lot easier to head to where you want to go.
3. Don't waste your energy. I'll admit, I watch a lot of survival shows. I am fascinated with the harshness of it all—imagining I could catch a wild boar and, if I did, could I really eat it? Truth is, I learned those animal catches take a lot of energy, and, if you really were stranded and lost, you'd probably end up eating more plants and bugs than you would expending energy trying to run after a wild animal. But I had asked for the extreme survival experience, so that's exactly what I got. I was taught to rip and twist the head off a large locust, pulling its guts out in one fell swoop. Then I stuck it on a stick and roasted it over the campfire until it turned light pink, just like a small prawn. Yes, just like a small prawn … NOT! Eating it wasn't the problem, killing it was more disturbing. I held it in my fingers, told it how grateful I was for giving me its life so I could have this "nutritious" experience. After the head is off you have to remove the legs too, because they have little barbs that can get stuck in your throat. It reminded me of when I was in cooking school last year at Le Cordon Bleu and we had to kill and cook a lobster. Listen, I'm no hypocrite: I eat meat, I respect animals and food and where it comes from. But it isn't easy, and I do try to offer some respect through the process. I also built a squirrel trap, then cleaned, cooked, and ate both a pigeon and a squirrel. All of which I put my little gourmet chef spin on by braising the squirrel in beer and bacon and glazing the pigeon with rose and peaches. This was the point during the trip when the survival guys were glad I was there.
4. Foxglove leaves make great toilet paper. Don't eat this plant 'cause it's poisonous, but the leaves have a soft, velvety underside and the big ones can stand in for Charmin.
5. Chewing gum lowers cortisol. I'm not a big gum chewer, but I've tried this since I've been back in Los Angeles, in traffic, during those moments when I feel a lack of control. Surprisingly, it's been settling. Plus my doctor told me that as women age, stress causes increased cortisol, one of the main factors in belly fat, so it's worth a try.
6. 100 percent verification. When it came to foraging, this was the rule. The first night I was in Lizard, Cornwall, I actually went off hiking the coastal path in the rain. After all, I had just flown across our country and the Atlantic and roadtripped 5 hours on a train … I needed some air. A few miles in, I felt stinging on my legs. It didn't let up and yet I couldn't find what it was. I didn't see a bite or a rash. Turns out I'd found nettles or, better said, they found me. The good news about that is they are edible. You can fold them up raw (needle side inward), and chew, chew, chew … they are full of protein. Or you can make them into a tea. Same goes for pine needles, both of which I had and were delicious. Of course I WAS washing down locust, so feel free to take that advice with a grain of salt. In terms of bugs, go for greens, browns, herbivores, and just say no to hairy, brightly colored ones. If you are really into this, try the book Food For Free by Richard Mabey or go even deeper with books by Tristan Gooley.
7. Recognize "self-induced" stress. The guys at Survival Wisdom are all ex-UK Military men, and because of that they were able to talk to me about the stress some soldiers go through. We add a level of stress to already stressful situations by judging our reactions. "I've failed." "I let my family down." "This is all my fault." "I should have been able to control this." We feel guilty. The way to correct this it is to stop, step back, and note what IS actually happening, not your commentary and judgment, but just the facts. And in that mindful moment, reassess your skills to calmly address changes that need to be made. Being mindful of this builds your own resilience, which will strengthen your ability to adapt, change, and develop, leading to more confidence. Practicing this skill can make a big difference in your daily interactions and reduce drama. Always a good thing, unless you are a character on Mad Men or Game of Thrones.
8. The fire is within you. Building a fire from nothing does seem like the first thing you would want to learn, right? OK, truth be told, you CAN rub two sticks together to get one going, but no camper is heading out into the wild without a fire starter. (Mine is in the handle of my knife.) And just because you HAVE a fire starter that will give off a spark does not mean you will be able to start a fire. You'll need to know how to build that spark into a blaze. You know what works? Match-sized sticks and petroleum-based lip gloss. If you are more of a masochist and want to start a fire with a mere four pieces of wood, you'll need to carve/cut a bow, a plank to hold the spinning drill, the drill itself, and a lid piece for pressure. That will all have to work in harmony, powered by your patience, tenacity, and strength because you'll pull that bow back and forth maybe 100 times or more, causing friction until you have a teeny, tiny ember you can carefully go start a fire with. It's hard. I still haven't been successful. Meanwhile, just the fact that I've given it as many back-breaking, heartfelt tries as I have tells me the fire to do something, to make things happen, is within me and that's all I really need to know.
9. Marmite IS a superfood. OK, if you are from England or Australia, you might already feel this way. If you are from California, you probably think I've lost my mind. But I'm a convert to loving this little salty spread in a jar. And on toast with cheese as they recommend, it may be just the way to up your vitamin B and boost your immune system. I opted for avocado instead of cheese, and while I can't say it's for everyone, it does somehow quell those weird PMS cravings that force me to eat a bag of salty potato chips.
10. It's the little things. "Survival is not a big thing: It's just a series of little tasks," John told me. "Once you start working, you won't stop." I did that. I evaluated first aid, I got my clothing situated, I built a shelter, cut up wood, built a fire, boiled water, found some food, oriented myself, put out a signal fire, and I survived. Of course, this was just a game because only a few miles away was a pub full of ale, crab, and proper Cornish cream tea. But the whole experience manifested what I thought was a great philosophy for when any aspect of life feels overwhelming. Try not to look at it like this giant, daunting goal beyond your control. Instead concentrate on the little things you know and can do, and just do one after the other until you realize you are through the worst of it and can actually see what it was you were striving for. If you do that, you'll truly be a survivor.
Images courtesy of Martin Rusch and Teri Hatcher