I’m terrified of heights; that and the dentist. But being in high places is particularly anxiety inducing to me. I guess my worst possible scenario would be visiting a dentist whose office is located on the top floor of a very tall building.
But I digress; in my late 30’s I did volunteer work with juvenile offenders. Rather than incarcerate these problem teens, this program would have them participate in different sorts of community service activities. But the program was also designed to provide some positive guidance, self esteem and confidence building. (Although a couple of them didn’t seem to be lacking any confidence when they robbed a gas station.) Anyway…
On one particular outing with the Troubled Teens we went through an exercise called a High Ropes Course. This involves having a person climb up to a platform high in a tree and then walk a tight rope. Of course the person was tethered with a harness and safety line; but the safety person was also another Troubled Teen. I guess the idea was this would foment some concept of trust in others as well as team building and all that malarkey. (Again, they seemed to have worked well as a team knocking over the gas station.) Anyway….
As one of the adult supervisors on this expedition, I hadn’t actually expected to try the climb up to the platform some 110 or more feet up the tall tree. When asked, I politely declined and instead continued to help the boys. But it was all too obvious to the teens that I wasn’t willing to risk the climb myself. I hate competition and I hate even more macho competition, but my reputation was being challenged here. As we were wrapping up the exercise for the day, my self esteem relented; I agreed to try the climb up to the platform on the wobbly rope ladder.
The climb wasn’t difficult itself but upon reaching the top and transitioning from the ladder to the platform, I was in mortal terror. An instructor was already on the platform, attached to the tree by a safety line as well. She helped me onto the platform wherein I hugged the trunk of that tree like a bear. Noticing my hyperventilating she reassured me that I was safely attached to the tree and wasn’t going anywhere.
Okay, main problem overcome… except now I had to get back down. The instructor offered to have me lowered on the safety line, but the thought of having my scared ass lowered to the ground like a sack of flour in front of these cocky teens was not an attractive prospect. I opted to attempt to rappel to the ground by myself.
After a brief explanation of the rappel equipment, I lay on my stomach on the platform, legs dangling in space. My heart was racing, my head pounding - I thought I would self combust from the adrenaline coursing through me. I inched back and down, whimpering as I worked my way off the platform tensing the rappel line.
Then there I was… free of the platform, dangling there suspended in space.
And at that moment a funny thing happened… my fear completely and utterly disappeared. It was as if the “fear switch” in my brain had been turned OFF! I’m hanging there by the rope, clearly not falling to my death. This was really cool! I lowered myself to the ground thinking that was totally fun. Still it seemed odd to me that safely perched on the platform I would be so afraid yet actually suspended from the rope my fear dissipated!
Fast forward another decade – I was at the Willamette Valley Parachute Club Drop Zone for my first skydive. I had just survived a serious and nearly fatal heart infection the previous year and now felt somehow compelled to experience things in my life that I had always been afraid to do. The plan was for me to do a “tandem” skydive where one is attached (securely) to an experienced skydiver by a special harness.
Following roughly two hours of “training” we were ready to go up in the plane and experience my first skydive. The aircraft was a small 4-passenger Cessna in which all the seats but the pilot’s had been removed. I actually like flying in airplanes and was having a pretty good time, that is, until the tandem master opened the door of the tiny aircraft and I looked out – down, actually.
The TERROR was indescribable; there was NOTHING between me and the earth 12,000 feet below. I was a sack of dead weight as I felt the Tandem Master shove me toward the opening rush of wind.
“Ready” I heard. My body rocked forward.…
“Set” rocking now back...
“GO” Then in a terrifying forward somersault into empty space our conjoined bodies were accelerating toward earth.
The rush of wind was deafening. I felt the tandem master doing something, but soon we started to “helicopter”; the ground below me was spinning – double spinning as I could not get both my eyes to track together. After what seemed like an eternity I heard a distinct “fump” then felt as though I was being lifted upward. Within three seconds the chute was fully opened, the air became deathly quiet. I felt like I was going to vomit. I didn’t.
Then there was magic. The ride under canopy was wonderful; the feeling as if “flying”, exquisite. I could see the mountains and clear up and down the length of the valley. We gently touched down on my ass in wheat field stubble. Then it was over. Within minutes I was safely in the car heading home. I was a different man when I woke the following morning.
One week later I returned to the drop zone to sign up for lessons. I HAD to know if I could skydive independently, completely responsible for my own safety. Somehow the experience at the high ropes course years previously had suggested to me that possibly, if I could again take control of that “fear switch” in my brain, could I overcome fear as a barrier to other aspects of my life?
I was a sport skydiver for two years. By that time I had resolved to not let fear prevent me from doing the things I wanted to do.
Oh and in case you are wondering… I visit my dentist regularly every six months.