Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letting go of Fear

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.

Photo: The author (right) having just completed a skydive from 10,000'.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Did you learn to enjoy the part before the chute opens. Einstein said the most beautiful thought he ever had was that a falling body does not feel its own weight.

Marylinn Kelly said...

A tale of triumph to start the day...think about fears and how might I transform them. A fine telling, your process and the circumstances so visual, so relatable. In the probably not my business category, was your infection myocarditis?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Most of the skydivers love the freefall, but I found I never learned to "relax", keeping one eye on the altimeter. Normal pull altitude was 3,000" but sometimes I would pull at 5,000' just because I enjoyed the canopy ride more. I once saw an airplane fly underneath me when I was under canopy... strange experience.

Marylinn Bacterial Endocarditis, I have a defective aortic valve. My infection was in 1993; they told me back then that the valve would need to be replace in 10 years, it's now been 17 so I am overdue.

Anonymous said...

Wow, very impressive. I would have vomited, I am sure. I didn't have the fear of heights issue when I was younger, but it has gotten worse as I have gotten older. Congratulations on facing a fear and winning. Do you still have the fear, or have you just learned to ignore it?

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow I’ll try to keep this short - In answer to your question, yes I still have fear. The difference is in acknowledging it for what it is, but not allowing it to become a barrier to progressing. Most people are risk-adverse, but we are faced with different situations of risk every day: driving a car or changing jobs or entering into relationships. The idea is to measure and act on “calculated” risks.

The experience of facing my risks through skydiving changed me dramatically as I was VERY risk adverse up until then. But being risk adverse did not serve me when I almost died anyway of a medical condition. Learning to face my fears and take calculated risks has allowed me to retire early and produce my documentary, make some real estate decisions which have kept us out of poverty, and explore other things that I would never have been open to me had I remained risk adverse. There are rewards to be had by not allowing fear to become a barrier.

Entre Nous said...

I really need a dose of your courage. My fear of heights is crippling.
I was fine until meeting my sister one day at the top of the Pru in Boston for lunch. Before being seated I was standing with the toes of my shoes directly on the floor to ceiling glass, staring down at the teeny little cars way down there, as usual off in my own little world.
As one who could never resist the oppurtunity to torment her little sister, my sister snuck up behind me and gave me a bit of a shove.
My hands flew to the handrail positioned waist high, mind reeling, thumping heart in my throat somewhere. I nearly passed out, and forever more was I permantly scarred!
If I somehow end up over the third floor of a parking garage, I am the one flattened against the wall, feet never leaving the cement, inching my way to the elevator doorway.
After volunteering on 9/12, then watching the TV accounts afterwards of those pour souls jumping from the building to escape the searing heat, I'm not even the leas bit interested in high bridges one has to drive across. Something about all that air beneath me, with only a cement platform separating me from the abyss. Not to mention the bridge that fell apart here in CT sending motorists straight off the edge. Sigh.

secret agent woman said...

I'm not particularly afraid of heights, but I do not have the thrill seeker gene. Or rather, not of the physical danger variety. Other thrills, perhaps...

The Mother said...

I have no phobias. Except perhaps making a fool of myself.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous No I indeed share your fear of heights; I am uncomfortable going over high bridges. I worked on the 10th floor of a building in downtown Portland; I asked that my desk be in the middle of the room away from the windows. It took me weeks to get comfortable.

That was a pretty mean thing for your sister to do, though. I would have freaked as well.

Oddly, though, after I was an accomplished skydiver, I could open the door of the plane, lean out and look down giving the pilot vectors to the DZ. There was something about having the parachute rig securely attached to my back that mitigated the fear. And I have no fear of flying in large or small aircraft.

SecretAgent Likely you already know this; studies were done on skydivers under the assumption that the thrill seekers had a "death wish". Turns out that skydivers are better psychologically adjusted than the population at large. (though I can't locate the source fo that at the moment.)

Again there are foolish risks and calculated risks. Skydiving is regulated and safety procedures and training is paramount. conversely Bungie jumping is not and I would never attempt it.

Dr. Mom Now THAT I have no fear of doing, and I do so in abundance, according to my wife. I was usually the class comedian in school... although sometimes unintentionally.

Penny said...

On reading your response to another commenter here, I thought I'd share my bungee experience.
It was not dissimilar to your High Ropes one - I did volunteer work at one time with teenage (juvenile offender) girls, and a bright spark decided that bungee jumping was a good confidence booster. Sigh.
The bungee jumping instructor (you get about two minutes instruction) decided I should jump first. I'm frightened of heights, too, and this was petrifyingly scary. But with all those pairs of eyes watching,I did do it.
The girls all jumped, too, except for one very overweight girl, and I think a couple of them (from about 20)might have got something from the experience. The others probably shouldn't have done it. Yes, it is dangerous, and for several reasons, as you know. I am now older and hopefully wiser and I would never allow someone else's enthusiasm to over-ride my doubts like that again.

Culture Served Raw said...

A big congrats to you Robert! That story made me a little anxious, the way you described it at first sounds terrifying! I work as a dentist and still cannot fathom the excessive fear of dentists! Though my phobia of dead birds is no better :(

The Idiot said...

Skydiving has always been on my bucket list. Avoiding the dentist at all costs is on every list I have. I am fast on my way to having the teeth of a 93yr old Armenian Dude......but that is long as I can continue to avoid the dentist...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Penny Peer pressure is never a good reason for anyone attempt something, still it happens. I guess that is where the term "older and wiser" came from.

ServedRaw I have known a couple of people who had a morbid fear of dead birds. It is an odd one, the birds are dead so it's not like they could hurt you. Still it is a very real fear for some and it's difficult to pin any rationale on it.

My fear of the dentist stems from being hurt (several times) by my dentist when I was a kid.

Idiot My buddy described to me (in excruciating detail) how all his teeth had to be removed and steel pins inserted so he could have dentures. THAT alone made me swoon sufficiently to take meticulous care of my choppers in my mortal fear of having to go through what my friend did.

TechnoBabe said...

No way no how would I skydive. But I admire those who have the cajones to do it.

kara said...

mongra would recommend that you wear that helmet everywhere just in case.

Robert the Skeptic said...

TechnoBabe Thanks, but my cajones were huddled together fearing for their own safety.

Kara Mongra would want me to wear a helmet, safety goggles, respirator, and dab my forehead with alcohol. But that wasn't the part of me that almost got messed during my first jump!

KleinsteMotte said...

Height fear inside a building hits me but not in planes or helicopters or on amusement rides. Not sure how that works.Maybe I could try it. Will my blood pressure issues improve? That would make it sooo worth it!! I love your writing style.

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte There must be some criteria which the subconscious uses to assess risk/peril. I don't enjoy amusement park rides because I am not in control; high buildings are fine as long as I am not pressed up to the window. With skydiving, in other than the law of gravity, the skydiver is in control. So control might be the key to overcoming the fear.

Akeel Ahmed said...

Hi there Robert - really liked your blog entry. Sounds like a blast! I'm doing an MA and was wondering if I could use your blog in it as an example of an authentic skydiving blog - 'cos it's, like, well good.
I'm planning of analysing it using a concordance programme and comparing it to a blog presented in a textbook - 'cos it's, like, pants.
Is that ok?

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