Confession: I have a fear of heights. Or at least I thought I did. Anything higher than a two-story building would usually induce a not-insignificant amount of anxiety. It’s been this way as long as I can remember and I never thought to question whether it was actual fear of heights that I was feeling, or something else.
It certainly seemed like acrophobia.
When I was 16, a memorable trip to the Eiffel Tower culminated in a terrifying ride up a never-ending elevator clinging desperately to my nearest travel companions, a few of whom likely lost circulation in their limbs. I remember standing frozen within the steel death trap, willing the ride to end. If possible, the descent was even worse. Images of snapping cables and the entire car full of people—including me!—plummeting to the ground below replayed in my head like a poorly-edited horror film.
A few years ago, what was meant to be a scenic parasailing adventure turned into an exercise in sheer terror. Did you know that when you go parasailing, you’re not actually secured into anything? You’re basically sitting in a sling as a giant parachute hoists you into the air. The idiom “throwing caution to the wind” came to mind. I was acutely aware of the glaring lack of safety precautions as we flew over the ocean. Like a kite. We were essentially like a human kite. Do you know how many kites inexplicably plunge to the ground mid-flight?
My friends all had a great time. I, on the other hand, held on so tightly to the hand straps that I burst a capillary in my arm. Yep. My only souvenir from the first (and likely last) attempt at parasailing was an arm spidered with tiny, bloody veins. Awesome.
Every year during snowboarding season, I’m faced in equal parts with joyous anticipation and mounting anxiety. Snowboarding doesn’t seem like something I’d enjoy; it’s cold, it’s wet, and it involves physical exertion. But curiously, I love it. I love that feeling of being in the snow, riding down the mountain with nothing but my board and my music. Who’d have thought.
What I don’t love is that in order to have these amazing runs, I first have to get to the top of the mountain…and that means riding the lift. It is a testament to how much I love snowboarding that I willingly ride that most precarious method of human conveyance ever invented. I have gotten better at it though. Kind of.
In the beginning, I used to insist on putting the bar down every time, much to the annoyance of fellow riders. I also had to sit on either edge—preferably the left—so that when I got off and inevitably faceplanted in the snow, the chances of taking other riders down with me is minimized. I used to spend the entire ride avoiding looking at anything but whatever was straight ahead—never, ever down.
Ok, fine. So the only part I’ve actually gotten better at is the not insisting on putting the bar down part. I still cling desperately to the seat and side rails of the chair (part of the reason I insist on sitting on the very left); I’ve just become more adept at doing it surreptitiously. It does baffle me though that after all these years I am still unable to get off the lift like a normal person.
I naively thought gondolas would be a better experience. After all, it’s clearly a sturdier contraption than a lift. Plus you’re enclosed, which in my case seems to create a psychological illusion of safety. That is until the cables rumble through intermittent passes that cause the entire gondola to shake. Yeah, not so fun. I am not so discreet when I grab on for dear life while riding a gondola. Those who have the misfortune of being seated next to me on such rides are duly warned.
With the memory of all of these experiences still bright and shiny, it only makes sense that I would want to go skydiving, right? I can imagine your look of disbelief because it’s likely the same one I got from everyone I first told about my desire to jump out of an airplane.
To be honest, I have no idea how the idea even came to be. I definitely didn’t see someone flying through the air one day and thought, “hey, that looks like fun!” You can’t get much higher than sky high (unless maybe you’re that Red Bull guy). It was more like one of those face-your-fears/bucket list things that first planted the idea in my head…and surprisingly, it took root and grew. I didn’t dismiss it as something outrageously impossible and for that I am grateful and a little proud.
Standing on solid ground, I had enough faith that I would be able to fly through the air—the mere thought of which should have paralyzed me with fear.
So on my last trip to Hawaii, I decided to do it. We went to an open field and I got into an airplane, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation—the aircraft seemed tiny and there weren’t even real seats or anything resembling safety equipment within, only two long benches and our parachutes. Obviously I was nervous.
Before we all boarded the plane, I kind of mumbled to myself that I wanted to go first. Seeing others falling out into the open sky didn’t seem like a good idea before having to muster up the courage to do the same thing myself. Someone must have heard because I was held back while everyone else boarded and I ended up being the last person to get on the plane.
There weren’t enough seats for all of us on the benches so I sat with the instructors and videographers on the floor toward the front. They chatted with me and pointed out random things inside the plane. Even in my state of extreme apprehension, I recognized and appreciated that they were trying to distract me from the impending jump, but also—I am quite sure—from the fact that the door to the plane was left open the entire time. (Pretty sure that part was never mentioned when we were signing the consent form.) Every time the plane turn or tilted in that direction, land and ocean could be seen clearly through the clouds, falling away from us. One instructor sat with his leg braced against the frame of that door, calmly eating a sandwich and cracking jokes I heard but wasn’t in the frame of mind to process.
When it came time to jump, my instructor strapped me to him and we scooted to the open door. I’d had visions of having to hurl myself out into the air; thankfully that didn’t happen. We sat at the edge, he casually leaned back…and suddenly we were out. I remember opening my eyes and seeing the rectangle that was the door to the plane. Except I was outside.
You know how the sky looks when you see it through the airplane window during a flight? That’s kind of how it was except when I looked down, I could see my shoes. Odd, I know. I clearly remember seeing my shoes, and the green of the mountains and blue of the ocean beyond them. And I realized something curious.
I wasn’t afraid.
I was at the greatest height I’d ever been in my life and I wasn’t afraid. All I felt was exhilaration and a profound sense of awe. It was without a doubt one of the most amazing things I’d ever done.
Once back on solid ground, I thought about why I wasn’t afraid. It was more than that I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t have enough emotions left to feel scared. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were up very high with nothing but miles of empty space between us and very hard, rocky ground.
The conclusion I came up with is that it didn’t feel like falling. Because we could control our descent and trajectory, it was more like floating or gliding through the air. Like a bird. There was a sense of security there that made it ok to be up that high, completely in the open.
So maybe it wasn’t actually a fear of heights all this time. Maybe it was a fear of falling. Is there a difference? Maybe. I still have anxiety being in high places but as long as the possibility of involuntarily falling from such heights isn’t present, I think I could be ok with it.
What a fascinating revelation.