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Conquering My Fear of Heights

Aug 14 2013

Conquering My Fear of Heights

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flyingYou wouldn’t know from my daredevil partnering when I dance but I’m actually desperately afraid of heights. Like scream-like-a-little-girl desperate. And it doesn’t lighten the mood to point out that I am, in fact, a petite female. For some reason being held up by someone in a lift, even two people high, does not scare me, but jumping on a trampoline does. I’ve always blamed it on a dislike of that feeling when your stomach drops as you fall – even being on a swing set is a little intense for me. But the moment I try and partner with someone (which in dance terms means doing some sort of lift with another dancer) my modus operandi is to – in the words of a friend – “jungle gym my way up and go upside down.” I’ve long been puzzled by this dichotomy but even though intellectually I know it doesn’t make any sense, I can’t change how I feel.

A different friend recently told me that people who are afraid of heights are actually afraid of losing control. And it’s true that if I am riding a ski lift or in a skyrise looking down I don’t actually feel scared. Or if I’m climbing a tree or a rock climbing wall. But if I’m on a ladder, or close to the edge of a cliff, or on a rooftop, it’s a different story (and that was intentionally something of a pun). Perhaps my friend was subtly suggesting that he thinks that I’m a control freak but regardless of the cause it has seemed, more and more, like a useless fear that I should look into addressing.

I recently went on vacation with my extended family on my mother’s side in the resort town of Conway, NH. It’s bustling in the winter with skiing activities on the mountains but in the summer they convert the mountainsides into sparsely attended theme parks with rides and activities that are slightly more outdoorsy and rickety than Disneyland. And what was the first thing they asked if I wanted to do?

A zip line.

My initial response:

Uh, no.

My actual response after a moment of hesitation:

Sure. No problem. That sounds like fun.

(The last sentence was mostly to convince myself)

The zip line seemed like a good baby step towards facing my fear of heights. I would securely strapped in and the ride was about 45 seconds. I could handle 45 seconds. Feet up on the gate, straps secured on my seat, 1, 2, 3, and then I was released. And all I could feel was wind. I was flying, soaring over the canopy of pine and maple trees. It was exhilarating.

At the mountain there was also a structure that people were jumping off of onto a giant inflated landing pad. Upon arriving at the park, my first reaction to seeing it was “no way in hell.” But riding high on the rush of the not-scary-at-all dash across the New Hampshire skyline I decided to really face my fear of heights and jump off of something. I approached the two-story high metal structure trying to project more confidence than I felt.

A couple of months ago Shem, one of the founders of the Bklyn Beast, challenged me to jump off a platform at the gym into the foam pit. He demonstrated, jumping off so that his body was horizontal in the air before falling gracefully, flat as a board, into the pit. After a lot of coaxing from Shem I jumped feet first, waving my arms and squealing like a little girl. Just as I knew I would.

This time there was no one to coax me, just a woman at the top who described the best way to fall with mild disinterest, like a flight attendant describing safety procedures before a takeoff. My courage faltered as a looked towards the expansive grey landing pad below. I certainly felt like I was a lot higher up than it looked from the ground. I backed away from the edge. It was less scary if I couldn’t see the ground and I would have one more step to chicken out. “Ok Micheline,” I thought to myself, “It’s just three steps. One, two, three, jump! One, two, three, jump!” My feet didn’t respond. During my internal monologue the wind picked up and the woman stepped in front of me to keep me from jumping. It hadn’t occurred to me that the wind could actually blow me off course as I jumped. What if an unexpected gust came during my fall and I missed the landing pad all together? My heart started to pound and I shook my head to break my paranoia. Logically that didn’t make any sense; the fall would only be a matter of seconds. The wind subsided, the woman stepped aside. My heart pounding hard now, I thought to myself “Ok, it’s only three steps. Just three steps. You can handle three steps and a very short fall.” And for what felt like the first time, I believed myself. It was just three steps and a split-second fall. It was not a big terrifying leap. I would not get hurt in the process.

I matched my feet to the rhythm of my heart – one, two, three – and lept. My heart dropped into my stomach but before the involuntary squeal escaped my lips for one beautiful split second I was flying, my arms stretched out behind me like wings. I landed softly on the pad and promptly collapsed to my hands and knees, which then gave out so I was flat on my front. I started laughing, laughing from released anxiety, laughing from the exhilaration, and laughing because I had done it, I had done it! And it really wasn’t that bad.

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