the fear of falling

Three college friends and I recently went to Colorado on vacation. What a glorious four-day adventure it was. It seems we’re forming a pattern of vacationing together every five years; although I’d love to go more often, every five years seems like a realistic plan.
 It’s tough to pick a favorite part of the trip—laughing until I peed my pants (twice!) ranks up there—but I think I liked the camaraderie of physical exertion best. I met these friends on my college rowing team (Go Dawgs!), so our initial bonding had been over sweat, blisters, and bookoo spandex. Nearly two decades after first befriending these gals, it was a blast to experience together the discomfort of sun-burned lips, labored thin-air breathing, the excitement and trepidation of free-climbing down rocky ledges, and even the indignity of peeing in one’s pants.

Hiking gave us time to tell stories. A highlight among them was my friend Sherry’s story within a story: a few months ago her StoryCorps story  about her parents attending a regatta aired on Atlanta NPR. [And remember that time my family was in a Cheerios commercial? I guess I didn’t talk much about it because none of them knew.]

Fear is a curious thing. Facing our fears on the trip got us discussing fight v. flight. I told the story about the time I jumped off 27 waterfalls when I was in the Dominican Republic a few years ago. That story begins, as my stories so often do, with my blissful ignorance about what was to come. Indeed, I count that drive to the falls and walk up the falls to be the single best part of the trip. What came next, however, was not. After being handed a helmet and then hiking two hours up a steep slope, you’d think I would have fully taken in what was coming next, but it took standing at the first precipice to acknowledge and then panic about my impending demise. Oh yes, we were jumping DOWN TWENTY-SEVEN WATERFALLS.

Everyone in our travel party (except Nate, who knew my secret because I kept begging him to save me through pursed lips) thought I had the best time. And how did I achieve this facade? I’ll tell you it is not because I’m the best fibber ever. Rather, it is because I kept sprinting ahead of the group—knocking people over if necessary—so I could jump first. After I stood at the first edge, I realized going first was the only way in the world I could get the gumption to jump!

I never did really enjoy the thrill of falling and getting water up my nose, but despite my protestations, I did survive. I can’t quite explain what came next, but ever since that trip, I’ve taken any opportunity I can to jump off of or climb down the edge of high places. It’s like I’ve unleashed some deeply hidden badass who steps up and takes over my body when presented an opportunity to experience heights.

[I hope I am expressing the extent to which my acrophobia had ruled me prior to this point in my life. When I was a kid, my dad would take me to houses he was building, and if there was a second floor landing, I would skim across the wall opposite it like one of those fish suckers on an aquarium. Even as an adult, if I climb to the top of a large escalator, I make a weird shiver sound and motion at the thought of falling down the escalator. Not that I ever have, mind you, but what iffffffff?!???]

Here’s where it gets really weird. Over time, these exposures to heights have put an end to my fear. I’d heard of exposure therapy, but before my personal experience, I never quite bought it. Fear of heights, like any phobia, seemed like such a visceral reaction that I couldn’t imagine ever getting past the shaking, sweating, and racing pulse. And yet.

Let’s be clear: I’m not going sky diving any time soon. But I’m still happy about how far I’ve come. Next stop, public speaking? I’ve been telling people for nearly a year that I want to conquer my fear of speaking to a large group, but I have yet to pull the trigger. Yes, I tried out for Listen to Your Mother, but I also had other chances to step up on other stages and didn’t. But now that I’ve seen that I actually can nearly annihilate a fear, what’s stopping me from tackling another?

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

That lovely quote is by Brené Brown, of vulnerability research fame (aka The Best Ted Talk Ever). I pulled my head out from under a rock to learn about her via an interview with Liz Gilbert on the Big Magic podcast, which I just looked up again and is actually called “Magic Lessons.” So that’s what I plan to do: I will put myself out there and {gulp} let myself be seen, even though just typing that sentence scares me. For me, figurative falling is even more frightening than the literal kind. Unless I’m wearing bright pink knee-high socks, then I’m good.

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3 thoughts on “the fear of falling

  1. I love this, Justine. I AM afraid of heights (above a certain height) and guess what…I went skydiving. It was in college and it really was one of the top amazing things I’ve ever done. Truly. I think you should go for it someday. But mostly I wanted to say that I agree with you that physical exertion with others is some kind of magic key that gets our hearts and mouths to open up a bit. I love when that happens. Glad you had a great trip.

    1. I remember your fear of heights well from the escalator at Porter Sq., & I can’t BELIEVE you went skydiving! I thought for sure you’d be on my side on this one. Hmm. I’m going to be pondering this revelation about you for a while.

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