My fear of heights can be crippling at times. No glass elevators for me. I don’t need to eat in a rotating restaurant at the top of skyscraper no matter how cool it is supposed to be. Getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower only to come right back down was a buzzkill. Passing out when my kids ran to the edge of Grand Canyon was humiliating.
Plane rides have always been anxiety-provoking for me. Not that that has ever stopped me from flying. With the help of an antihistamine, I can usually get through the flight, groggy and irritated, but I make it to my destination.
A couple of years ago, to celebrate our 50th and 25th birthdays, my daughter and I took a mother-daughter birthday trip to Arizona. I love Arizona, its dry heat, the desert flora, and all that zen lifestyle it personifies.
The resort we chose had a full array of activities. Cooking classes and arts and crafts activities for me; horseback riding and ziplining for my adrenaline junkie daughter. Good food, yoga, and plenty of meditation classes to satisfy us both. Not to forget the beautiful spa. I was so ready and excited. The flight ride be damned. Once we landed and settled into our resort, we started to sign up for the different activities. The plane ride was already forgotten.
My daughter looks up at me and says: “I really want to try the ziplining.”
Me: “Sure honey, you go ahead.”
My daughter: “No mom, it’s a group activity. I don’t want to go alone with a bunch of strangers. Please, mom. I need you to come with me.”
Me: …… (A blank stare and a million thoughts began to run through my head).
She struggles with social anxiety. She is uncomfortable around strangers. I had spent years trying to coax her into facing her fears. What she found crippling, I relished in. I am social to a fault. Yet what I feared gave her a jolt of adrenaline to last her for days! How is it possible that my pain is her joy, and her joy is my pain?
And just then, it hit me. For years I was basically telling her to get over it. Not in so many words perhaps, but with my can-do attitude. It had never dawned on me that the intensity and reality of HER fears were just as legitimate as mine! She had no problem jumping off a plane, yet I can barely get on one. This sickening feeling came over me. It was time.
Now was the time for me to practice what I had preached! God help me, I said yes. We signed up and paid up. We had officially committed. In two days, I was going ziplining with my daughter and eight other strangers. This felt like I had just agreed to jump into a pool of a HUNDRED hungry sharks with me as a bacon-wrapped snack.
Like everything else at this resort, the zipline excursion was supposed to be an experience. It implied that there was more to it than just jumping off this 45-foot-high platform! After it was done, we were to sit down as a group and discuss our post-jump feelings.
THE platform, and our jumping harnesses ready
That dreaded day eventually came. As the crew members got us fitted and into our jumping gear, the more freaked out I got. The closer I walked toward that platform, the more lightheaded I became. My palms got sweaty. I felt clammy. My heart was racing. Just one foot in front of the other, I said to myself.
There were 10 of us signed up for this exercise, all strangers except for my daughter. I had voiced my concerns prior to the beginning of the class, and now they all knew that I was feeling uncomfortable. Not that I could hide it if I tried.
There were two activity leaders. One went up the platform first and called down: “Come on, Farah.” WHAT? ME? FIRST? “No, no, I am not ready,” I said that last part out loud. And so the whirlwind began!
The group of strangers now took it upon themselves to help me. “You’re ready, honey,” said one lady with a very strong southern accent. I looked back at her, ready to pounce and tell her to mind her business, but her face was so friendly, her accent so endearing, I thought: behave, keep it together.
So I took that first step. Then one more rung up that ladder. I was still close to the ground and thought, I got this. Slowly, very slowly, I took one step up, then another. Then about halfway, I looked down, trying to find the next rung. I froze. This felt too high already. The instructor called out: “Don’t look down. Look at me. Keep your eyes on me. Just keep looking at me.”
My hands felt slippery; my legs felt shaky; my chest felt tight; my breathing got shallow. NO, no, no, no, I will not have a panic attack. I have never had one before, but I am all too familiar with them. I had learned and heard about these. No, I can’t.
Then a familiar voice from below said: “You can do it mommy.” The fog broke. I took a deep breath, just like I had coached her many times before. Deep Breath! I took another step up, and the people below cheered. With every step I took, the cheering got louder.
Me, half way up that platform, feeling half way dead
It seemed I had been stuck in the middle of that climb for a while. My body was visibly shaking, and I realized I had started crying. The cheers got louder still, and I heard my girl say, “Just four more steps, mom. You can do it”. She was counting them down for me. “ Three more mom”, she shouted. I took another step, and they cheered.
When I reached the top, and the instructor touched my shoulders, relief ran through me. Thank God it was over. He helped pull me onto the platform, and I was about to smile, only to quickly realize I was so high up, and there were no railings (thin cables only). I planted face down on that platform and stayed there, trying to keep myself calm with my breathing. One by one, the others climbed up. They stood around me, willing me to get up.
“No, I think this is enough for me,” I said. The look of disappointment on my daughter’s face nearly broke my heart. They circled me, creating a wall of bodies, shielding me from the edge. Slowly I stood up, holding to my harness for dear life. A couple in the group jumped off, and I heard their laughter. One by one, the rest followed. The more of them that jumped, the closer my turn got. I started to cry again. I can’t, I just can’t do this. I felt so disappointed in myself. I had gotten this far only to let them all down.
I asked the instructor: “Can you just push me off? Please just push me”. He calmly said: “This is not how this works. YOU need to take that step. I cannot do it for you”. I begged. I pleaded. His answer was still no.
My daughter stayed behind till the very end. She glanced back at me just as she was about to jump. I looked into her eyes, reached toward her, and heard myself scream. The sound that came out was like nothing I had ever heard before. It did not sound human.
And just like that, I was zipping down, right behind my little girl. I continued to scream loud, like some wild animal. And before I knew it, the zipping got slower and slower, and when the movement stopped, I opened one eye.
Me in front with my arms covering my face, my girl in the back
I had done it. More cheers. The strangers were clapping. There was so much applause. A couple of the other moms were visibly crying with me. The instructors reached up to unclamp me. I couldn’t stand up. Not yet. My daughter ran to me, and a few of the others came too. They came to help lift me off the ground.
Right after, we sat in a circle to dissect our experience. I said nothing. I had said it all. I had felt it all. They had seen and heard it all. I felt bare and vulnerable. Despite the crying, the screaming, the animal sounds I had made, and the delays caused by my hesitations, I felt no shame. I felt utterly drained and very relieved.
Eventually, I found the strength to walk back to our hotel room. After a hot shower and some rest, we dressed and went to eat at the hotel restaurant. We bumped into a couple of the “strangers” sitting at the table beside us. I got sweet, knowing smiles; pats on the shoulder, and head nods all through dinner as a few more of them came into the restaurant that night.
A few of the on the ground activities: Kintsugi bowl art class, chakra bracelets and chocolate making class
After a few more excursions and activities, all on solid ground, thank God, it was time to fly back home. We got ready, went to the airport, and got on our flight. I read a bit. I naped a bit. Then we landed. It suddenly dawned on me. I just flew back IN A PLANE and forgot to be anxious or afraid. There was no nausea at take-off and none during the landing. Granted, I never opened a window; nonetheless, I just had a plane ride WITHOUT so much as a flutter in my belly.
I have flown several times since then. Not an antihistamine in sight. Long or short flights. I can do this now. The anxiety that came the night before a flight, gone. The panicky feeling just before we board, gone. I will not, however, be volunteering to parachute jump off a plane any time soon. It is not like I am a daredevil now.
My fear and discomfort are now manageable. I won’t say I love flying, but I can honestly say: It is okay. I am okay. The cramped spaces, long waits, frequent delays, last minute cancelations are a drag. Turbulence will sometimes cause some emotional and physical discomfort, but nothing that a few deep breaths can’t take care of. The look on my husband’s face during those times tells me that my reaction was “normal” because the rest of the passengers probably felt discomfort too.
This was pretty much a desensitization exercise. It is not novel. Facing your fears, once you do, that monster you grew in your head and imagination is exposed for what it truly is — your imagination. However, the honest truth is, I would have never voluntarily signed up for any such therapy. I didn’t think I had problem! And just like that, while trying to save face and walk the talk, I walked away from a 40 year old fear of heights.
That experience has forever changed me in more ways than one. It was both eye and heart-opening. It started me on a major inward journey. I have a deeper understanding and so much compassion for others with phobias and anxiety. My joy can be another’s idea of pain and vice versa. This realization has colored how I see and treat my patients (I am in health care but not in psychology). It has changed my relationship with my daughter and launched me on this road of self-discovery. It is easy to give advice with our “ just breathe” and “take it one step at a time.” These seem like simple and basic things to say and do until it is you whose feet are held to the fire — a true lesson in how to come from a place of empathy and not sympathy. Lesson learned.
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