I’m afraid of heights. Actually, I’m afraid of lots of stuff. If we’re going in order of most severe to least severe, my fears are tight spaces, dying with regrets, drowning, spiders, and then heights. I might have forgotten a few of them. Not important.
My claustrophobia is the worst of them. When I was young and needed stitches on my face after a nasty fall, the doctor offered to “show me a cool trick” and put my arms into an empty pillow case and then a nurse pushed down on my shoulders to pin me. I lost my fucking mind and thrashed until I forced my way out of the pillow case. After that, I was completely calm and they were able to stitch me up, which ironically would have happened in the first place had that bastard not tried to restrain me. Regardless, tight spaces or having my arms pinned freaks me out.
The problem is that I like going on adventures and so, in my teenage years, it so happened that one of those adventures was in a cave. If you’re curious, it’s considered a “primitive cave” which is another way of saying you bring your own damn lights and such. No guided tours here!
I’ve been back to that cave many times since then, but one thing has never left: always, always there is a little undercurrent of panic at the back of my mind. The trick, of course, is to keep it at bay and under control, but it’s never really gone. You just learn to deal with it and manage it.
I was invited to go indoor climbing yesterday, which is another one of those adventure things I’ve always wanted to do but never actually got around to doing. I said yes and then immediately had profound misgivings about my decision. But, shit, I thought, little kids do this for their birthday parties. It was going to be fine.
When we arrived, I was feeling pretty good. It wasn’t until I had the harness on that the little panic wave started. However, I very, very badly did not want to show this to either of my friends.
I started on the easy wall and tied my figure-eight knot (is there another name for it? I don’t know) and I grabbed the first few rocky bits and pulled myself up. No big deal. This is easy. It wasn’t until I got about halfway up and I looked down and realized I was something like 30 feet up that the little panic current surged into something like a wave. Well, shit. Now what?
“I’m good!” I called. This was a lie. When in doubt, bluff, even if it’s to yourself. My fear stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know what to expect from the belayed rope that I would be using if I fell or when I started to come down. What if it didn’t work? How could I trust it?
Well, the rope worked and down I came, admitting to no one that I basically came down because of fear. But to carry the bluff through and make it believable, I said, “okay, I’m ready for a real route. Let’s do this.”
My friends led me over to the real face. It’s, I dunno, 40 or 50 feet? It was tall. Once again, I was tied on and ready to go. But this time, I had a flash of brilliant insight! I climbed up a few feet and then leaned back to test my rope for my own peace of mind. I dangled a few feet off the ground just to make sure it would all work and it would support me and I hadn’t tied the knot wrong or broken something.
And up I want. It was slow at first and I doubted everything I was doing. At the halfway point, the panic returned. And at the 2/3rds marker, I lost my grip and fell about a foot before the rope caught me. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to fall when you’re 35 feet in the air. But the rope worked and I didn’t die and soon after that, I made it to the top. And literally as soon as my hand reached the top edge, I said “okay, good, bring me down” and I was lowered back to the ground because really, I didn’t want to stay up there a second longer than I needed to be.
And so it went for the rest of the day. I had fun but there was still that little fear, the little current of terror. It wasn’t until my last climb of the day that I conquered it.
I chose a tough (for me) route that had a textured surface to resemble a real mountain cliff. There was a ledge that I had to pull myself up over, maybe about 10 or 15 feet up? I lunged for it, lost my grip and swung in the air for a while before trying again and failing. My arms had given out completely at that point but I kept lunging, falling, and swinging. And I realized at that moment that I was too goddamned tired to be afraid and as I made my last attempt and felt my arms burning, I figured what the hell and let myself fall back so I could relax my now-noodley arms.
And just like that, the fear was broken. I was simply too tired to be afraid of it. It was a profound and amazing experience, one that I couldn’t really articulate to my friends because it would mean admitting that I’m a big chicken and that wouldn’t work with the whole image I was trying to create.
But it was fun and I can’t wait to give it another try. I really want to make it to the top of that one route.