Friday, December 17, 2004

In which I confess a deep dark secret y'all already know

I am ruthlessly afraid of heights. No, I am not ruthless about my fear--at least not intentionally, though I apologize to Miss J. for squeezing her hand so tightly as we walked across those boulders in Rhode Island and to the Butcher who's now had to twice guide me around the Old Stone Fort because, apparently, I'm an idiot who forgot how much it scared the shit out of me the first time. No, my fear is ruthless. It pays no attention to the logical part of my brain that says there's no need to be afraid, you aren't going to fall. It sneaks up on me out of nowhere and puts its arm around my shoulders and gives me a little squeeze and whispers in my ear, "You are already falling," and starts to push on me. Then, it's like something inside me starts screaming and, even though I can't hear the scream, I can't concentrate on anything else and I feel this pressure in the top of my head, just slight pressure, like the volume on the scream is just a little too loud, this scream I cannot hear, and as the pressure increases, I start to get dizzy. And this dizziness isn't the kind of dizzy you get when you spin around too much while listening, appropriately enough, to Tommy Roe's "Dizzy" while pretending that you are Princess Leah in love with Luke Skywalker because you're too young to get Han Solo yet. With that, the dizziness of a good spin or an enormous drunk, it's as if the whole world is moving and you must hang on or stumble around to catch your balance. Instead, this dizziness transforms the world via Escher, where everything looks okay, but you cannot count on things (especially any kind of step) leading where they appear to lead. The step that goes down may go down farther than it should or not down at all. The small ditch you must jump across may widen beneath you and the opposite bank recede from your foot. The dry rocks baking in the summer sun may turn slick and muddy in the second it takes you to hop from one to the next. No, it's not just that those things may happen. That almost moves things over into the rational realm where they can be dealt with. It's that, when the fear creeps in, those things ARE what will happen. And the only recourse I have is to stand utterly still. When I was in San Diego last year, I had to navigate this convention center where the book display was not on ground level. My choices for getting up to the exhibit were either a four story tall escalator or a glassed in elevator. There was no way I was going up the escalator, but it was all I could do to get in the elevator. And getting out of the elevator was just as bad. But folks, getting in the elevator to go down was nearly impossible. About a half an hour before I had to do it, I started to get really clammy and nervous. I can't tell you how many times I looked around that building for an enclosed elevator. One night, I had an author lead me to the elevator. I took her arm and closed my eyes and walked it blind. Another night, Miss J. and her lover took me down. The other two nights, I had the security guards do it. They claimed that there was another exhibitor who needed someone to hold onto them as well, but I think they just said that to make me feel better. And the movie theater closest to my house had been virtually off-limits until I discovered the elevator, because going down the escalator from the lobby to the theaters, was more than I could do, most of the time. All this is on my mind because we just went over to look at a potential new office space and it was up a twist of rickety stairs, across a tile porch framed by a low--too low--wall, and in a door. On the way up, I did okay--I usually handle stepping up better than down--but once we were done looking around. . . Folks, I just stood there on that little porch as close as I could to the door and succumbed to that screamy nothing. Right there, in front of my boss and co-workers. If I hadn't been utterly terrified, I would have been dreadfully embarrassed. But the whole thing led me to an interesting realization: I used to think I was afraid of falling, which would lead to landing, which would lead to death. Easy enough, and though unlikely, maybe rational. As I took the Professor once, when we were talking about this, I know it's stupid. If I'm walking on a path next to a river, even if I fell, I'm not necessarily going to plunge into the river. I'd probably just fall onto my hands and knees on the path. If I'm walking on a sidewalk and trip, I'm not convinced I'm going to fall into traffic. But today, as I was standing there very still as far away from the steps as I could, wracking my brain for a way to get to the ground without taking the steps, I realized that it's not quite the falling and landing that's the problem. It's that, once the irrational panic sets in, I feel like every step closer to the stairs or down the steps or along the path or whatever will increase that panic, that feeling of being unmoored from the way I normally understand the world. That's what I can't stand, what I can't bear to face, that silent noise that makes me deaf to myself; I'm not afraid of stepping and falling and landing--the landing would be a relief--I'm utterly terrified of stepping and falling and falling and falling and falling and falling. Once, the Butcher and I went to meet my dad and his best friend out at the Opryland Hotel. We found my dad but couldn't find the other Reverend. Every escalator we came to, without saying anything, the Butcher would slip his arm through mine and, once we were to the next level, he'd let go again. That is why, sometimes, I make a pie and leave it in the fridge for him.


Blogger the Professor said...

Oh, that story ends so sweetly.

I hear you describe your fears and I think I get it, but I am simply afraid of falling down. I'm not even afraid of heights, I can (and do) fall down regularly on level ground - Aunt B can attest. When the ground is not so level, or made of clay dirt, wet, and covered in mold I fall down often - the Sheik can attest.

But, Aunt B, do not feel shame. Even the Sheik was fine with finding the one side of Angkor Wat that had a railing in place. Of course, he also loves to jump out of planes simply to experience that falling, falling, falling for as long as possible. Maybe if you tried that (he loves to take first-timers), you could overcome the fear when you are steady on two feet.

Finally, as I was reading I was thinking that glass elevators must present a problem for hotels because lots of people have your fear. I think those security guards were telling the truth. Some evolutionary theorists think that fear of snakes is a surival trait passed down to us, and many other animals exhibit it. But I haven't read about fear of heights also being natural, although it could make sense. Too bad Natalie Angier didn't cover that one (in that book I am now again recommending to everyone).

12/18/2004 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Sheik said...

Not only can I attest to the the fact that the Professor adheres to the laws of gravity more strictly than most, but I have the muddy bottomed photos to prove it.

Our fears can be very difficult to understand. The Professor and I have a cousin who passed on a free trip to Paris because of her fear of flying. But she was happy to come skydiving with me. She had a great time except for the ride up to jump altitude. What she learned is that it is flying that she doesn't like, not dropping from the sky like a rock.

Aunt B, you should come out to the drop zone. The beauty of falling 15,000 feet is that it takes a few minutes and you will have time to learn if it is really falling you are afraid of or if it is the landing that disturbs you. It's always better to know. And if you need somebody to hold you hand I'll be there for you. I love pie.

12/18/2004 06:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn...I want to be razor sharp insightful since everyone has said so many interesting things about fear and some of it makes me think of my fear of edges, not heights. Flying? No problem. Living on the top floor of an 8 story building? Who cares. Leaning over the edge of my balcony? Not gonna happen. Want to ride the ferris wheel? Sure, but I'm sitting in the middle of the car.

I spend a lot of time at a two story house where the stair case and upstairs hallway are open to the ground floor entry. I noticed yesterday I will always stay by the wall so I am far from the open part. Wierdly, the open area is one of my favorite parts of the house.

But, no insights, 'cause I can only think about the sweetness of the ending. And not just sweet because of pie. :)

12/19/2004 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And not to create a new anonymous commenter...that above is just me-

The SuperGenius

12/19/2004 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

1. The Butcher is right off my "sweet guy" list and right on to the list of "people who make unclean-up-able messes in my kitchen and leave them for me to clean up." First it was the plaster for the plaster casts of god-knows-what and now it's this thick layer of hard chocolate all over the stove. If he was making chocolate penises to give away for Christmas... well, I can't decide if that would be good or bad. It'd be funny, but I'm still pissed off about the mess in the kitchen. I don't coat the living room in a layer of chocolate; and, if I did, I'd clean it up.
2. Sheik, that is such a kind thing you've offered that I'm almost dumbstruck. There are only two problems--one minor and one major. The minor one: Aren't first-time jumpers strapped to experienced jumpers? What if I were so afraid I peed on us? That would be embarassing. The major one: If I were strapped to you, I might be afraid, a little bit (or even a lot) but it wouldn't be that ruthless fear. I'd be touching you--hell, I'd be strapped to you--and holding on to someone keeps The Fear at bay. I'm still clumsy and awkward and unsteady, but I'm not unable to move. Plus, you aren't clumsy, awkward, or unsteady, so if I were strapped to you, I'd have faith that your being-at-ease-in-the-world-ment (is there a word for that?) would be enough for both of us.

12/20/2004 09:01:00 AM  

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