Michael Meets Heights: A Real-Deal Phobia

I have this thing about heights in that I am terrified of them. Many people have told me they have issues with heights too – that they’re afraid of them, including my husband, Roy. But he’s not, and I find that they’re not, so here is a list of questions to help determine if you are actually afraid of heights or if you just aren’t that much of a fan.

  1. Does being high make you hold onto to dear life to something solid: the floor, a wall, a pole, etc. Are you unable to move?
  2. When you are high do you have to resist the urge to run away, even when you are in something that is moving and know full well that running would result in you surely falling and surely dying? Yet despite this knowledge it takes all of your will power not to, because that “Fight or Flight” response is loud and screaming, “RUN, BITCH RUN!”
  3. Do you feel sick, woozy, wobbly or nearly pass out after or during exposure to heights?
  4. Do you scream, cry or otherwise experience a meltdown when confronted with heights?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, congratulations you are probably afraid of heights. If you’re like me, you answered yes to ALL of these questions.

I don’t know why I’m so scared of heights. I don’t have some childhood trauma (at least that I remember) but the fear has always been there. When I was a kid overpasses made me nervous and I would never get to the very edge when I was on a balcony. I never did roller coasters; I could barely handle a Ferris wheel or a water log ride. I’ve been this way since I can remember (so like five years old). But while heights have always been an issue for me, it just got worse with age. When I was twelve I could still ride a Ferris Wheel. I would be nervous and go between enjoyment and sheer terror, but I could do it. I could go on a log ride because the big splash at the end was worth that one plummet. But this hasn’t been the case for years.

The last time I was on a log ride was in 2008. I thought I would be fine even though it had been a few years because while I was terrified it was familiar – something I had done before. What wasn’t familiar was when I freaked out right before the big drop and all rational thought was gone. I tried to get up and run off the ride right before the drop and my boyfriend at the time had to physically hold me down so I wouldn’t kill myself in the process. That is what’s called a phobia. I haven’t been able to bring myself to try a Ferris wheel or any other kind of ride that used to be okay. My husband was able to get me to try Space Mountain at Disney World, but you couldn’t see the drops so I was “able” to do it. That being said, there was still some restraint involved and I was terrified before, but felt guilty after as the entire ride I was screaming obscenities I forgot I even knew or didn’t know could go together, with a special preference for the F-bomb. It was that kind of ride.

Recently, I surprised my husband with a romantic getaway in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and it somehow turned into exposure therapy for my heights phobia, which I have to say was not all that therapeutic. (It did not help, and after four days I was in a state of constant adrenaline so I may have not been as patient or understanding as I would normally be, even in real life, let alone on a romantic getaway.) It really seemed like it was something or multiple things every day.

First there was a gondola ride up a mountain, which was the only way to enter a park that had some amazing cave tours we wanted to do. The entire time I clung to my husband and practiced my breathing, while a singsong of, “Don’t jump. Stay seated. Don’t jump,” played on repeat in my head. Because it’s a seven-minute ride one way you know that the small gondola car had to stop (TWICE!) to let other passengers on/off at the bottom and top of the mountain. And because the car was so small, it was affected by even the slightest breeze. It was hell. It took me ten minutes to recover as I went from flight mode to fight mode and my husband gave me my space. It was even worse going back down!

The next day we went on a hike that was nothing more than climbing up a damn mountain. It was like I was tested two hours going up and then by the end, there was no way I could finish. At the very end, I was supposed to crawl up 20 feet of rocks to get to this amazing view up top… but the rocks were maybe 16 inches wide and well rocks, and on the other side of the rock was nothing but air and a drop of several thousand feet. Fuck that. I stopped there and sent my husband up while I clung desperately to the side of the mountain. I was even attacked by a mouse (it ran between my legs, as I sat there squatting, even though I tried to move as much as I could so it could move around me) but a mouse was nothing compared to that drop…

When Roy got back he tried to encourage me to go up. He was all like, “You can do this,” until I said, “Roy, use your brain. Go through the process. Do you think I should do this?” Yeah that got him. When he was done I practically ran down the damn mountain. At first I think Roy thought I was angry, but it was that “RUN BITCH, RUN!” flight response. On the way up I would let people pass, but on the way down I rudely went around people. I needed flat land stat! The rest of the day my legs were jelly and I kept almost falling over while trying not to throw up. It was not fun.

A few terrifying driving trails where there was two-way traffic on a rough mountain road that was only wide enough for a single car and plenty of sharp turns and ledges where if you opened the car door there would be a sudden drop of several hundred feet and let’s just say there will be a conversation before our next getaway. It’s one thing to look your fear in the face and do something outside your comfort zone, but rather than pushing boundaries I think a lot of the activities crossed them. And that is something else entirely.

I wish more than anything I wasn’t afraid of heights, but I am. I see all of the things that I miss out on or can’t completely enjoy and all of the things I will never do or try (top of the Eiffel Tower for example) but it is what it is. Exposure to heights does not make this fear any less. Knowing it is a phobia does not stop the block of ice that fills my chest and crushes my heart, making it difficult to breathe whenever I am faced with heights. And to be clear, anything above five feet (because I am just over five feet three inches) is a height. I don’t make the rules (consciously anyway) but I know how and then my body reacts and there it is.

I’m definitely interested to hear from anyone else who is dealing with a serious fear of heights (or any other phobia for that matter). I know that a lot of people don’t have active phobias (my husband is among these lucky people) and so it can be hard to understand that a phobia is not simple anxiety that can be cured by rational thought or is something to just push through. It is completely irrational, panicky, heart-pounding, paralyzing, and utterly debilitating fear. I don’t hate heights (okay, I do) – I am fucking terrified of them. There is a difference.


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