…is to take it head on.
Even though I spent years in college working as a roofer and I’m a habitual tall-things-stander-upon-er, I’m afraid of heights. When I look out over the peak of a mountain, I get a sick feeling and have to constantly check my balance. I even get nervous climbing a ladder.
After all this time and experience, the feelings of fright have never actually gone away.
And that’s the thing about phobias. I don’t think they ever truly go away. Sorry for the bleak report, but when you’re scared of something, I don’t think you can really turn that off.
However, I do think you can overcome them. I think you can train yourself to act rationally even when you’re scared as hell. And that’s what I set out to do just the other day when, for my 26th birthday, I headed to Molalla, Oregon to jump out of an airplane. Here’s a short video of the whole experience. I hope you enjoy it:
It was about an hour drive from my house and I arrived early enough to sit along the side of the runway and watch the groups ahead of me successfully do what, in my mind, was surely going to be a catastrophe for me.
When it was finally my turn, I had to sign a 10-page liability waiver unlike anything I’ve read before. In summary, it went something like this:
“Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into? If you fall and die, we warned you; don’t look at us. They don’t even make insurance for this.”
I sighed and signed the form, not about to turn around now. Besides, I’d just watched an elderly lady jump solo and land her parachute gracefully. Nothing like a little pride to cloud your judgment.
Finally, they called my name on the loudspeaker and it was business time.
I was nervous and even started sweating when I got in the plane, but Archie, my jump instructor, was there to make sure everything went alright. He taught me how to position my body, how to communicate in the air and, of course, what to do if our chute didn’t open – make peace as quickly as possible.
Archie’s the strong and silent type. I tried to strike up a conversation with him several times, mostly because I was jittery, but never got very far. When I asked him how he got into skydiving, all I got back was, “Oh, I fell into it.”
We took to the air and Archie would check his altimeter every few minutes, waiting for the plane to level while the rest of us looked nervously at each other and out the windows.
Finally, we were there – 11,000 feet. It was go time. There were fist bumps all around as the first jumpers flung the gate open, did a somersault out of the plane, and disappeared. Archie and I slowly slid down the seat until it was our turn.
I sat there, breathless, my feet dangling out the side of the plane, looking down at what I was sure would be my body, lying in a cow pasture, depressed 12 inches into the soil from the impact. I pictured Archie, his landing softened my crumpled body, shaking himself off, walking back to the airport and asking, “Okay, who’s next?”
Yep, I’d lost it. Realizing this, I did my best to regain composure and brace for impact. There was no turning around now.
Archie said he’d count to three and then we’d jump, but I think that was a trick because I only felt him pat my shoulder twice before I felt a shove and saw the plane disappearing above me.
We fell through the air at 120 miles per hour. Archie spun me around in circles a few times, and the cameraman dove all around us, capturing the whole experience. I forced a smile like I imagine a death row inmate might just after finishing his last meal.
Then, just as I was getting used to the whole “I’m going to die” thing, Archie pulled the chute. We came to an abrupt stop. The force was enough that it felt like my harness was going to cut my legs off. I looked up and, to my amazement and complete bewilderment, there was a canopy, fully open.
I’d convinced myself this was the end, but perhaps I was wrong. I looked down. The ground wasn’t racing toward me like it was only a moment ago. I asked Archie, “Did we die?” He responded, “not yet.”
“Well, are we going to?”
“Probably not today.”
We floated down to safety and Archie pulled in our parachute, unhooked my harness, and shook my hand.
“Did I tell you I’m afraid of heights?” I asked him.
“Nope. You didn’t have to,” he replied.
I was talking to Joel from Blog of Impossible Things the other day and he said he wanted to go skydiving when he comes to Oregon next summer. I immediately said, “I’m going with you.”
Jumping from a plane is something that’s fascinated me since I was a child, but has always felt far beyond my comfort zone. I can’t tell you how happy I am I did this.
It’s not about pride; I don’t really feel any sense of accomplishment or like I achieved something beyond my ability – I just fell out of an airplane and Archie saved my life before we hit the ground.
And I didn’t “conquer” my fear – I’m still afraid of heights – but I did confront it. I proved to myself that my fear is irrational and even though I still feel it, I can work around it. Getting on a ladder won’t be nearly as scary anymore.
Most of all, I’m excited to know that I’ll have one less regret to deal with when my time here is up. The nagging pain and internal strife that results from a life lived in security is ultimately much worse than the effort it takes to do something that will set you at ease.
We all know what it’s like to take off a band-aid. How it goes is up to you.
Will you rip it off and get on with life, or suffer through enduring pain?
Side note: If I were to ever be made into a cartoon character, I imagine I’d look something like this:
More shots from the trip: