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Here’s How It Feels to Cliff-Dive With a Paralyzing Fear of Heights
By Ben Thomas Posted in Travel on June 27, 2014 0 Comments
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I’ve had a phobia of heights for as long as I can remember. Not just a nervousness, but a muscle-clenching, gut-freezing full-body paralysis that stopped me as firmly as a brick wall any time I stepped near the edge of a canyon or a twentieth-floor balcony.

And today, I went cliff-diving for the first time in my life. And I loved it.

This is the story of the birth, growth and long-awaited defeat of my lifelong phobia.

It was born on my first drop down a roller-coaster hill. I remember insisting that I wanted to try the ride, because my four-year-old body had never plunged down anything taller or faster than a playground slide, and I was intrigued. So my dad and I climbed side-by-side into the little red coaster car and started clacking our way up that hill.

A feeling of vague dread began to pool in my stomach as we neared the top and I looked down to realize the hill seemed much higher from up here — but full panic only erupted after we’d crested the hill and relinquished all control to gravity. I remember two words flashing neon-bright in my mind: “Too fast! Too fast!” But there was no brake to stomp; nothing to grab onto but the lap bar that pinned me to my seat. No way to say “Stop” — no way to opt out. Just total powerlessness and the white shriek of adrenaline.

I felt all this in the two seconds we fell; and when the ride finally clicked to a stop, I was sobbing. I swore I’d never ride another one again.

And just like that, the association was formed: Heights are harbingers of The Feeling, and The Feeling must be avoided at all costs.


Sometimes this avoidance reached downright embarrassing proportions, like when I had to hew close to the wall as I descended my school’s second-story staircase, because I couldn’t stand catching glimpses of the floor below through the railing; or when I couldn’t walk along the tops of garden walls with my friends because my legs suddenly refused to work at the instant I looked down.

College-age me decided this had all gotten way out of hand, so I snap-decisioned my way into a rock-climbing class. I made it thirty feet up a rock face and looked up to see that at least fifty more feet remained between me and my classmates at the top.

Then I looked down, and The Feeling thundered in my bones. I willed my arms to move, but they wouldn’t. I willed my foot to take the next step up; it stayed put. I hung there motionless for ten endless minutes, until my teacher finally climbed up to see what was wrong. I explained, he gave me a little you-can-do-it speech, and I told him that no, I literally, physically couldn’t. So I climbed back down in front of my entire class, and listened to their glory stories about the beautiful view from the top, and found myself unable to look any of them in the eye on the ride home.

So it went, on into adulthood, through every wilderness hike and amusement park trip. No point hiding it, I realized sometime in my twenties; and so I shared my weakness openly, which made it even more a part of my identity.


Funny thing about a fear of heights, though: It’s not just about heights. At root, it’s a fear of losing control. For some, it’s what the French call “l’appelle du vide” — the call of the void; the feeling that you’re suppressing an irresistible, irrational compulsion to leap over the edge. For others, it’s simply a fear of being just one misstep away from the abyss. Some dread the feeling of falling; others just dread the sudden stop the the bottom (which is, as they say, the only part that’s actually dangerous).

For me it was all these things, and I felt them below my logical consciousness, in the same way I feel urges to eat and sleep. They clawed up from my brainstem and gripped me like iron until I complied.

But when you lose the fear of losing control, other things start to change.

I know this because I lost my fear of losing control, and I’m still not sure exactly how it happened. Maybe it started last summer, when I broke my ankle and wound up immobilized in a leg brace, and felt trapped in my body until I learned to meditate for hours on end. Maybe it was my mounting frustration at the moebius-strip restrictiveness of civilized American life, which finally drove me to sell ninety percent of my belongings, hop on a plane and backpack across the Middle East.

All I know is that once I got on that plane, I looked inside myself and realized that something in me had metamorphosed: The thought of the plane crashing didn’t particularly bother me. The thought of dodging bands of highway robbers on the backroads of Central Asia struck me as interesting, as if I was reading about it in a book. And the thought of peering over a cliff struck me as something I’d like to try.


Anyone who comes to this point figures out some kind of little mental trick for getting it back when it starts to slip away — when doubt creeps in and we find ourselves wobbly. At moments like that, one of my friends imagines a TV test pattern — color bars and monotone — that blocks out all linear thought, and then she just takes the leap (whatever that happens to be). As for me, I silently recite a short passage from my favorite novel, Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing — only I will remain.

That’s what I kept repeating to myself as I clambered up the cliff by the sea, my arms and legs trembling with nervousness, my stomach trying to expel my breakfast, my nerves firing icicles through my muscles — and I made my hand reach up for the next handhold; my foot for the next perch; and the next; and the next. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel the fear — it was that now I recognized it as an invader; as something that wasn’t even relevant to the question of whether to keep climbing or not.

The thing shrieked and I climbed. And when I reached the top, I looked down and saw that it looked like a much, much longer drop from up here. And then I jumped anyway.

And The Feeling was just that: A feeling. It passed over me and through me as I fell, and I hit the water with a thunderous splash, and I came up laughing.

And that, I learned, is how to finish off a lifelong fear: You don’t just stop feeling it. You don’t try to suppress it. You let it shriek at you all it wants, and you keep right on going.

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