A Biomythography - Note 14
by Secret Hippie
Fear of Heights
When I was five, I fell out of a dogwood tree.
When I was six, I fell out of a locust tree. That's what comes from climbing trees and rough-housing in them. The next spring, in my front-yard willow, I fell so far and hit so hard that I lay there on the ground for a minute. No one had pushed me. I had just slipped. My body tingled. The back of my head ached and I watched swirls of color in the corners of my vision. My friend, Joe Wood called my name. He clambered down from his branch. Eventually, his younger sister Rebecca jogged over. My younger brother ran up to look at me, too. I hopped back to my feet, embarrassed.
"Can I play?" my brother asked.
"Yeah, but let's not climb the dumb tree," said Joe. "Let's find something else."
I'm not sure when my fear of heights started. It may not have begun with that fall. Heights had caused me prickly sensations and fits of panic before. But about a year after the big willow tree fall, which was followed by falls from playground equipment, I started to get a sort of terror about heights. At that point, I was only eight and didn't know that I could do anything to fix the problem. I had to tough it out, as far as I could tell.
What made the problem seem sort of serious, even at eight, was that I could see my trend. I understood that the phobia was getting worse, year to year. When I was nine, I could climb the lowest branches of trees. By the end of that year, I stopped. I didn't tell anyone why - but I knew the reason.
At ten, I climbed up the ladder on the high dive at the pool and almost passed out over the concrete. I steadied myself, grabbed the aluminum bars tight with an adrenaline rush and visions of death, and pushed on. Maybe that's why my body waited until I reached the end of the diving board. There, I froze up and dropped like a rock. As if from a distance, I heard a loud smack. A spark of electricity lit my body. I was in the water. I could move again.
Burning with shame, I turned over onto my stomach and swam to the edge of the pool. I expected lots of pointing and laughter but only my younger brother was doing that. The lifeguard, in contrast, had turned rigid in his chair. The woman who had been chatting with him stared at me in open-mouthed dismay.
"You okay?" he called. He scowled as he noticed that my limbs wouldn't quite obey me. I had to take a second try at climbing onto the deck.
"Right." His lips looked pale. "How about you don't go on the diving board for a while?"
I'd always loved bouncing over rocks or scrambling up and down muddy slopes next to a stream. By the age of eleven, I couldn't walk across the fallen trees over the water. I had to crawl across like a baby. My terror of heights was starting to get in the way. Soon, even standing on a tree stump made me dizzy.
This was getting intolerable. I knew I had to do something.
At the age of thirteen, the act of hopping over a foot-high rock was uncomfortable. My anger at myself over it had reached new depths, too (not heights, I guess). I had been getting worse for years and had thought about trying to do something but still, I hadn't.
At home, I'd read about exposure therapy. In the psychology textbooks of our family library and in the science and education magazines on our table, there were paragraphs, sometimes whole pages, about how therapists coached their patients to touch spiders or to ride in elevators. There was even a paragraph on therapy for acrophobia. I decided that exposure was the solution.
Visualizing New Heights
My start was not impressive. Mostly, I lay down and imagined being up high. Later in the process, I stood on rocks and pretended they were tall and unsteady. My commitment level was good for a thirteen year old but my real-life exposures, my self-hypnosis sessions, and my other forms of practice were as inconsistent as you might expect from a teenager.
Sometimes, I would be trying to fix myself but get jolted out of the process by someone who would ask me why I was standing on a rock or stump. I never had an answer. Usually I would mutter something evasive like, "Just wanted to," or "Why not?" or "Nothing, dummy." Then I'd step down and never repeat it around them again.
My visualization sessions were important because my exposures were so inconsistent. I didn't know it, but the process would take me six years. I'm sure it would have been faster if I'd been competent at the method. Nevertheless, it produced enough good results in the first two years that I started working at other problems in parallel.
I used the same visualization techniques on basketball, karate, emergency responses, and on letting go of desires. Of course, I actually practiced the sports, the tense situations, and letting go of desirable possessions, too, so the real-world experiences were essential. Visualization helped, though.
Hmm, I said six years. But after five, maybe a little less, I had no more functional problems with my fear of heights. What I wanted, in my sixth year of exposure, was a celebration. That’s how my self-imposed therapy ended in a static-line parachute jump.
Making the jump felt over-the-top, even to me. But it also felt completely right.
Letting go of desires was fine, my paralysis in clutch situations had been replaced with a lean into them, and I could walk on a balance beam. And jump from an airplane.