I was nervous. My hands were sweating. I felt sick to my stomach. Jenny was next to me, talking about some guy who said something once – but her voice was distant and removed. I couldn’t concentrate, on anything. I felt dizzy. The line moved forward and I shuffled along with the crowd. My eyes were focused straight ahead. I attempted to concentrate on taking deep breaths but found that my breathing was shallow, rapid. Another shift, and we were at the front of the line. My heart was pounding. Pounding so hard it felt as if it were in my throat. We walked forward, breaking away from the line and moving towards the car that was the third from the front and sat down. Jenny was still talking but I couldn’t listen. My chest hurt. My skin felt tight. As if it were being stabbed with one thousand needles. The attendant came by to pull the bar down over our laps and I bolted upright. Jenny looked up at me. Without a word, I exited the car on the other side. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this”, I said as the man pulled the bar down over Jenny’s lap. She just looked at me as the roller coaster lurched forward. She found me waiting at the exit. “That was FUN Rita! Too bad, you really missed out.” To this day, I’ve never ridden a roller coaster.
Forget “relationship hopping“. That bad pattern is nothing compared to my habit of allowing fear to stop me from doing things. Stop me from starting things. Stop me from seeing things through to completion. The minute that I believe that an activity is something that I cannot do, or the minute it starts not going my way, I quit. I quit because I’m scared that something bad will happen to me in the future if I continue. But, I don’t want to be thought of as a quitter. So I hide it under excuses. “I’m too tired today. I’m too busy today. My stomach isn’t feeling well. I’m too short. My shoes hurt. Insert any other excuse here.” Making it sound like I’m simply postponing when, really, I know that it will be yet another activity or opportunity that I miss out on.
When Rich, date 21, asked me out, I wrote back “yes” but my mind was already thinking “NO! No no no no no!” The date of choice for Rich? Trapeze School of New York (located in DC). I’m afraid of heights. Deathly afraid of heights.
I arrived early and stood outside, peeking through the round windows and watching in awe as people gracefully glided across the air. Swinging and twisting. Turning and Catching. Over and over. It was performance art. I started asking myself what I had gotten into, when Rich appeared and we walked inside. Then I looked up and saw the platform. Oh NO. NO NO. No no no no no no no!
After a brief lesson on the ground, I was strapped into my safety harness and the instructor was pointing me to the ladder. I hooked myself up to the safety straps, took a deep breath and started climbing. About half way up the ladder, right at the point where the steps go from double to single, from fat to thin, I froze. I felt the eyes of the rest of the class on me and mustered up the strength to continue climbing – but my arms were quivering. I paused again. I shut my eyes, took another breath and found the motivation to make it to the top of the platform.
I was careful to not look down as I was well aware that I was 23 feet in the air! The other instructor hooked me up to different safety lines and asked me to stand at the edge of the platform so that my toes were hanging over the edge. Oh no. No no no. I kept my left hand grasping a small ladder that was built into the platform while I did what was asked. He then asked me to grab the bar with my right hand. Sounds easy, right? Oh no. No no no! To grasp the bar, you have to actually bend your body as if you are the letter “u” (so that your chest is thrust out). The only thing keeping you from falling off the platform? The instructor holding a rung on the back of your safety belt. He then asked me to let go of the ladder to reach the bar with my left hand. Meaning, I was relying on him 100% to hold my body weight and keep me on that platform. That’s when I froze. I wanted down! I wanted out! No way I could do this, no way! He told me the only way down was to swing or climb down that horrible ladder. I almost made a move for the ladder. But then, suddenly, I stopped.
I asked the instructor to give me a minute. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths, knowing that I wanted to have this experience. Knowing that I would not be able to have this experience if I did not let go of this fear. That, if I let fear win again, this would be “yet another activity I missed out on.” So I took my stance again. Trusting in the instructor, I reached out with my right hand, and then my left – grasping the bar.
In that moment, I realized that fear is a choice. My choice. I could let fear paralyze me and keep me from an experience. Or I could feel the fear, acknowledge it, and push past it. To push past fear, I had to stop thinking about it. I had to just “do it.” I relaxed and took a few deep breaths. Then I took my leap of faith, right off the platform!
As I flipped off of the net onto the floor, I felt exhilarated. The fear was still there but so was excitement! It was such a high mix of emotions, I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I just sat down and absorbed it while waiting for my next turn. As I sat there, I thought how the climb to, and leap from, the platform, is just like life. We get scared. We feel fear. We choose to let fear paralyze us or we provide ourselves with the tools we need to feel the fear and push past it. At the end of the day, we can only “think” about our lives so much. How we want them to be, how we should be growing, analyzing all of our emotions. At a certain point, we have to stop thinking and just act. Whether it’s applying for a new job, asking someone out, joining a new social group, participating in a new sport or activity…whatever it is…We have to make a leap of faith, having trust that there will be a safety net there to catch us if things don’t work out according to plan.
As I flipped off the net from my 2nd attempt, Rich hugged me and told me that he was proud of me for taking charge and pushing past my fear of heights! That’s when I felt how truly important it is to have the support of others – friends, family, co-workers, peers. I could have sat there, analyzing my attempt, getting upset that I didn’t have the proper form or that I wasn’t able to kick my leg above the bar. Instead, Rich helped me refocus my mind away from what I didn’t do – to what I did do. He was there to help me celebrate, and see the importance of, my successes.
Rich walked me to my car and asked if he could see me again. I hesitated, feeling that familiar “fear” creeping up from my stomach. This time, I knew it was my choice. I banned the thoughts of “something bad will happen” and chose to push past the fear. I’ve made decisions before where things didn’t go according to plan – but I’m still here. Things have always, eventually, worked out. So I took a leap of faith and said yes. Knowing that, no matter what, there would be a safety net, in some shape or form, to catch me.