Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fear of Falling.

I have an intense fear of heights, as manifest by my complete breakdown and total panic attack last week attempting to take a flying trapeze class with my girlfriends.  I knew the minute I got the group text from my bestie, excitedly sharing the details of our excursion to celibate her birthday, that it was gonna be all bad for me. But I didn't wanna be the only scaredy-cat loser in the group, so reluctantly I agreed to give it a try.

I could feel my heart racing when we walked into the airplane-hanger-sized tent that held the trapeze contraption over an enormous safety net.  My anxiety grew as my instructor hooked on my safety harness, then pulled it so tight it nearly knocked the wind out of me.  All the while I'm thinking;  just because I'm here doesn't mean I'm actually doing this! The thought was so strong I almost wanted to ask him where he got the right to assume I was. But I bit my tongue, and tried to gulp down my rising panic. I watched as he demonstrated our first jump; back-flips, and knee-hangs, as if he was weightless and it was the most natural, graceful thing on earth.

I wasn't convinced.



Our instructor giving the demo 
I stood at the end of the line, as one by one each of the ladies took their turn climbing up the two-story, rickety ladder to the thin, swaying platform perched in mid-air above the net. Each followed instruction, faced their own butterflies, grabbed the trapeze bar and jumped off the platform.  They swung and flipping like seasoned pros, their faces flush with exhilaration as they climbed down off the net.

Suddenly it was my turn.

The instructor was motioning me toward the ladder and it was too late to back out now.  The rest of this experience was an out-of-body one. One where I watched myself, as if in a dream from above.  One where I was no longer in control of my fear, or emotion, or even my physical reactions. I could feel my hands grasp rung after rung on the ladder, looking only at them directly in front of my face. Not down, not up, just dead straight ahead. I knew that to get through it, I literately had to take one second at a time.  One ladder rung at a time. Not think about what it would be like to crawl up on that platform, or then try to stand. Or the moment when I looked down two-stories and swung out over a net, holding onto a metal bar, praying my arms could hold the weight of my body. I couldn't think about any of that, not even for an instant. Letting my mind go even one step ahead of my body would cause total panic and I knew it.

But I couldn't breathe.

I was reaching the top of the ladder and beginning to hyperventilate.  My floating-above-self, told my actual self to use my all time favorite mantra, and from then on it's the only thought I remember cohesively having; "I can do it, I am strong." I said it over and over, willing myself to hoist my body onto the swinging platform, and then slowly pulling myself to standing. I was shaking uncontrollably and beginning to cry without control, tears blurring my vision, full panic attack in high gear.  My rational floating-above-self, kept trying to tell me to "get it together", that "I could do it", but it was past the time for rationalization. The room, which had been buzzing with happy chatter, went dead silent.

I attempted to follow my instructors directions, as he tried to quickly walk me through the steps, again assuming I'd actually go through with it. But I felt frozen, unable to move or talk or react as I looked down for the first time with my toes on the edge of the platform. Bless his heart he was so patient, encouraging my minuscule progress, but I was taking forever, still not convinced I had any intention of jumping off that ledge, and wondering how I'd gotten this far.

And then he said, "You don't have to do this if you really can't.  You can climb down that thin, rickety ladder and take a seat."  And suddenly I knew, there was only one way off that shaking platform. Going backward was not an option.  "I can't" was not an option. And for the first time since I'd heard of this crazy idea, I knew I was going to find a way to make this happen.  I just had to trust my instructor, lean my whole body over the edge and fall.  And that's when I realized my fear of heights was nothing compared to my fear of falling.

By this time I could see the second instructor making her way up the ladder from the corner of my eye, she knew the first, was in over his head trying to get me going alone.  She stood next to me releasing my death-grip on the stationary bar, looked into my eyes and said; "You can do this. I would not have let you get this far if I didn't 100% believe you are capable. We both know it's the only way off this platform."

It was go time. I had no choice but to trust them, believe my arms would hold my body and just fall. I leaned over the edge, reached for the bar, let out a loud scream and let my feet slip off the edge.  And suddenly I was flying.  I held on for dear life, past the time I was supposed to drop to the net, swinging in mid-air.  I'd done it. Faced a fear so big it had physically overtaken me.  Done something I'd never imagined I'd do. I was still shaking and wiping tears away when I collapsed onto the mat, greeted by hugs from my girls.  No part of me was remotely interested in trying it again, as I watched the ladies go turn after turn trying all kinds of beautiful, graceful tricks fit for the circus.

I was content. I'd had one goal, to fall.  That was it.  Done.

I'm top left (no crazy flips for me thank you!)
Looking back on that experience I realized what a metaphor it was for my entire life. What was going on inside me was so much bigger than that physical moment. Bigger than trying something new and facing a paralyzing fear. It was the outward reaction to what my internal process goes through when I face emotional fear or life challenges.  I physically reacted the way my brain does whenever I face something difficult and terrifying. I rely on mantras and positive affirmations to get me moving forward. I keep my focus directly in front of me, taking one baby step at a time, leaving the "how can I possibly do this" of the big picture to a later time.  I at some point in the process make a concrete resolution to be victorious in the end and work toward that goal, inch by inch.

But the hardest of all, is learning to trust another human so completely that you take a risk and just go for it, leaving fear on the platform.  You just lean your whole self forward in the direction you want to go, and fall.

... And without the fall, we'd never know what it feels like to fly.


The trapeze artists!


*Much love to the instructors at the Trapeze School New York in Washington DC for patiently getting me off that damn platform!



~Written by: Sarah Centrella for Thoughts.Stories.Life.
*Yep my spelling and grammar sucks, if this offends you I apologize, but at this point it just is what it is... (know your strengths and recognize your weaknesses MottoForLife)

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