Imagine the scene. I am eleven years old and I am away for the first time on an adventure weekend in, of all places, Nelson, East Lancashire. I’m excited about being away with a whole group of older teenagers, feeling a little bit privileged to be there and part of a ‘cooler’ older crowd. On the Saturday afternoon, we are taken on a minibus, to a rock face somewhere Penine-esque. I vividly remember sitting behind the girl I really wanted to be like who was snogging the face off her boyfriend the whole journey.
The plan was that we would climb up one section of the rockface and then abseil down and if we enjoyed it, we would walk back up to the top and abseil down a longer stretch.
We all got harnessed up and given the talk about how safe we were, how we were attached to someone and to the rock itself, how we couldn’t plummet to our deaths.
One by one we climbed up the rock until it was my turn. It wasn’t massively high, even in my memory, but there was one section where there was a large boulder that we had to reach over and find a handhold to pull ourselves over. The nack to this it seemed was to let the guy at the top pull you up slightly so that you could reach.
But, when it came to my turn I discovered that my harness was trapping a very sensitive small piece of skin right in my crotch and it hurt so much when he tugged that I cried.
Everyone thought it was because I was afraid of heights, someone climbed up behind me, helped me down and I sat and cried at the bottom, partly from pain, partly from embarassment that I didn’t do it. And because I didn’t climb up I didn’t get to abseil either. The assumption was, and everyone told me, that I was afraid of heights, and it was okay, because no-one would force me to do anything.
Therein began my ‘fear of heights’. I believed what they said, completely swallowed it and have been scared ever since of climbing and abseiling or anything similar. I have abseiled and really enjoyed it, but it never occured to me that I didn’t actually have a fear. Of course I did. I was just being brave and getting over it.
This week, the company I work for took us all out on a team day to a Go Ape high ropes course in the woodland round Leeds Castle, in Kent. I was understandably anxious. You have to climb up things, dangle from heights and keep your balance and then at the end throw yourself into the air and whizz down a zipwire. And I’m scared of heights, right?
There were others in the office who were also feeling anxious about the day so I felt slightly reassured that we could all bottle it together. Until, that is, I was set to write about how many calories you could burn while doing the course. Which meant I would have to do the whole thing wearing a heart rate monitor. No get out, no chickening out. I had to do it.
Two nights before we went I had anxiety dreams about falling off tree platforms and ropes.
But then weirdly, I felt completely calm about it. I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t the most scared person in the office. Or whether it was because I knew that I had to do it, so I just got my head down and didn’t think about it. But when it came to it I felt surreally calm.
I did the whole course and only felt scared twice, once when I got stuck on a high wire bent the wrong way like a banana because I lost my balance, and the other time climbing the last rope ladder up to the next section of course when my left leg went into spasm and I couldn’t move it. What I enjoyed the most was stepping off the platform into nothingness. The one thing that you would think would be the worst part for someone who is scared of heights.
There were people who were genuinely terrified and either did everything with a slow, methodical and silent concentration, or who gripped every tree for grim death and at some points cried.
I just didn’t feel that fear. Not at all.
Which leads me to think that actually I’m not scared of heights.
What I’m scared of is failure and looking foolish in front of other people. What I don’t like is having my weaknesses pointed out to me. And because I’m not the most physical or agile person, perhaps adventure ropes courses, climbing, bouldering and abseiling etc are things to avoid for that very reason. It all began that day when I was eleven, but it wasn’t fear of heights that I gained there.
And because my workmates are nice and not bullies I actually really enjoyed myself. It’s not like it was when I was a teenager anymore.
I feel amazing that I’m not scared anymore.
After all, ‘a life lived in fear is a life half-lived’.