Twenty Feet and One Inch

My entire childhood I had a mild fear of heights that I never quite understood. Having a fear of heights is not unique or interesting, about 1 of every 15 people shares this fear. For me this fear manifested in odd ways. Any time I attempted to climb a ladder it was inevitable that I begin to tremble. Just enough fear to freeze me in place, as I imagine all those other people who shared my fear did. I usually wasn’t scared of anything that could hurt me, a bit paranoid yes, but fear pain? No. Nor did I ever demonstrate an overly cautious approach to my physical well being. So this particular fear always bugged me. 

I found it odd that my fear of heights never stopped me from doing things that involved heights. I’d happily go to the top of a 50 story building, step out of an airplane to sky dive, or dangle my feet off the edge of a mountain. However, five steps up a ladder and I’d get scared. My stomach would feel like it was a knot and my hands death gripped into cold aluminum, time would halt. Then after what felt like years, I’d relax and continue. Slowly those next 5 steps up the ladder would pass and I would not stop until I had reached the top. I could not help but feel silly, it was just a few more steps, why get so worked up 6 feet off the ground? People would tell me. “Don’t look down or don’t look around, pull your stomach in a bit. Maybe you’re just scared of heights.” None of this felt right, I loved looking around no matter the height. I loved climbing even more. The view was never the problem, the view or the top were the reasons I climbed. 

It took me until my early 30s to figure out that I wasn’t afraid of heights. I wasn’t afraid of climbing, high spaces, or falling from 10000 feet up. I was terrified of falling from 6 to 20 feet off the ground. Just high enough to get hurt, but not high enough to kill me. High enough that I’d just gotten started and most likely suffering an injury just bad enough to keep me from getting back on the ladder and making it to the top. My fear wasn’t death, or pain, or heights, it is was incapacitation. I was afraid of not being able to continue, to never get to see the view that I started climbing for, and maybe even feeling embarrassed that I started climbing in the first place. 

 It has been my experience that my own revelations about fear seldom eliminates the fear. Still to this day I get between 6 to 20 feet up and that familiar knot in my stomach returns, like an old friend reminding me of how scared I once was. However, now the voice in the back of my head starts quietly whispering “Don’t stop; one inch past the fear is the view.” 

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