My Complicated Relationship With Heights

I’m terrified of heights, bordering on phobia.  I remember the exact moment vertigo started to plague my life: Long Beach Island, New Jersey, summer of  ‘95.  During a family vacation, I was forced to climb 221 stairs to the top of the Barnegat Light House.  The view at the top hardly bothered me because between me and the 40 foot fall was a buffer, the walls of the lighthouse and viewing platform.   What bothered me, and what I feel is the source of this deep seated terror, was the ascent.

To reach the light house summit we had to climb a spiral staircase.  The spiral wasn’t the worse part, it was the metal constructing the stairs,  the worst kind of metal, the grated kind.  With every step I took, I was able to witness the growing distance between myself and the floor.  I remember not being able to look up, or to the side, only down.  I also remember crying more than a third grade boy should in public.

Since that time, heights have annually put me into humiliating situations.  I’ve whimpered on chairlifts, hyperventilated while attempting to help my father put Christmas lights on the peak of our house, and had other passengers of Pittsburgh’s Duquense Incline thinking my sister (who shares this my fear)  and I had turrets due to the amount of expletives we were spewing.  This humiliation reached a crescendo in Las Vegas during the spring break of my senior year.  My brother convinced me it was a good idea to go on the “Big Shot,” a free fall thrill ride located on the needle of the Stratosphere Tower (think a free fall atop the Seattle Space needle).  Allegedly the view was worth the terror it induced.  I wouldn’t know.  I spent the entire ride with my eyes shut, clenching the hand rest in a death grip and loudly breaking the 2nd commandment.  When the ride came a halt, the harnesses released, and I opened my eyes, I saw a group of attractive coeds pointing and laughing.

Heights bring out a visceral reaction.  I pace, I grimace, and I almost always threaten to vomit.  I become nauseous and need to cling to walls.  When I’m high up I need to be as far away from any edge as possible.  There’s always this looming fear that if I get too close the glass, or rail, or wall will implode or even worse, I’ll experience some sort of temporarily insanity and throw myself into the abyss.  This is why I stick to the wall, or whatever is farthest away from the edge, but still allows me to catch a climpse of horizon.  That’s the thing, I seek heights out.  I’m not sure why.   Am I trying to overcome?  Am I trying to prove my manliness, or am I simply a masochist of the worst kind.  I’ve been skydiving once and attempted to go again this past October.  I paid, made myself vomit, and than had the trip cancelled due to heavy winds.  I seek out locales with soaring views, have been ziplining twice, and am planning on rock climbing in the near future.  I can’t explain why I do this to myself.

My most recent attempt at self sabotage was in Lake Placid, New York a few weeks ago.  We went up for a weekend cross country ski trip.  Sitting at a pizza shop after our arrival Friday night, we began planning our Saturday itinerary.  I insisted we visit and take the glass elevator to the top of the Olympic Ski Jump Complex.

Pulling up that next day, I started experiencing my typical symptoms: hotness under the collar, dry mouth, rising bile, and loss of speech. I was silent on the elevator ride up, but once safely in the confines of the jump house, I felt fine.  After a mental psyche out I opened the door and made my way towards the ramp. You can stand were the jumpers start.

You exit the jump house and traverse an enclosed wooden walkway, enclosed except for the spaces between the wooden planks.  Here, you can catch quick glimpse of the green and white from the ground below.  The cold causes loud cracking reports as you make your way across.  You open a door and must climb a metal staircase, again grated metal, the worst kind of metal, for your ascent to where Olympians launch themselves 120 meters into the air.  I took the stairs two at a time, fast, and looking straight ahead. I’ve learned a thing or two since third grade.

Once I was on the platform the almost 360 degree view is astonishing.  I hung towards the back of the platform, and then gingerly, two steps forward, one back made my way to the edge.  Once there, sharing the same view the skiers do, I snapped this shot.  This, I thought, admiring my handiwork once I was safely buckled into our rental van, is why I torture myself.  This shot, and the bragging rights to accompany it, was worth it.

How crazy is this picture?   This is the same view ski jumpers have before they start.  The scary part, is that the ramp extended up about another 30 feet.

How crazy is this picture? This is the same view ski jumpers have before they start. The scary part, is that the ramp extended up about another 30 feet.

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