I am ruthlessly afraid of heights. No, I am not ruthless about my fear–at least not intentionally, though I apologize to Miss J. for squeezing her hand so tightly as we walked across those boulders in Rhode Island and to the Butcher who’s now had to twice guide me around the Old Stone Fort because, apparently, I’m an idiot who forgot how much it scared the shit out of me the first time.
No, my fear is ruthless. It pays no attention to the logical part of my brain that says there’s no need to be afraid, you aren’t going to fall. It sneaks up on me out of nowhere and puts its arm around my shoulders and gives me a little squeeze and whispers in my ear, “You are already falling,” and starts to push on me. Then, it’s like something inside me starts screaming and, even though I can’t hear the scream, I can’t concentrate on anything else and I feel this pressure in the top of my head, just slight pressure, like the volume on the scream is just a little too loud, this scream I cannot hear, and as the pressure increases, I start to get dizzy. And this dizziness isn’t the kind of dizzy you get when you spin around too much while listening, appropriately enough, to Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” while pretending that you are Princess Leah in love with Luke Skywalker because you’re too young to get Han Solo yet.
With that, the dizziness of a good spin or an enormous drunk, it’s as if the whole world is moving and you must hang on or stumble around to catch your balance. Instead, this dizziness transforms the world via Escher, where everything looks okay, but you cannot count on things (especially any kind of step) leading where they appear to lead. The step that goes down may go down farther than it should or not down at all. The small ditch you must jump across may widen beneath you and the opposite bank recede from your foot. The dry rocks baking in the summer sun may turn slick and muddy in the second it takes you to hop from one to the next.
No, it’s not just that those things may happen. That almost moves things over into the rational realm where they can be dealt with. It’s that, when the fear creeps in, those things ARE what will happen. And the only recourse I have is to stand utterly still.
When I was in San Diego last year, I had to navigate this convention center where the book display was not on ground level. My choices for getting up to the exhibit were either a four story tall escalator or a glassed in elevator. There was no way I was going up the escalator, but it was all I could do to get in the elevator. And getting out of the elevator was just as bad.
But folks, getting in the elevator to go down was nearly impossible. About a half an hour before I had to do it, I started to get really clammy and nervous. I can’t tell you how many times I looked around that building for an enclosed elevator. One night, I had an author lead me to the elevator. I took her arm and closed my eyes and walked it blind. Another night, Miss J. and her lover took me down. The other two nights, I had the security guards do it.
They claimed that there was another exhibitor who needed someone to hold onto them as well, but I think they just said that to make me feel better.
And the movie theater closest to my house had been virtually off-limits until I discovered the elevator, because going down the escalator from the lobby to the theaters, was more than I could do, most of the time.
All this is on my mind because we just went over to look at a potential new office space and it was up a twist of rickety stairs, across a tile porch framed by a low–too low–wall, and in a door.
On the way up, I did okay–I usually handle stepping up better than down–but once we were done looking around. . . Folks, I just stood there on that little porch as close as I could to the door and succumbed to that screamy nothing. Right there, in front of my boss and co-workers.
If I hadn’t been utterly terrified, I would have been dreadfully embarrassed.
But the whole thing led me to an interesting realization: I used to think I was afraid of falling, which would lead to landing, which would lead to death. Easy enough, and though unlikely, maybe rational. As I took the Professor once, when we were talking about this, I know it’s stupid. If I’m walking on a path next to a river, even if I fell, I’m not necessarily going to plunge into the river. I’d probably just fall onto my hands and knees on the path. If I’m walking on a sidewalk and trip, I’m not convinced I’m going to fall into traffic.
But today, as I was standing there very still as far away from the steps as I could, wracking my brain for a way to get to the ground without taking the steps, I realized that it’s not quite the falling and landing that’s the problem. It’s that, once the irrational panic sets in, I feel like every step closer to the stairs or down the steps or along the path or whatever will increase that panic, that feeling of being unmoored from the way I normally understand the world. That’s what I can’t stand, what I can’t bear to face, that silent noise that makes me deaf to myself; I’m not afraid of stepping and falling and landing–the landing would be a relief–I’m utterly terrified of stepping and falling and falling and falling and falling and falling.
Once, the Butcher and I went to meet my dad and his best friend out at the Opryland Hotel. We found my dad but couldn’t find the other Reverend. Every escalator we came to, without saying anything, the Butcher would slip his arm through mine and, once we were to the next level, he’d let go again.
That is why, sometimes, I make a pie and leave it in the fridge for him.