Facing the Fear

Monday, February 23, 2009

I've been in my running class for three weeks now, and tonight we double the amount of time that we run in each interval. I'm not sure that the amount of fear I feel about it is exactly commensurate with the task, but isn't that the thing about a lot of fears? They bloom and swell and threaten to make you frozen in place.

What if I'm the last, slowest one?

What if I look like a dork when I run, with excess flesh bouncing to the point to striking other people passing by? (I'm actually okay with the dork part...I've accepted running is just going to feel clunky for awhile)

What if I can't do it?

About ten years ago, facing a failed engagement and going through therapy for a number of family "issues," I decided I was tired of being afraid of everything. I was afraid of being alone, I was afraid of failing at work, I was afraid of falling into a host of family "traditions" (read: addictions and jail time), I was afraid of EVERYTHING. I had one of those "enough!" moments and decided to just head out and do something that scared me, just to stare it defiantly in the face. I'm afraid of heights. So I decided to jump out of a plane. Why start small?

I dragged my best friend along (who had no desire to actually jump out of a plane but wanted to be there in case I died plummeting through the air). We were each strapped to an instructor and encased in these jumpsuit things that made us FEEL the part but LOOK a little like polish sausages.

The door on the plane was clear. As in see-through. I could see the earth falling away. There were helpful instructions painted on the inside of the plane over the door. They read: Open the door. Get out.

But it wasn't quite that simple. You had to stand with your feet halfway out of the door. I'll tell you what saved me/enabled me to do this, even though every fiber of my being was shrieking, "You can't do this...there's nothing out there!": it was overcast. At 9,000 feet we were over the clouds, so whatever was below, how FAR below it was, was obscured. The instructor counted to three and shoved us out (another saving grace).

The free fall was great. I fell through CLOUDS. Too soon, the instructor pulled the cord and the chute popped gloriously open, yanking us upwards temporarily and then settling us into a slow glide toward earth.

That was when trouble started. I felt lightheaded, sick to my stomach, a feeling eerily reminiscent of being car sick. I didn't expect that! The instructor was very reassuring and tried to distract me by pointing out things on the ground and announcing how high we were. The last thing I remember hearing was "Okay, we're at 1200 feet..."

Then I heard a very loud voice. "Okay, we're on the ground now!" I opened my eyes and saw...grass. I had apparently passed out. I have a photograph of me, taken from the ground as I approached, dangling lifelessly in front of the instructor like a big jumpsuit-clad salami. Because I was strapped with my back to his front, I was supposed to help with the landing by holding my legs up, straight, so that my body formed a 90 degree angle. Since I was unconscious, I wasn't much help. He basically had to use my body as a surfboard and land on me. I popped upright to wave at my friend, so she wouldn't worry.

Here's the thing: I may not have conquered this particular fear - still don't like heights much - but doing something that scared me so much really did make a difference for me. Even today, when facing something I don't relish (oh, like, say...longer running times), I just think back on that day, falling through the clouds. And then I shrug and think, How hard could THIS be?

Chances are, it will be easier.

And of course the most obvious point is that I will NEVER find out - unless I try.
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