On a scale of 1 to 10, I have a paralysing fear of jumping and falling that reaches about 11. This has followed me my whole life and it has kept me from participating in a lot of activities with friends and family. It’s not heights that scare me. I’m fine with heights. It’s falling – being out of control, going fast down a hill, that feeling in my stomach of inevitable crashing and doom. Since this year is all about addressing that place where I stop myself from participating – I knew I would have to face this fear. What I actually started searching, though, was how to run away and join the circus. I didn’t know how profound this would be for me.
I started googling different things and came across trapeze. Of course, I could have gone to clown school (whole other set of fears there) but when I saw the Trapeze School of New York, I was intrigued. When I saw they had five locations and one was in Los Angeles, where I would be for the Tinkerbell Half Marathon weekend – I nearly threw up.
Why is this Crazy?
Duh! – for the obvious reasons.
Plus, I have always had poor grip strength. I avoid carrying bags in my hands. I was never a kid who played on monkey bars. I have loose, sometimes called ‘double jointed’ fingers and thumbs and have determined that my hands were designed for typing, not gripping. Trapeze = hanging from a bar by your hands.
I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I still have a lot more to go. I wasn’t even sure I could hold myself up while swinging (turns out fear handled that pretty quickly!).
My fear of jumping and falling is, in my head, extreme.
I remember when I was about seven, climbing up to the 3 meter board at Brock Pool because all of my friends were jumping off it. I got to the top and let one person, then the next, then the next, through a very long line of people pass me before I finally threw myself off the end. It’s the only time I have ever jumped off the 3 meter board and I was a lifeguard for seven years! I could teach a diving class standing on the deck of the pool!
When I was training to be a lifeguard I remember being at Westsyde Pool and having to learn how to teach a back dive off the 1 meter board. The instructor, now a prominent firefighter, picked me (why????) from the class to demonstrate. I had no choice. I stood on the end, wanting to vomit, and he stood right in front of me. He told me to fall backwards and stretch when he yelled. I couldn’t fall. He had to push me, and I remember reaching for his red sweat shirt before I went down. I missed. Instinctively I must have stretched when he yelled because I didn’t hurt myself. When I got out of the water he told the class to remember what my face looked like, because that’s exactly what a drowning victim will look like. Then he made me do it again. I was 16 at the time. I haven’t done one since.
I love cross country skiing, yet when I’m going down a hill seniors regularly kick snow in my face because my snowplow is so wickedly awesome (meaning excessively controlled, or slow). My friend, Wendy, wanted to put me into immersion therapy to fix this by taking me up to the killer cross country runs at Sun Peaks – the ones you take the chair lift up to, and pushing me when I was at the top. She figured that by the time I stopped screaming I’d be over my fear. In a way, Trapeze School, must have been my version of immersion therapy.
Trapeze School on Santa Monica Pier
The most I can say about my trapeze experience is I would be considered a ‘remedial’ flyer (my word, not theirs). I was in a class with eight other people. Two were very advanced and go regularly, practicing all kinds of tricks. They looked awesome. The rest were first timers like me. One, Keri, a law student, had a gymnastics background and was celebrating her birthday. The other, Monica, has an adventure web series and seems pretty fearless. The others were high school students from Malibu who were also celebrating a birthday.
The most important thing I have to say here is how great the other students and the staff were. I felt totally supported and it was a great feeling to be with these people. The staff were incredible – I can’t stress that enough.
The first thing we were supposed to do was swing out on the bar, hook our knees up, and hang by our knees when the bar was swinging. We were all wearing harnesses and were strapped in any time we weren’t on the ground. You climb up to the platform, which is 23 ft above the ground, and look out over a net below you… and all the tourists who are watching. When it was our turn, there is a person on the top who has a grip on the back of your harness. They won’t let you go until you are in the perfect position. This part is so counter-intuitive – instead of sticking your butt back and leaning forward, you have to lean so far forward it feels like you’re going to fall. You’re holding part of the platform with your left hand and the bar (which is heavier than it looks) with your right hand. Then you give a little jump, and the person holding the back of your harness lets go.
My first swing
It took me four false starts before I could get off the platform and I screamed in terror as I flew. Before I jumped I actually had the feeling of putting my fear away, like in a box. It didn’t go away, but it wasn’t running the show. This is possibly the second scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve been upside down in a stunt airplane. I didn’t have to worry about holding on to the bar because you couldn’t have pried my fingers off it. When it came time to let go, you don’t get to pick when. They yell when you are at the far end of the swing facing the sky so you fall on your back. When they yell you have to let go. I screamed again as I fell. Letting go was THE scariest thing I’ve done in my life. Mike Nesbitt, Keri’s partner, had my camera and was so nice about taking pictures for me. He actually caught me mid scream! (best picture ever!)
I remember landing in the net and bursting into tears. My whole body was violently shaking. I crawled to the edge of the net to get down and then I couldn’t stand up because my knees were shaking so much. I think this is where everyone there, students and staff, got a good look at what a drowning victim would look like. I got lots of hugs. Right there I met the criteria for the crazy things and I could have quit and still considered it a success. The best thing I did was get back up there.
The rest of the swings
Others were doing way more advanced things, and by the end of the class some were even being caught by a guy on another trapeze. But I just
swung on the trapeze about 8 or 9 times (I wasn’t counting). That was truly the most I could do and each time got a little easier. The first was definitely the worst. It never did get really easy. I could have had one more swing but I knew my head had had enough extra activity and my hands were bruised. The class was two hours but it felt like a lot longer. I knew I was done for the day but I also know I’ll be back. Maybe next time I’ll get my knees over the bar!
I have to say I made some awesome new friends that day. Everyone was so supportive of each other and the kindness of strangers was truly amazing and memorable. I need to find a good set of monkey bars because I’m going to start training and I will be back! If you ever get the chance – do it! It is the most amazing experience ever and I only experienced a small part of it! I am proud that I run half marathons, and that I am fit and I’ve lost a lot of weight, but this is probably my biggest fear ever and I am so proud of myself for taking that first jump.
And to answer the question I’ve heard most since I got back…. No! I have no plans to jump out of a perfectly good airplane or off a bridge with a rubber band tied to my leg!
Would I do it again?
Yes! Did I get over my fear? No… but I did chip away at a corner of it. Monica Ortega, who was in the class with me, has a motto on her
website – You only live once, try everything twice! I’m going to try and follow that this year.