GRIPPED BY FEAR
By RJ Furth (June 2010)
I suffer from acrophobia. Suffer is a bit melodramatic, I suppose, yet at times it is an appropriate term. Acrophobia is a fear of heights, a fear I’ve always had. Fortunately, I am never afraid while enclosed. Flying in airplanes is no problem. Sitting at the window seat in my parents’ apartment on the 80th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago was always interesting and never caused me a moments grief. Open spaces with long, steep drops have always been a problem. I couldn’t climb trees as a kid. (The only exception was in high school when David Chamberlin revealed a tree house that could be used for taking dates. I took young Marianne up to the tree house, was firmly denied the pleasures of her nubile body, then needed her help to climb down the ladder. Disappointment and embarrassment!) Skiing in Colorado during Spring vacation in high school was thrilling, but riding the chair lifts was sheer terror. Those who were around in the 60s will remember that chair lifts – two seaters only – did not have security bars. I used to get on the chairlift and wrap my arm around the center pole, clutching for dear life. My friend Ricky Rubenstein would occasionally use his ski pole to pry me away from chair; not enough to actually dislodge me, just enough to get me to wet my ski pants.
Acrophobia does not need to be a problem anymore than any other phobia. One just needs to avoid situations where the phobia kicks in. For most of my life that hasn’t been too difficult. I don’t need to climb trees. I avoid hikes that take me to the edge of cliffs. (I’ve never climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado because it has an infamous section that I’ve been told is terrifying.) I know I could move to somewhere flat (Nebraska? Illinois?), live in a one-story house, stop skiing, keep my feet on the ground. That’s not me. As my readers know, I am a traveler and as such I find myself in frightening situations from time to time. I willing accept a bit of fear in order to experience something special. While working at a boys home in Colorado many years ago I took a group of lads to Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico. Bandelier is a prehistoric Native American site that features extraordinary ruins including some well preserved kivas: sacred round buildings where young men were instructed in the ways of the tribe and ceremonies were performed. Lamar (the other staff) and I took a dozen boys to the top of a very high kiva that required climbing a ladder that is over 20 feet tall. Getting to the top was easy. Getting down proved difficult. In fact, after numerous attempts I realized I couldn’t get down, which amused the boys to no end. Wishing to get rid of the hecklers, Lamar led the boys down the ladder and away from the kiva. I waited until two young ladies arrived and I asked them to rescue me. One climbed a few steps down the ladder while the other remained at the top. As the woman on top calmly talked me onto the ladder, the one below guided my feet to each rung of the ladder. In this way I was guided down to safety. I thanked them profusely before staggering away on shaky legs.
I have dozens of similar stories: being taken off a 3-story building site in by Rick Sobee, who grabbed me by my belt and carried me down a ladder; freezing in fear at both the Grand Canyon and Zion – same trip – and being unable to descend the Canyon; trembling in fear on a cliff face in Sumatra. I could go on, but my hands are becoming clammy and starting to tremble as I write this. The point is, I’ve suffered from acrophobia my entire life, yet I’ve only recently decided to deal with the problem. As a recent panic attack illustrates, it is a fear that I have yet to master. Before describing my most recent humiliation – my gut tightens at the memory – let me explain the steps I took to deal with my phobia. Five years ago our son Alan was graduating from high school. As we did with our daughter Jody, Sandy and I asked Alan where he would like to travel for his last Spring vacation. Whereas Jody chose southern India, Alan requested a trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. Not only that, he wanted to walk the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu. Research revealed what I suspected – and feared: Machu Picchu sits at 10,000 feet and the Inca Trail climbs over passes that exceed 12,000 feet. That wasn’t the bad part. The Inca Trail is at times extremely narrow and passes sheer drops of thousands of feet. Even the most superficial research reveals that parts of the trail are notable for the sheer terror they elicit. Oh boy.
I happen to have an old buddy who is a psychiatrist. (He assures me that that our decades-old friendship has nothing to do with his choice of career.) Jim J and I discussed the Inca Trail and my acrophobia, of which Jim J has been aware since high school. I jokingly mentioned that maybe I should skip the Inca Trail and stop skiing, as my fear on chair lifts was definitely getting worse. Knowing well my love of travel and adventure, Jim J had some advice to offer. He said that fear was not a bad thing, that it in fact displayed a rational mind. (You should be afraid while dangling over 1000 foot drops!) The problem was when your world began to shrink. Eliminating climbing and skiing might lead to less travel, fewer risks, less enjoyment. Would I start to plan my day so as not to risk being frightened? Plan trips to flat places? Where would it end? Instead, Jim J suggested therapy. Four months and a dozen sessions later (with a psychiatric nurse at the University of Colorado Medical Center) Alan and I successfully spent four days walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never experienced such terror. At one point, as we were climbing Intipunku (The Sun Gate), the last, nearly vertical climb that leads to a stunning view of Machu Picchu, I lost all control and reached out to grab anything at hand to steady myself. Unfortunately, what I grabbed was Alan’s leg, nearly pulling him from the face of the cliff. I deserved the curses he rained upon me, yet my actions were driven by blind fear.
Which brings me to the recent incident that inspired me to write this essay. I mentioned earlier that my acrophobia only strikes when I’m in the open, never in an enclosed space. That is no longer the case. My condition had worsened in recent years. The truth is that I’ve had three episodes while driving in the mountains, a possibly catastrophic occurrence. Nine years ago I experienced a panic attack while driving up to Mt Evans, whose summit is 14,240 feet. Although not a steep mountain and with a drive that features no precipitous drops, I became so frightened that I had to pull onto the side of the road and struggle to calm my wildly beating heart before I could continue. Seven years ago, while cruising the stunning Silverton-Ouray drive in western Colorado, I had one of the worst panic attacks to that point. We were climbing out of Ouray at over 9,000 feet when we came around a narrow bend. In front of me was a steep drop and no guard rail. The fear was paralyzing. I skip details about both events because the worst, most frightening driving event occurred just last week.
Sandy and I were driving through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, a spectacular alpine region that is not particularly high, at least not by Colorado Rocky Mountain standards. As happened near Ouray, I came around a bend – on the right side, the outside lane – and saw a steep drop and no guardrail. I’ve driven over such roads for decades (Independence Pass near Aspen comes to mind, a particularly nasty drive that never bothered me), yet that view in Arizona caused my fear level to jump instantly from 1 to 11. (My therapist coached me in assessing my fear level and gave me some techniques for reducing it. If I sensed a 7, I was to breathe and focus until I reduced it to 5 or 4.) I gripped the steering wheel with such force that I fleeting thought I would rip if from the steering column. There we were, on a blind curve, next to a fatally deep drop, and I was straddling the double yellow line, going 2 miles an hour. There was no place to pull over on the narrow road, no straight stretch where I might stop and switch places with Sandy. Stopping meant the risk of being slammed from behind or hit head on. For the next five minutes I inched forward at 2-5 miles an hour, gripping the steering wheel with fear, my knuckles a deathly white. I wiggled my fingers so the blood would once again flow, the entire time attempting to control my breathing and bring my heart beat somewhat closer to normal. I shrugged my shoulders and took in deep lungfuls of air, all to no avail. Finally, I spied a place to pull over. I climbed out of the car and stood on shaking legs until I felt better, then Sandy took over. Ten minutes later I summoned up the courage to ask Sandy to let me drive again. I’d like to think it wasn’t so much wounded male pride (Sandy is a good driver who always takes over for a spell during long trips) as the need to face my fear. At the first opportunity Sandy pulled over and I climbed behind the wheel. Five minutes later the Honda was once again straddling the double yellow line as we crawled around a blind curve at 3 miles an hour. I again gripped the wheel in fear, nearly in tears, and continued to drive in that manner for what seemed like miles until I found a place to once again pull over.
Within hours, Sandy had shared my terror with our kids (damn text messaging!) who always take great pleasure in my many weaknesses. We crossed a few more mountain passes on our way back to Golden (Wolf Creek Pass is awesome) but I had no more panic attacks. I must now once again consider my options. Driving alone over difficult mountain passes may no longer be possible. Moving to Florida is no longer out of the question. More therapy? That has been suggestions often, though not just for my acrophobia. Those with phobias will understand my predicament. I think I’ll crack open a cool Fat Tire ale, sit on my deck and contemplate the nature of fear. But I won’t sit too close to the edge.