I can’t move my legs. Ohmigod, I can’t do this. This stark moment of clarity occurs as I am clinging to a support pole on the Sky Trail® Ropes Course at the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s an attraction billed as an “adrenaline-fueled” (understatement) adventure on an open-air, 12 to 36-foot multi-level structure where you are harnessed in and meant to “conquer your fears” by traversing the various levels. Basically you are required to balance and walk tight-rope style on thin, steel beams. Or worse, walk on wooden steps suspended by jiggly ropes. Or even worse than that…just ropes, nothing solid to stand on at all—all of this without any sort of secure handrail. I had no idea how much I relied on being able to use my hands to steady myself until that safety measure was taken away.
Being harnessed and clipped in to the structure, you are supposed to feel safe to attempt these feats of daring. Should you lose your balance, no need to worry, the rope tethering you to the structure will save you from plunging to an untimely death. Unfortunately, the message that “This is totally safe!” is clearly not being relayed to my legs…or bladder.
I thought this would be a delightful mother-daughter escapade. I’ve been talking it up and showing Callie photos of the Sky Trail for days. She’s psyched. I even drove all over Tampa this morning to find a harness for the GoPro® video camera that I have strapped to my chest right now. I had visions of capturing thrilling, fun-seeker type videos from our soaring heights. Instead, the camera is just recording my shallow, ragged breathing and petrified, jerky movements. Picture sort of a Blair Witch Project vibe. My shaking hands desperately reach for anything to hold on to, my heart pounds, my voice trembles, “I’m sorry Callie, but I don’t think I can do this…I feel like I’m going to throw up…I’m dizzy…I…I can’t do it. I’m so sorry honey.”
I am afraid of heights (another understatement). Somehow I neglected to take that fear into account before I strapped in and headed up the handrail-less stairs—which is unfortunate, because now I find myself struggling not to cry on this torture contraption and wondering whose horrible idea this was (mine). I only make it across one rope-bridge before I freeze up like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Caught in the vise grip of phobia, I’m light-headed and unable to stop repeatedly picturing myself tumbling over the edge. The rope that I’m attached to gets caught on something and as I look up to release it I’m hit by a wave of vertigo that weakens my knees even further.
I’m now absolutely terrified to move and my brain seems to have lost sensory contact with my legs. But I’m blocking the path of a fearless child who is impatient to advance up the stairs to the next level. (Show off). Going down the stairs is even more frightening than ascending, so I shamefacedly resort to butt-scooting down the steps to the safety of the ground. Callie reluctantly follows, no doubt rolling her eyes behind my back. Deservedly!
Here’s the worst part of this debacle. Callie can’t continue on the Sky Trail if I’m unable to regain some semblance of control over my body. She is less than 48” tall and legally has to be accompanied by an adult—even though said “adult” is completely useless and about to pass out at the moment.
I don’t want to ruin her day because of my stupid phobia, so I take a deep breath, blink back the tears in my eyes, and croak through shaking lips, “Okay, I’ll give it another try.”
I really wish I could say that my will takes over at this point and I bravely complete the ropes course for my daughter’s sake, teaching her the life lesson that you can accomplish anything if you are courageous and set your mind to it. Sadly, that is not the case today. On the second attempt I only make it halfway up the steps before succumbing to a near panic attack. I am completely defeated by the Sky Trail my own mind.
Believe it or not, I actually do consider myself to be an adventurous person. I like roller coasters, I wakeboard, I even used to be able to barefoot ski, though I imagine my barefooting days are behind me now. The boat has to maintain considerable speed to allow you to use only your feet to ski, so when you fall, you fall hard. You flip over and over on the surface of the water before you finally stop. If you’ve never had the wind knocked out of you from the force of your wipeout in water, let me assure you, it’s twice as disconcerting to struggle for that first breath in the water as it is on land. But I would rather experience that wind-knocked-out-of-me-in-the-middle-of-a-lake thing a hundred times over before ever volunteering to go on the Sky Trail again.
I wasn’t aware of exactly how powerful my fear of heights was until this moment. It’s humbling to discover that no amount of logical reasoning can convince my body to cooperate. I’m disappointed in myself despite knowing that I did the best I could. And I feel like a total party-pooper for Callie’s sake. Poor thing, I’ve spoiled her fun. She’s such a good kid and tries to hide her frustration with me, but it’s a lot to ask from a seven-year-old. “Sorry kid, your mom has acrophobia, which means she sucks at heights. Soooo…you won’t be having any fun today. You understand, right?”
I promise her that I’ll bring her back soon with someone else to go up on the Sky Trail with her while my feet remain safely planted on the ground. Then we head to the gift shop so I can attempt to assuage my guilt by purchasing her a huge lollipop and a bag of gemstones. I assure her that someday this experience will be a funny story she tells. “Seriously, you’ll laugh at this!” I tell her as I scoop another handful of magnetic rocks into her bag.
There was no fear-conquering here today, though there was plenty of adrenaline-fueled behavior, as advertised. With hands that will (hopefully) stop shaking in another hour or so, I wave good bye to the Sky Trail and reluctantly accept that there are some things that I’m just not meant to do. When it comes to adventures involving heights, my new motto is: “The Ground’s the Limit!”
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