Friday, November 18, 2011

Facing Fear

posted by Melissa Baumgart
A Fear of Heights
I say a little prayer to the trapeze gods.
I am afraid of heights.  I don't know when it started.  I don't remember this fear when I was younger.  I recall photos taken of me on top of the Twin Towers in the 1970's, right up near the edge, NYC stretching out behind me.  I remember climbing playground equipment all the way up to the top.  I used to love walking across the old suspension bridge that crossed the Ohio River, only 5 minutes from my house in Bridgeport, OH.  I remember looking down and how could see right through the metal grate beneath your feet to the cold water far below.

Then in college, in my early twenties, I grew to have a fear of dying.  Period.  Not in relation to anything in particular, just a general fear of death.  It ranged from thinking a strange smell was a poisonous gas in the air to being convinced the ceiling of my house was going to certainly fall down on me in the night as I slept.  Looking back, it makes no sense to me now.  But it was very real at the time.  Never once do I remember my fear being in relation to heights.

I grew out of that stage of near constant panic attacks and have been fairly anxiety free for the rest of my adult life.  Or so I thought.  Maybe I just created a life where I didn't have to face things I was afraid of.  Thinking back a few summers, I remember a feeling of dread due to the steepness of a hill I was attempting to hike down.  The other five women I was with were joyfully trodding down their own paths through the knee high grass, while I cried my way very slowly down the hillside.  

"Don't you feel better know that you did it!"  my friend offered, in a you-faced-your-fears tone of voice.

"No.  I still hate it."  I replied, bluntly and with the intent to imply I had no desire to continue the conversation.  Everyone was silent.

Since then there have been drives in the backcountry that scare the shit out of me, as we drive on a road with only a 3 foot high guardrail and 2 feet of gravel between me and the steep cliff that would surely result in death for all.  There was the hiking trip in August, who could forget that trauma?  Even walking up flights of stairs, I get dizzy and feel like my legs are going to turn to jello.

And then I picked trapeze.  Brilliant, Melissa.  Yes, I picked it!  Why?  I have no idea now.  I guess I like to confront my fears, as long as I am sitting at my table writing possible adventures down that won't happen for months to come.  But then November came.  November was here, in my face.  I was facing the trapeze, in all of its reality, not just scribbled on a piece of paper between poker and macramé.

Facing the Fear
Regardless of where it came from, this fear of heights has manifested in me without my liking it in the very least.  I find it embarrassing, and not an honest representation of who I feel like I am.  On the occasions when it pops up, I deal with it and then walk away hating everything about it.  I hate that I have it, I hate that I had to face it, and I hate having to be coddled and taken care of like a child.

So far, that has got me nowhere.  In a way, I am facing the fear because there it is in front of me, but my body and mind are resisting every bit of it.  And so it lives, unwelcome and inconvenient, to say the least.

Yesterday, I was anxious all day about our evening class at SANCA on the flying trapeze.  I paced.  I barked and quipped at my kids and husband for hours beforehand.  When we arrived at the enormous white tent where I would face this rogue fear named height, I was trembling and smiling.  Sometimes I smile, uncomfortably, when I am afraid.  But, still, I was prepared to do this.  I was going to get myself up there and swing on the trapeze and then drop softly to the net.
I made it to the top of the ladder!

Then everything in my false foundation of facing my fears was rocked to the core.  It was announced that we would be doing a trick!  Hanging from our knees upside down, hands-free, and then doing a backflip off of the trapeze.  You have got to be kidding me!  And to top it off, everyone else seemed OK with this.  It was all I could do to keep my face from breaking into that ugly crying face that we all have our own version of.  And mine is bad.  Real bad.

When we practiced on the stationary trapeze close to the ground, with the help of an instructor, I was the only one that couldn't get my legs up to the bar to do the knee hang.  Great, not only was I the only one deathly afraid and likely to cry if I ever got to the top, I was also the only one not fit or skinny enough to get my flipping legs up through my arms and onto the trapeze bar.  Shit.  This was not looking good.

As I waited my turn to climb up the 23 foot metal ladder, I took on a stance that resembled a person in prayer.  I don't pray, but maybe somewhere inside I was searching for something to hold onto besides the cold metal rungs with my clammy, wet hands.  I ascended the ladder, sans safety rope, and near the top my eyes met Kelly's.  She was the instructor at the top, on the platform from which we were to "hop" off.  She was understanding and gentle and reminded me to stop and take a breath.  Sage advice.

The Back Flip!!!!!
There I was at the top grasping onto anything I could.  Breathing.  I was barely keeping my cool, my face was quickly twitching back and forth between the forced fake smile and an alternate face of anguish and regret.  My legs were wobbling beneath me and when I finally caught the trapeze bar that Kelly tossed back to me with her long metal hook, I thought I would fall off the platform from the weight of it.  I didn't.  Nor did I fall when she instructed me to take my left hand off the secure metal pole it was clenching and out onto the trapeze bar as well.  Kelly, somehow, tiny as she was, miraculously held me from falling by holding onto the back of my safety belt.  

"Ready" she commanded.  

I bent my shaking knees.

"Hop" she commanded.  

And I did it.  I jumped, somewhat awkwardly, and not at all like we were instructed.  But nevertheless, I jumped.  My hands held tight to the bar as I swung out and higher than I ever thought I could swing.  In my memory, I let out a little shriek of relief and joy.  Joy?  (Wow, I can't believe I just typed that word.)

I never got my feet up to hang upside down, but I didn't care.  I held so tight, in fact, that when it came time to let go and do the back flip, I couldn't let go.  I just hung there, and finally dropped slowly (thanks to Spencer, the safety line guy) to the net, feet first, with my hand swept across my forehead in what Amy called a "damsel-in-distress" kind of motion.

The second ascent was no less frightening than the first.  Well, I did know that Kelly would be there to help me at the end, which was a comfort.  "Hi, Melissa" she said when I got near the top, "you're smiling!"  I couldn't speak well enough to tell her it wasn't a real smile.  But I did manage to tell her I would not try the knee hang this time, I was just going for the back flip.  I managed those words through a crackling voice that nearly broke into full blown tears.  

And I jumped off the platform again!  This time, after Spencer called "Front, back, front" for me to swiftly move my legs...I LET GO!  I tucked my legs up toward my chest and I flipped backwards down to the net.  It was amazing!  I was so proud of myself.  Even Spencer's accolades for my attempt were well received by me after that one, after all the others I sorta felt like he "had" to say it.  You know, as a teacher and all.

And there you have it.  I did something I was so afraid of.  I did it four times.  The last time I took flight I almost got my legs up for the knee hang.  What you can read into that is that I wasn't afraid to try it.  HUGE.  I feel a little more like I faced my fear, and less like I rolled my eyes at it and walked away.

Here's the video of my flight ending with the back flip:



Kami said...

Melissa, I am so proud of you. I remember the days in college when you were afraid the ceiling was going to cave in on you and you would die. You've come along way babe! You are an inspiration!!!

Melissa Baumgart said...

Thanks, Kami! Those were some intense days indeed. Thanks for being there and not laughing at the absurdity of it all. I loved those nights when we would lay in bed, listening to Myrna on the radio. You were the best best friend I could have asked for!

Anonymous said...

Great! thanks for the share!

Cassandra said...

Cool!!!! Great job! I enjoyed watching your video. :)

Melissa Baumgart said...

Thanks, Cassandra! I can't believe I did it...and then we went again this weekend and will go again tomorrow! I'll be sure to have another post and video of me making it to the upside down knee hang. :)

Anonymous said...

hi happy christmas to you all - matty mays