I faced one of my biggest fears during a recent weekend ski trip. I am afraid of heights, and the ski lift terrifies me. Before we even hit the slopes, my family members were fed up. I droned on and on about the rules of safety to appease my nagging anxiety. “Make sure to pull the bar down snuggly against your legs,” I warned. “Take your time getting on and off the chair,” I encouraged. “Just be still, no rocking back and forth. And for goodness sakes, no fighting!” I pleaded. You get the idea.
Lucky for them, we split up since our ski proficiencies vary (believe it or not, I’m not a bad skier despite my apprehension about the ski lift). I reminded myself that the reward of the downhill ski was worth a few terrifying seconds on the lift. I used logic to convince myself that the odds were in my favor. People ski every day with relatively few falling-off-the-lift incidents. I forced myself to look around and experience the wintry peace from above. The lift continued its perpetual cycle up and down the hill while happy skiers embarked and disembarked. Life in the snowy, wooded Vermont mountains went on even as I worked up the courage again and again to get on the lift.
As is usually the case when I ski, facing my fear got easier with each run although I confess that my arms ached from the tight grip I kept on the bars. It was a constant struggle between me and gravity and I was determined to win. I wish I could say that by facing my fear I conquered it, but I cannot. Instead, I taught myself to manage it. By midday, it was obvious that I was coping and my family agreed to let me accompany them on a more challenging run after lunch. We decided on a meandering path through the woods, which would have been just my thing except that it required that we take two lifts, not just one. And given the higher elevation, the ride to the top would take twice as long.
“I’ve got this,” I thought as we stood in line for the second lift. And then in an instant, everything changed. All of the courage I’d managed to weave together and wrap myself in throughout the day began to unravel when my ten-year-old missed the chair he intended to ride with his sister and got on one by himself. He was too little to reach and pull down the safety bar over him. I looked on in horror as I jumped on the chair behind him and realized that the lift operator could do little to help the situation. I frantically looked for a “push in case of emergency” button, but there was none. No amount of facing my fears had prepared me for watching my child dangling perilously in front of me.
I had to close my eyes. I prayed out loud. My breath came quick and heavy, and eventually I lost feeling in my arm. I was white knuckled, pale faced, and light headed when finally, after what felt like an eternity, our chairs lowered us all safely to the ground. While I regained my composure, my son turned to me and said, “That was fun!” And with that, we all proceeded to ski (sort of) down the mountain to conclude our family holiday in Vermont.
If I’m honest, my anxiety about heights probably has more to do with a fear of feeling out of control than it does about falling. Except for the occasional ski trip or turbulent airplane ride, anxiety rarely disrupts the quality of my life. But my experience on the slopes reminded me that many people aren’t so lucky. Their anxiety doesn’t stop at the bottom of the hill. Their hearts aren’t as quick to recover to a steady beat after a close call on the ski lift. Their fears don’t pause to disembark. They constantly feel out of control. Their anxiety is a continuous cycle, uphill and downhill, without so much as a “push in case of emergency button.”
I thought about a woman I recently listened to whose son battles addiction. She explained that she’s an anxious person by nature, but that her son’s problems caused her so much worry that anxiety interfered with all aspects of her life. Most days she didn’t feel like leaving the house because home was the only place she felt safe and in control. Her social life suffered because it was too difficult for her to nurture relationships under the circumstances. Her health declined as she lost her appetite. Panic won out over sleep, and she was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I imagined that for her, every minute of every day must be like riding the ski lift, watching her son dangle perilously from on high—with no respite in sight.
I wondered if her son’s addiction had anything to do with his search to find a way to cope with life’s anxieties. Did his high numb him from a terrifying and unending ride on the ski lift? It’s not fair to compare my fear of heights to a struggle with addiction, but my experience allowed me to empathize with others whose anxiety is no less terrifying and much more pervasive. I admired the woman for the courage it took to tell her story. Sharing it coupled with consistent therapy helped her to cope with something that feels out of her control. I was deeply saddened for her son, who seemed to be stuck in a perpetual destructive cycle.
While I didn’t conquer my fear of the ski lift over the weekend, I coped with it and I even managed to learn from it. It honed my compassion and that always gives me a better perspective—even with my feet firmly planted on the ground.
What unexpected situation has offered you perspective?
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