When I was around 3 years old, I loved to climb. The most memorable story my father has told of my adventures at that age is the time he and my mother were at the park with my infant sister and I, and I wandered over towards the monkey bars. They were the old space-sphere bars that were constructed of triangles pieced together to form a half-sphere. The only way up or down was on the sides, and the middle was nothing but a sheer drop to the ground, usually about 5-6 feet.
Mom and Dad were walking together, he tells me, when he suddenly heard my little voice crying out, “LOOKIT ME, DADDY!” When my parents turned around, I was standing on top of the sphere, arms raised above my head, my little body in an X as I laughed with glee. My mother gasped (says Dad), and he quickly muttered to her, “Stay calm and don’t say anything to her to scare her. She’ll be fine if I can show her how to climb down.” And that’s exactly what he did. He praised me for my climbing skills and walked towards me calmly so that he could show me the best way to get back down without getting hurt.
I remember there being a tall metal slide on the playground at my elementary school. I’m sure it’s gone now, for just like monkey bars, these have all disappeared from playgrounds in America. One of the games we loved to play when the playground aides weren’t looking was to climb to the top of the slide, then take the pole down instead of the slide. When Shawn fell and had to get stitches, we were strictly forbidden to do it again, and suddenly the slide was monitored more closely. But I loved to do that.
I loved anything to climb up high: monkey bars, the slide, my swing set (I would climb onto the bar across the top), the maple trees in our front yard. It was all a game. I remember climbing high up one set of branches in the maple tree and loving the feeling of when the wind blew enough to make me sway back and forth. I would imagine what it would be like to fly like a bird. I would go as high as I could go, and I felt nothing but freedom in the act.
When I was 12 years old or so, my family went to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. I stood on the second-floor balcony looking at the Saturn 5 rocket that reached into the upper part of the atrium, then followed the sides of the rocket down, down, down to the basement, 5 floors below where I stood. My heart raced suddenly, and I had a sudden image of me falling down into that basement. I backed away from the railing and tried to slow my heart down.
I was afraid of heights.
I have never been able to get over that fear, even though the rational part of my brain knew that the chances of anything happening (especially of anyone falling) were slim-to-none. Even though my kids knew not to horse around near ledges and edges, I was always afraid of someone falling – of me falling – and the idea of being high up terrified me. I remember going up into the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and feeling really frightened: between the claustrophobic feeling of the little car that took us up and the swaying of the Arch while we were up there, I hardly enjoyed it at all. (If I could focus on looking into the distance, the view was nice. But the swaying! Holy Mother of God, pray for me!)
When my husband and I were dating, we talked about homeschooling our kids and taking them to the Grand Canyon someday as a family field trip. Until we actually started planning the trip a moth ago, though, I didn’t really think about how my fear of heights might affect me (or our trip). Suddenly, my husband started talking about hikes into the Canyon on trails with no railings, trails that followed ridges, trails with sheer drops on one side. Trails we’d be sharing with mule trains. About a week before we left, I started feeling so anxious that I was nearly giving myself panic attacks at the very thought of hiking Kaibab Trail. I would get images in my head of someone falling off the side of the Grand Canyon. I would imagine someone stepping too close to the edge of the rim and suddenly slipping for no reason. I was working myself into a panic over the idea every time I thought about it.
So I did what I could to minimize the panic: I made my husband plan everything we’d do, I tried not to think about it, and I told no one that I was feeling so frightened by the idea of hiking into the Canyon.
Not long before we left for our trip, I got Hallie Lord’s book, On the Other Side of Fear, knowing that I had some issues with anxiety. It’s not just the fear of heights, but it’s worrying over whether or not I’m raising my kids right or giving them a good education at home, whether or not I can build up our emergency fund again, wondering if I’m instilling a love of God in my girls’ hearts that will carry them through their lives and keep them in the Church … You name it, I can probably worry about it.
I made the decision that I would read Hallie’s book on vacation, so our first full day at our resort, I sat by the pool while the girls went swimming and I started to read. So much of the book made sense to me, and the combination of anecdotes and advice was the perfect mix. I got about halfway through the first day, so when we went to the Grand Canyon on Monday morning, I was ready to start facing my fears.
“Don’t live in the wreckage of the future” was the first piece of advice that stuck with me. Most of the things I was worried about hadn’t happened, and weren’t likely to happen, either. If I kept focused on that fact, I could battle the fears I had about hiking in and around the Canyon. All day on Monday, as we hiked the Rim Trail and parts of Grandview Trail, I reminded myself that my family was being careful, they weren’t taking unnecessary risks, and they weren’t going to fall. It was going to be okay. I kept feeling braver and braver as the day went on.
In another part of the book, Hallie talks about Feats of Bravery: times when you rush at your fear and face it, pushing your boundaries. I made the decision to push myself. Throughout the week, I would walk out onto the ledges that are all along the trails, each time getting closer and closer to the ledge so I could look over. I started taking selfies near ledges (VERY CAREFULLY!): getting into position, feet spread for maximum stability, and finally raising the camera for that “WOW” picture. (Some people decry the amount of selfies taken, as if we are the most important thing there. Trust me, there are lots of panoramas and photos of the Grand Canyon. My ledge selfies were testimonies to my growing bravery!) My Snapchat feed was filled with me talking about feeling anxious, getting braver, beginning to enjoy the views … It’s a documentary of me overcoming my fears, one ledge at a time!
Wednesday was my biggest test. We set out extra early to hike the Kaibab Trail, though we knew we would only go as far as Cedar Ridge. (Anything more than that is not recommended as a day hike, especially if you’re inexperienced hikers.)
The Kaibab Trail was a challenge; the hike to Cedar Ridge is 3-mile round-trip, and the trail is cut into the sides of the Canyon. It’s full of switchbacks and ledges, though it’s usually about 5 feet wide, so there’s enough room for hikers to pass each other, as well as for the mule trains to get up and back. At the start of the day, I hugged the wall as much as I could, but gradually, I started to feel more comfortable. That 5′ wide thing? I discovered that when I was walking down. I was feeling anxious about the edge, especially when hikers were passing us on their way back up, so I decided to really look at the trail. Hallie talked about looking objectively at the fear and deciding if it was really something to worry about. I stood in the middle of the trail and put my arms out. It was at least as wide as I am tall. At least 5’4″. Heck, that’s wider than the sidewalk! This was about as wide as our running/biking trails back home! Suddenly, I didn’t need to worry about the width of the trail any more.
Just like I had done on Monday, I pushed myself to step to the ledge again and again. I kept quipping that I was “50% braver” and “63% braver” all day. My bravery levels were increasing with every ledge selfie I took.
By the time we were halfway down to Cedar Ridge, stopping at Ooh Aah Point, I had stopped freaking out completely when my kids stood on rocks and ledges. As a matter of fact, my generally fearless 17 year-old was more uptight about her sister sitting here than I was!
I was ready to get to Cedar Ridge and check out the views! I kept reminding myself to face the fear, to not live in the wreckage of the future, and to turn my imagination toward the light. Hallie had talked about reigning our imaginations when they start turning our thoughts into “dark fairy tales that had escaped from inside well-worn covers” that we start to think are real. The reality wasn’t that someone was going to get hurt or fall or slip. The reality was that my family was careful and yet adventurous. They were going to sit on ledges and dangle their feet, and then they’d get up carefully and step back to the trail for more hiking.
And I had decided that I was going to join them.
I asked St. John Paul II and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati to intercede for me, kept repeating Hallie’s words of wisdom to myself, and I got braver again. At Cedar Point, I actually stepped out farther than I ever thought I would. I went out on a protrusion with my younger daughter and took a couple of pictures. Then I looked down to see some German tourists walking farther out. “I’m going down there. Wanna come?” I asked her. She agreed, and we climbed down and walked farther out. There was a ledge off to the side, looking east towards where the Colorado River enters the Grand Canyon, and I decided I was going to sit there. I was going to dangle my feet off that ledge.
I actually sat down about three feet from the edge and scooted forward, but that wasn’t important. I did it! That was the important part. Once I calmed down and started breathing normally again (“Until I heard you breathing that hard, I didn’t realize how scared you really were!” my daughter told me later.) I could look around and really enjoy the view.
Hallie’s book — that slim little thing — had changed my life. By the time we got back to the rim again, I was just about over my fear of heights. When we went back on Thursday afternoon, I boldly walked to edges without shirking. I stopped getting freaked out when my kids did stuff like this:
And then, when we got to The Abyss, a point on the Rim Trail with a 3000′ drop-off, I walked to the edge, sat down, and put my feet over to take a picture. My husband, amazed at the change in me, snapped this picture, which has been my social media profile picture since we returned home.
I can’t recommend On the Other Side of Fear enough. I can’t over-state how life-changing it’s been for me. If you have problems with anxiety, this book can help you start to turn things around. If I could do all of that after reading only half of it, imagine what’s possible once you finish! (And I did finish, and I’m applying all of the lessons in my everyday, non-hiking-the-Grand-Canyon life.)
Cross-posted at CatholicMom.com
All text and images ©2016, Christine Johnson