Picture the scene – it’s Christmas day in the Highlands of Scotland and we’re staying in a stone cottage with a roaring fire, kids playing happily with the toys Santa brought them. My husband hands me a present – it’s an upmarket-looking embossed silver envelope. Surely this has to contain a voucher for some luxury or other – a spa day perhaps, or a ticket to somewhere exotic? He watches me, smiling, as I open it and read…
…it was a voucher for an abseiling experience. AN ABSEILING EXPERIENCE!!!! Had the man gone utterly mad?! Perhaps he had me mixed up with some other wife he’s been keeping secret? Had there been some terrible admin mistake somewhere? All goodwill and warm fuzzy Christmassy feelings went from the room in an instant. I went completely white and momentarily feigned completely unconvincing delight (whilst tears of fear pooled in my eyes) before fleeing.
The ferocity of my rising panic and anger amazed me. It’s true that I had lots of gremlins that lurk around such pursuits (due to being frogmarched to outdoor activity centres all too often when I was an overweight and underconfident teen – shudder), but I’m not afraid of heights and I knew the likelihood of everyone else pointing and laughing at me was extremely low (and now I’d have things to say and ways to deal with it if they had done!) – so why this paralysing dread?
When I calmed down enough to trust that I wouldn’t shout, swear or do harm to him, I talked to Richard and asked him (very politely!) what had been his thought processes around this particular present. He said that he’d known it was not the sort of thing I’d usually do (admitting he hadn’t anticipated how strongly against it I’d felt!) and he’d thought it would be a fun challenge, in a widening-your-comfort-zone sort of a way. He also added that I could change it or not go if I wanted.
Oddly enough, it was this comment that made me decide to do it. It reminded me that, as adults, we always have choice, even if it doesn’t appear obvious. The fact I could actively choose to abseil down a 10m tower, rather than react to an event (ie being given it as a present) and therefore give away my choice by making it ‘Richard’s fault’, immediately quelled some of the panic. I also decided that I’d phone up and book myself in soon, rather than ‘oops’ letting the deadline come and go without any action (inaction being a passive choice in itself). Besides, I wanted to show my girls (and myself, for that matter) that mummy can face her fears.
So finally, last weekend, the day came, after almost 9 months’ of nailbiting since that Christmas drama. Although I felt strong and proud that I’d made the decision to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, the fact was that I still couldn’t even think about leaning back over that precipice without wanting to be sick. My family rather sensibly kept a low profile all morning and then the time came.
The more I felt unwell at the very thought of abseiling, the more I became determined to go for it. However, when the instructor was showing us how to put on our harnesses, there was an almost primal urge to bolt – I had to physically restrain myself from running a mile in the opposite direction. At the same time as feeling this overwhelming fear (the likes of which I don’t recall ever having had before), I was really interested in the feeling. I’ve been practising mindfulness lately and it was comforting, in the middle of such an intense experience, not to be trying to block the feelings out but to observe them, almost subjectively, in a loving way. It didn’t stop me sobbing as I watched the first of our group balance on his tiptoes 10m up before lowering himself down though!
When it came to my turn, I focused on the choice I’d made to be there. I climbed up three flights of stairs inside the tower, willing myself on with every step. At the top Simon, the instructor, explained what I needed to do whilst I clung on to the handrail for dear life. All the time, I had a still small voice telling me what amazing learning this all was. But I still had to lower myself over…
Well, I did that. The part that had worried me most was done and I was horizontal, many metres over the ground. Then Simon said I needed to loosen my grip on the rope if I wanted to go anywhere.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever hung, clinging on to a rope, high off the ground. However, I can tell you that all your instincts scream at you to keep clinging on to that rope, whatever you do, don’t let go. And here was Simon telling me I had to loosen my grip! Well, that did it – all mindfulness was forgotten and sheer unadulterated terror took over. I screamed that I wanted to get back up and was back up in a second, crying on poor Simon’s shoulder. He was the perfect mixture of encouraging and listening, told me that I’d done the bit most people bottle out at, and asked me what I wanted to do.
I had choice again. I projected forward and tried out telling my daughters both scenarios, and telling them I hadn’t done it was awful, as was the idea of descending those stairs. My decision was to do it. I composed myself, answered ‘yes’ when Simon asked if I was happy, and I leaned back and eased off on the rope.
It took a long time to descend those few metres as my grip was still pretty tight, but eventually I got to the bottom, to applause from the rest of the group. I had wondered whether I’d feel euphoric having done it, but I didn’t. What I did feel was that the worst part of the experience had just been the fear, but that I now knew I could get through that – even the abject terror. Franklin Roosevelt said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”, and that seems a particularly apt quotation for my experience. I saw fear in that moment for just what it was – a feeling, and nothing else.
Having beaten the fear once, I wanted to test myself and eventually went down the tower a further three times. I’d told Richard and the girls to stay away at the beginning (mostly as I didn’t want my daughters learning the swear words which have a habit of coming out when I’m under pressure), but called them after my second descent so they could come and see. My six-year-old was typically unimpressed (“jump, mummy!”, “mummy, you’re not going very fast!” etc) but I was happy to have been a positive role model for them and I hope that they will remember the experience one day when faced with a massive personal challenge themselves.
As for me now, I will probably never do abseiling again, but I know that I could do if the situation arose. I also know that I have the ability to overcome that sort of fear and so could do something that provoked similar feelings if necessary (although I’ve told Richard that this does not mean a potholing experience would be appreciated this Christmas!). I also know now – thanks to Simon – that to get anywhere in abseiling or in life, I need to loosen my grip on the rope a little.Are you holding on too tight anywhere in your life? Do you have a dread of something that’s coming up? Give me a call!