15. Overcome the fear of heights

Is it really possible to overcome a debilitating fear? I don't know, but I have this blog that is making me want to try. I'm not sure that I could properly be diagnosed with Acrophobia (fear of heights), but suspect that I could come darn close. I don't know when it started, I only know that with age it has gotten worse. I am really, really afraid of heights. I don't know what it's like to not be afraid of heights. I don't have any idea what it's like to ride up an elevator in a skyscraper without sweaty palms and heart palpatations. Here's what I can tell you, I can handle being two stories up and looking over a balcony, but that's really about it. Anything higher, and it's weak knees, cold sweats, dizziness, and swearing. To be fair, the swearing happens at any altitude, but increases the higher up I go. I am oddly not afraid on airplanes, at least not of the height thing, but that's the only high up place I can be without finding myself in the midst of a full blown panic attack. I also have a fear of elevators which only makes sense, since the best way to get high (come on, you know what I mean) is on an elevator.

I remember going to Chicago with my family when I was young. My older brother is up for anything, and really wanted to go to the top of the John Hancock Center. Though I was the kind of younger sister that generally wanted to be just like my big brother, I was content to stay at the bottom with my mom and enjoy the sites, from the ground. I never had any intention of completing such a daring act, I knew I wouldn't enjoy it.

I don't know WHY this is such a challenge for me. Intellectually I understand that the construction of such a building is safe enough that it's not going to accidentally fall to the ground, the glass is thick enough that I won't accidentally break it, many people have taken the ride up before me, and they have come down in one piece. No big deal, right? Wrong. It is a big deal, but similar to people who run a marathon just to say they did it (yeah, I'm going to go ahead and make the comparison), I really wanted to go to the top of the Hancock building just to say I did it. So, when my husband and I visited Chicago for a little vacation last weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to check it off my list.

I am aware that the Sears Tower (soon to be known as the Willis Tower) is not only the tallest building in Chicago, but the tallest building in North America, and the third tallest building in the world. I know my limits, though, and I don't need to be breaking any records at this point. So, I settled for the Hancock Center, the fourth tallest building in Chicago. Despite the fact that I knew there would be three other buildings taller, the highest I'd ever been was 50 stories up (in the IDS Center in Minneapolis),and I was frightened because the Hancock Center is twice that.

The good news is that I did it. The true news is that it took a whole lot of coaxing, and a martini. We arrived in Chicago on a Friday, and while we were walking around and exploring, my husband asked me a couple times if we should make the trip. I wasn't ready. Honestly, thinking about it made me want to cry. I really was terrified. During dinner on Saturday night, our friend Clint mentioned to me that there was a restaurant and bar on the 95th floor called the Signature Room. This was the key. There was a destination, and a reward at the top - a martini. I decided it was time.

We hopped in a cab and were soon in the lobby of the Hancock. I made a point to not look up as we were entering the building, in keeping with the theme of not thinking too hard right before I take on a challenge. As I walked into the elevator, I buried my head in my husband's shoulder. To my surprise, the ride was really short, and as long as I wasn't thinking of how high up we were, I managed to stay calm. It sounds really crazy to say this, but I employed the same techniques riding in the elevator as I did when I was in active labor before giving birth. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and thought about the martini I was going to enjoy when the mission was complete.

It is really beautiful up there. We were there at night (which was probably best for me because I could see mostly lights instead of the edges of the earth), and it really is beautiful to see the entire city twinkling. I tried to relax and enjoy myself despite the fact that I was restless. I knew I didn't like the feeling of being so high up, but I watched the other people casually looking out the window the way I do when I'm seated near a window at a restaurant on a busy street where I can people watch. It's so different when the people you're watching are literally the size of ants. I tried not to squirm when my husband walked right up to the window and put his head on it ala Ferris Bueller, and was most alarmed when I made a trip to the bathroom to try to get away from the site of the city so far beneath me only to find floor to ceiling windows in the ladies room, too. So much for the escape plan.

I lasted 20 minutes, thanks to the martini. I was pretty proud. I buried my head in Matt's shoulder on the way down in the elevator, and said a private little 'thank you' to the building for holding me up as we walked out to the street. Once we were out there, I looked up, and felt a sense of pride for my accomplishment. That was really high.

I don't know that I conquered my fear of heights, but I definitely overcame it for those 20 minutes. Most importantly, I took that moment to recognize how high I'd been, both literally and figuratively. When you find yourself outside of your comfort zone, when you feel squirmy, and restless, that's where growth happens. Maybe those are the growing pains. I had a goal; to say I did it. I met that goal! Now, I plan to remain as close to the earth as possible for the rest of the days of my life, but if you see me close to the ground, and you ask me how high I've been, I will proudly tell you.

Next week, I will tell you about the experience of taking my clothes off for strangers. Not strangers with stethoscopes, strangers with a camera... Boudoir photography, baby!


  1. Congrats, Colleen, and thanks for sharing this great story! It helps all of us to know that what we might think are "silly little fears" we have...are actually a big deal. And that with time and action, we can move one step closer toward calming that fear. You did it! Oh, and I agree that a martini is the perfect prize to be waiting for you! Great job. :)

  2. So, when we were in Paris we did not go to the top of the Eiffel Tower together? Huh...how my memories fade. Now that I think about it, maybe we just took goofy pictures in front of it.

    XO, Kerry F. :)

  3. Now that you have mastered the "basic skills", you can graduate to this the next time you're in Chicago --> http://www.suntimes.com/news/1553249,050109sears.fullimage


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