I know a great rock to climb! Do you want to go?
Why?! Are you scared?
Irrelevant. I once went skydiving.
We can take a helicopter to see the Grand Canyon! It's amazing. Let's go!
Why not? You're missing out.
Irrelevant. I once strapped myself to another person and jumped out of a plane.
I realize that there are people who actually skydive as part of their occupation or, even more inexplicably, for recreation. Kudos to them. The world is truly a better place for having them in it, and I am in awe of their steely nerves. For me, the experience was the ultimate test to prove that my body, which had always felt naturally opposed to death-defying leisure, was indeed more sensitive than the average body, or at least that my nervous system was.
Just try it! You'll like it!
No, that's what they said about skydiving.
I would like to blame my friends for dragging me on that excursion, but I only have myself, and beer, to blame. Five of us had gathered on a Friday evening, a drinking game was played, and tipsy plans were hatched. At the end of the night, we had made a very fuzzy, tentative commitment to go skydiving as a group. I had, apparently, enthusiastically signed up. But, I hadn't expected my friend to call me the next morning and explain excitedly that he'd booked a day of skydiving for us the following day. Immediately, while still holding the phone, I could feel a slithery, icy fear run down throat and pool in my stomach. Of course, then, I didn't have the conviction that I have now. I didn't know without a doubt that my preferred speed for traveling through open space is 4.0 mph, ideally with my feet on a sidewalk. Although, I had suspected it.
Over the years, my friends had pointed out that I was, when it came to a certain kind of fun, kind of a drag. No fun at state fairs. Pointless at theme parks. I thought, perhaps this fear thing was just that, a thing, like an object in the road that I could step over. It felt physical, manifesting as a lump in my throat, a sharp stick in my diaphragm, so maybe if I just chose to bypass them, I would find that there really was something worthwhile on the other side. Mind over matter, right? (Later, this ability to ignore blaring physical panic would prove useful for public speaking.) Maybe I really had been missing out on all the fun.
My big question was, do other people feel the same fear and are simply able to overcome it? Or, does my body manifest more terror than average?
I would find my answer soon enough.
My friend scooped us up in a borrowed minivan for the hour-long drive to our testing ground. Everyone was in good spirits. The stifling dread was still present, but I was already practicing just going about my business while it was busy working away on my insides—butterflies, more like sharp-beaked raptors, thrashed around in my gut. This was going to be the ultimate experiment, and maybe I was stronger than I thought. Perhaps this experience would obliterate anxiety, and at the end of it, I would be… someone who could like surfing, for example.
We would be falling through a perfectly blue Texas summer sky. We had signed up for tandem jumping, in which we would be attached to a more seasoned skydiver who was responsible for all the important stuff, like pulling the ripcord to our parachutes. This obviously seemed like a safer option than going it alone. The skydiving center stood on a basic airfield amidst miles of flat landscape. We were the only group of amateurs that afternoon, which was a good thing, because one of their two small planes was out for maintenance, so we would be going up one by one. It was going to be a long day.
The instructors, all men, were intimidatingly serene and reminded me of less attractive versions of Patrick Swayze in Point Break: rugged, bleached and scruffy, with a patina of dirt and danger. Their faces looked like they spent a lot of time at the mercy of high velocity. In a big, empty room they showed us how we would be crouched in the seatless airplane and how to properly position our bodies as soon as we were in the air; ideally, we would resemble excited babies on our tummies, stretching out arms and legs. No one should look like a cowering, compressed ball when being emptied into the ether. In other words, ignore your instincts.
We were issued our jump suits, and as soon as I zipped it up and looked in the mirror I knew I had made a huge mistake. For I already looked like a big baby in an oversized nylon onesie. We had straps that we had to tighten at the very top of each leg and around our waists so that, over my jumpsuit, it looked like I was wearing a giant, black jockstrap.
I walked out to greet my friends expecting to get a good laugh at how funny we all looked, but for some reason, they looked pretty cool, especially my friend D., the only other girl in our group, who looked like a svelte model getting ready to shoot an advertisement for space suits.
Since we had to go up individually, I of course volunteered to go last, and that made the wait even more excruciating. D. was the first to go, and the rest of us sat on a wooden park bench outside the base waiting for her to appear in the sky. We first watched her climb into the small plane with her tandem partner and a few other divers who were jumping alone and then take off. When she finally appeared in the sky, we leapt up and ran toward the area where she was going to land, which she did gracefully, giving a little jog at the end along with her partner, and then she shouted, "That was amazing!!"
"All right! Congratulations!" We high-fived her and listened to her recount their jump as they unfastened themselves from various straps and hooks.
One after the other, my friends landed out of the sky with the same light touch and shouted enthusiasm. One declared that his life was forever changed, and that he was going to be a professional skydiver.
By that point, after the long wait, my nerves were in the same state as my over-suit jock strap, tight and painful. But, my friends' unequivocally positive experiences were helping me to psyche myself up. If they loved it, I'll love it!
"Are you ready to rock!?" My instructor asked me when it was time to file into the plane. I'll call him Bullet for the purposes of this story. Bullet was a huge, hulking, buzz-cut blond man, who looked like a descendent of Vikings, and that gave me some comfort. We climbed the tinny stairs into the plane, and I crouched in front of Bullet, who got busy attaching my straps to him. The few other divers in the plane gave me thumbs-up and I tried to smile back without looking like a wild-eyed maniac.
It wasn't that I was afraid of dying, or rather, I wasn't afraid of the plane going down or my parachute not opening, but as we ascended sharply I was more worried about having a stress-induced heart attack. I poured sweat into my thick, itchy flight suit while enfolded in Bullet's large frame. By the time we reached the right altitude, I was merely a molten feverish skin thrown over a body hollowed out by fear. There was no voice with which to ask to turn back. I watched the individual divers crouch-hop toward the open door and hurl themselves, one by one, out of it.
It was my turn. Bullet's bulk urged my limp body up to the doorframe. And rocked, one, two, three, out the door, out into the shrieking wall of wind outside the plane. My body was now two lungs, pumped too full, struggling against the loud air, and a mouth, trying with contortions to catch a regular breath. It felt like my lips were clamped onto a gigantic deflating balloon. And then, finally, Bullet pulled whatever cords he had to pull, the parachute opened and I felt like I was jumping over the side of building, hit with full G-force, and painfully pulled back by my giant jockstrap.
This was the part of the skydive that most people would enjoy, soaring through space, suspended, aloft, free. Fields, and regular life, far below. Bullet passed me two handles to hold that would control our direction in the air, but I had no grip strength. So, he tried to show me some fancy maneuvers himself, where we would swoop in large circles, and I whimpered for him to stop. The cold fear had drained out of my body, and my nerves had chewed through every last drop of adrenaline at my disposal. Now I was human-goo. If someone had taken a picture of me in the final descent, they probably would have captured the drool of an unconscious person. The ground, sweet, solid, life-affirming ground was still achingly far away.
At last, Bullet reminded me how to properly land, but I knew it was of no use, my gelatin legs weren't my own, and just as I expected, on impact I collapsed on the ground, in a pile with poor Bullet, speechless.
I had made it back to earth. Rather than stepping over my fear, I had launched myself through it (or, at least, Bullet had). Even when it was a screaming gale force wind bursting inside, I moved forward.
And, what was at the end of the anxiety-rainbow?
A big pot of spent adrenaline and a lifetime of justification for avoiding extreme sports.
In all honesty, the experience did help me distinguish when it's worth leaping through fear (a job interview), and when it's wise to listen to your body's preferences. If it's digging in its heels on the way to a surfing lesson, why not just hang out on the beach, reading a good book instead? You can wave to your more adventurous friends as they're smiling on their boards and wait for them with a warm towel and a calm heart. They'll tell you their stories of big waves, and you'll cook them a fine dinner.
We all have our strengths and passions. Mine just don't involve air masks, jumpsuits, or parachutes.