Thursday, June 28, 2012

My secret fear

When I was 18 years old I remember sitting in the balcony at Shea Stadium during a Mets game and watching the jets take off from nearby La Guardia Airport. I had been on jets before, but something struck me as I watched them rise over the stadium that day: Total fear.

I told myself I would never fly again.

Of course, I couldn’t have reached my goals as a professional sportswriter without flying. So I found a way to control my fear and went on to write for the Hartford Courant, Detroit Free Press and New York Times, among other publications, and covered everything from the Super Bowl to the Stanley Cup finals and the Daytona 500.

I still hate flying. I still panic at every takeoff, counting 120 seconds each time before I can begin breathing normally again. I still clutch the armrests after every bump and banking turn. But I manage that fear and I go on with my life.

Except that now I’ve developed another fear I can’t seem to manage. And I need help, because it is stopping me from doing the things I want to do in my life. So maybe somebody out there will read this and know what I can do to get past it.

Let me start by saying, as someone who resides a bit closer to the ground than most folks, I have always had a fear of heights. I don’t like cliffs. I would never skydive. I always hated that metal bridge on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. Did they ever pave that thing?

But it never paralyzed me while driving until I vacationed on St. John in the Virgin Islands years ago. Something about those steep hills and cliffs and vertical hairpin turns got to me. I remember driving up a hill and stopping in the middle and backing down, because I was afraid to go any higher. I had never had a problem like that before. But it happened twice on that trip.

The fear returned with me from St. John. Suddenly, hills that I had driven before panicked me. Whenever I had to drive along the edge of a mountain, where I could see nothing but sky in front of or alongside of me, a fear engulfed me and I couldn’t drive. I had to get out of the car and let my travel companion take the wheel. It has happened many times. But even then, as a passenger, I could barely stand it.

Over time, it has gotten progressively worse. I hit bottom during a hiking trip to Utah in April. Have you ever driven on Route 9 up and down the switchback through Zion National Park? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. Hairpin turns with nothing but sky and a thousand-foot drop down in front of you. There was no way I could have driven it myself. If I had attempted it, I have no doubt I would have driven off the cliff because I was so panicked I wouldn’t have been able to tell the brake from the accelerator pedal. I’m not kidding -- it was that bad. Even as a passenger, I could barely get through it, sweaty palms gripping the arm rests, feet pressed against an imaginary brake as I begged the driver to go slow.

During a recent trip to the North Carolina mountains, I found myself panicked again as I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway to a hiker’s trail head. With nowhere to pull off to the side, I had to stop the car in the middle of the parkway, get out and let my travel companion drive the rest of the way. After that, she said she didn’t want to go on these hikes anymore because it was too hard for me.

But I don’t want to stop hiking. I don’t want to stop hiking in the mountains, either. Some of the most beautiful hikes in the world are up there, and I don’t want to miss them. I want to go back to Utah to hike a place called The Wave. But to do it, I’ll have to go up and down that Zion switchback again. Just the thought of it raises my heart rate.

No, I don’t want to take pills to get through this. Nor do I want to lie down in the car so I can’t see – that does nothing to alleviate the fear. So what do I do? Are there any other options?

No jokes, please. This isn’t funny to me.