I live with acrophobia, a psychological nuisance more commonly known as a fear of heights, and which loosely translated means being scared of peaks, summits or edges. In other words, when I am in high places I am frequently and irrationally frightened.
I can’t define how ‘high’ high is, sometimes it’s very high, sometimes it’s not so high. I have no fear of flying, for example, or of cleaning the gutters or of looking out of a fifth-floor window. But when it comes to crossing bridges, standing on balconies, dining on rooftop restaurants, walking along cliff-top pathways, or hiking through mountainous terrain, then it’s a different matter.
Instead of being pleasant and enjoyable, these activities usually trigger an over-developed sense of survival in which my mind and my imagination become out of kilter. I become aware of myself, of my position in relation to the ground, and of the edge – particularly the edge.
An image of me falling takes on the trappings of a bona fide probability and my body reacts as if I were in genuine danger – which, of course, I am, but no more so than if I were about to cross a road, or if I were standing on a platform awaiting a train.
At these times I realise that the only thing between me and death is an electrical connection in my brain. A decision, a notion, an idea. None of which seem as substantial as ropes and harnesses. I am left wondering: can a thought be stronger than physical movement? If my body receives an impulse is to jump then can my mind stop it? Can I rebel against myself; start a civil war; launch a synaptic coup? I’m frightened that if I imagine it, it might happen.
Sudden and genuine fear is an ugly experience. I’m not used to it and I don’t know how to deal with it. When adrenalin floods my system and freezes my brain, my thoughts become lumpy, less to do with thinking and more to do with thinking about thinking, of simulating thinking, as if each thought is a single, shaky snapshot rather than part of a smooth, continuous film. The first touch of panic, as gentle as a cobweb, soon paralyses and suffocates my reason.
But it’s not the act of being in a high place that’s the problem. If there is no possibility of me falling, then no matter how high I am, I’m fine. The tallest building with glass floors holds no terror for me if it’s sealed, or caged, or otherwise locked down.
The fear arises when there is the possibility of me falling and there is no way of getting down quickly and safely. It’s the fear of panicking. It’s the fear of being trapped and doing something stupid; of doing something impulsive; of behaving like hunted prey which, rather than evading danger, gives itself up to it, embraces it; and gets it over with.
If I’m about to walk across a bridge then the fear increases because I am walking away from safety. If I’m halfway across then the fear subsides because I am walking towards safety. These height-related imaginings are irrational and inconvenient and, excuse the pun, they get me down.
I console myself with the words of GK Chesterton who, to paraphrase, would rather live in the valleys from where everything looks grand and majestic, than live in the mountains from where everything appears small and insignificant.
It would be nice, however, once in a while, to look down rather than up.