I’m not sure exactly when I became so fearful, but I realize I am a completely different person than I was in the past in that regard. This past weekend, I visited Six Flags over Texas with my daughter and her dance studio and had my fears put to the test.
When I was a kid, you couldn’t get me off the rides when we visited amusement parks. The closest park to where I grew up in Virginia was King’s Dominion. We went there a few times a year, and I have many fun memories of long, hot, sweaty days spent there having fun riding the rides. My mom used to let me and my brother bring a friend, and those are some of my best childhood memories. I’ve always loved the adrenaline rush that comes with riding a roller coaster and was the girl who rode “The Rebel Yell” over and over again until it was time to go. My hands flew freely in the air as my stomach dropped and the coaster hurdled down the tracks on the old wooden frame. The log flume was my second favorite ride because it included a refreshing, cold splash of water at the end of the ride. I ate pizza slices and drank snow cones and sodas, carefree like children are.
In high school, I won the “Daredevil” award one year at cheerleading camp. Because of my petite size, I was frequently the one on the top of the pyramids. I wasn’t afraid; it was fun. Although I fell off the top of a pyramid in tenth grade and broke both wrists, I continued to cheer the next year. The district banned pyramids after my accident, so it was a bit tamer after that, but I had just as much fun the next year as I had before. However, in retrospect, I was too afraid to try another back handspring after I broke my wrists.
As a college student, I started rock-climbing and continued that passion for years until finally having seven surgeries on my right leg and deciding it was time to quit as an adult (roughly at the age of 40). I loved the exhilaration of being up high on an exposed cliff with the wind blowing through my sweaty hair. Sometimes, I would be afraid to fall, but I trusted my protection system and my belayer, so I never really feared dying or being seriously injured. In fact, I felt the opposite, empowered like I was capable of doing anything I wanted to, literally. At the tops of the climbs, there was a sense of accomplishment and appreciation of a perspective of the world rarely seen.
I spent 95 days outdoors on a “Spring Semester in the Rockies” with the National Outdoor Leadership School. I led a small group of my peers for a four-day hike through Canyonlands National Park in Utah to meet up with our instructors. I survived harsh temperatures and brutal physical challenges. Never once was I scared.
Not anymore. I’m scared pretty much every day now, and it magnified the other day when I was at Six Flags. I don’t know who this fearful older woman is, but as the kids and some of the other moms were riding the rides, I kept turning them down saying I would wait at the end. I have plenty of good excuses: people with back and neck problems shouldn’t ride the rides, someone has to hold people’s purses, and the big one was that just a few weeks ago a woman died riding the Texas Giant when she fell out of her seat. The accident is still under investigation, but when people are falling out of rides, I think it’s time for me to stop riding them. Yes, I realize I have a greater chance of dying in a car accident on the way to Six Flags. Trust me, I’ve been through all this in my head before. But let me think about it, no.
We stopped watching the news at our house when our son is around because all the non-fictional stories he was hearing started making him scared of bad things happening. Everything from the poor school children in India who died after eating lunch, to husbands poisoning their wives, to children being abducted, gun accidents, and going to war were stories his little ears took in while we thought they were going over his head.
Perhaps having children, experiencing pain and injury, losing loved ones, and our desire to stay well-informed has its way of turning innocent, fearless young people into jaded and fearful adults. Sure, when we sign up to have kids, we sign up to care for them and help them grow into independent adults. We sign up to look around every corner and think of every worst-case scenario that could happen, and then we try to stay ahead of our kids warning and guiding them.
After suffering the physical pain of injuries and surgeries, we learn the hard way what the consequences of our carefree actions are. Our entire lifestyle changes when our bodies no longer work the way they used to.
The loss of friends and loved ones usually teaches lessons in hindsight. We start to trace their deaths backwards and wonder if little things went differently if the outcomes would have been different. Then we learn we can’t rewrite the past. We can only move forwards with the insight we gained.
It reminds me of Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events played by Meryl Streep. She is fearful to the maximum, constantly warning ‘don’t do _____ or ______ will happen.’
While we can take precautions and take steps to keep ourselves and our children safe, that’s certainly no way to live. It’s too extreme. We can’t live our lives in fear. After all, stepping back and looking at the big picture, our lives are not really under our control. We are living on a spherical rock spinning through space in an orbit around the sun. At any moment forces beyond our control can act on our lives. But, we do what we can to feel like we are in some control of our fates. We click the seatbelts, lock the doors, and teach our kids safety rules.
And then there are times like our day at Six Flags when we put ourselves directly in the path of danger. We put ourselves on these rides and say to ourselves, ‘it will be fine.’ And usually it is. But at what cost? The family of the woman who fell out of the roller coaster a few weeks ago surely isn’t fine. But the park is open again and the rides are full with long lines.
I did shy away from the roller coasters (and felt a little bad about being scared), but I did face my fears and ride one ride, the Sky Screamer, a swing that spins around up to 400 feet high in the air. It’s the world’s tallest swing ride. I thought it would be ok since it doesn’t jerk riders around and go up and down at high speeds. The girls who convinced me to ride it assured me it was smooth, fun, and non-stressful. So, I did it. I got in line with them, said prayers to any God who would listen to me and even rode with a stranger because I was the odd person out, and it’s a two person ride.
As you can see, it’s a big tower with sets of two swings attached with chains. One belt goes around the waist, and the metal bar locks in front of you. That’s it. Being a math and science person, I couldn’t help but investigate how it worked as we were waiting and watching other people ride. I kept thinking What if? What if the chains break? What if the belt breaks? What if the screws and bolts come undone? What if?
Much to my chagrin, the guy I was riding with got anxious as we reached 400 feet in elevation. My palms were already sweating, and I was already repeating to myself, “It’s going to be ok.” Then he started saying things like, “Oh no, don’t look down, don’t look down. These chains. These chains aren’t strong enough to hold us. Oh no, the chains.” I was about to punch this guy next to me because he was making my anxiety even worse. I kept repeating it would be ok, and thankfully it was. We spent a few minutes way up high spinning in circles with the horizon jumping around, and the people and things on the ground shifting back and forth into and out of focus. I did the best I could to keep my eyes on the girls in front of me since that’s what made the depth perception and dizziness the best. We lowered slowly, and my sense of equilibrium came back. I did it; I faced my fear and made it out alive to tell about it. Big deal right? To me it was.
I learned not to let the what if mentality rule my life and keep me from doing fun things. What if the sky falls? Not much I can do about that, so I will focus on what I can control instead.
Thanks for reading this entry. Peace out!