I’ve always had a fear of falling. When I was a kid, I’d step on each stair with both feet before moving onto the next step until some embarrassingly late age in my childhood. Other kids would try to run up the school’s brick wall; I’d timidly tap it with my foot.
My phobia also seemed to go beyond just a fear of falling. I constantly worried about getting physically injured in general. I began to think of my life kind of like a video game: There are some objects the characters can interact with (golden coins, mysterious furniture) and some they can’t (walls, background art, bits of the map that the animators never got to). For me, almost every object felt like something I couldn’t—or shouldn’t—interact with, because I avoided anything that could possibly physically injure me. So in a very literal sense, I avoided the world.
A phobia, as the Mayo Clinic explains, is an unreasonable or overwhelming fear of specific objects or situations that don’t necessarily pose any actual danger, yet they still cause you anxiety and motivate you to avoid them. (Other common phobias include a fear of being on airplanes; fear of choking; or a fear of a type of insect, like spiders.)
Having a phobia, which is considered a type of anxiety, can sometimes relate back to a specific traumatic incident. But to be honest, I had no idea where my fear came from. I don’t remember falling onto a bed of nails as a kid or anything.
“About 50 percent of the time, people can’t recall specific bad events [that may have led to a phobia],” Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, told SELF. And while there are a lot of possible explanations for a fear of falling specifically, Sawchuk suspected my fear may have stemmed from my genes. Some people just have “busy brains,” as Sawchuk described, and are hyper-aware and sensitive to when their body feels scared, he described. Or it’s possible that I learned the behavior from observing someone else in my life who reacted similarly to the types of situations that continuously had me freaked.
So, possibly thanks to my own personal temperament and sensitive nature (although I will probably never know) I tended to avoid risky activities. That is until I moved to Brooklyn after college and someone showed me a video of people doing parkour. The athletes jumped from roof to roof, somersaulting over alleys and racing up walls. They looked comfortable in their surroundings in a way I’d never felt.
So, I decided to try a parkour class in an attempt to stare my fear in the face and knock it out of me for good.
To my surprise, as I later learned while rehashing my experience with Sawchuk, this wasn’t exactly standard protocol for addressing my phobia.
It is beneficial to do or confront what you’re afraid of (experts consider this exposure-based therapy). But this is best done gradually and with the guidance of a mental health professional. Jumping straight into whatever your phobia is can actually make it worse for some people, Sawchuk pointed out. Ideally, you would confront the phobia in a controlled, therapeutic setting where you gradually work up to facing your fear. (If your fear is, say, spiders, you might look at pictures of spiders as a first step alongside a psychologist.)
Alas, I did not know this when I walked alone through an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood one evening and arrived at a gym that holds parkour classes.
The gym looked like some kind of circus, a colorful oasis in the middle of the gray factories in Brooklyn. Inside, the walls were at least 20 feet high and covered in graffiti. The place was filled with people breakdancing, flipping, and landing in pits of foam cubes. This was, apparently, where all the cool people were.
“I’m here for the parkour class?” I squeaked at the receptionist. He pointed toward a few women stretching at the back of the room. A big group of people were practicing martial arts between them and me.
“How do I get around them?” I asked, pointing at the karate kids. The receptionist shrugged.
“Wait for the right moment,” he said. After a couple minutes, a gap appeared. I quickly squeezed past the men kicking and punching the air.
The instructor, who also worked as a stuntwoman, wasn’t the kind of person I’d imagined doing parkour. She was a short woman with a brown ponytail and freckles. But her movements were more cat than human, herculean strength packed into her small body.
I figured we’d spend the first few classes learning the basics. I was wrong.
“So, what do you want to do?” the instructor asked us after an excruciating warm-up involving walking on all fours. “You want to climb up a wall?” The wall in question was about 10 feet tall, made specifically for this purpose. It was painted to look like brick.
The instructor showed us how to run at the wall and where to aim our feet. I couldn’t visualize how someone so small could accomplish such an act, but she scampered up with all the effort it takes to eat a sandwich. Then she had us try.
The first girl took a running start and started up the wall but fell back down. The rest had mixed success; some could do it, some couldn’t. When it was my turn, I stared down the wall like a soldier at the Alamo.
I ran, and my mind suddenly cleared of anything but the fact that the wall was getting closer and closer. I tried to position my feet the way she told us. My right foot hit the wall, propelling me up. But fear suddenly flooded my body, as if it was replacing my blood. I thought nothing and felt nothing. My eyes shut against my will, which always tends to happen when I’m at the most important moment of some physical feat and need all my senses intact. It felt like my body called an internal meeting:
Brain: “Alright, team, I’ve already disassociated her. What else can we do to screw her over?”
Eyes: “I know! Let’s blind her!”
I later asked Sawchuk why my body would do something so counterproductive. He said that closed eyes are part of the way your body braces itself for disaster. And indeed, disaster, or at least failure, ensued. When I opened my eyes, I was back on the ground. I’d plummeted a whopping three feet. I couldn’t remember falling.
We all took turns trying to run up the wall for the next half hour. After a few rounds, all the other girls could do it. But every time I tried, my eyes would shut, and I’d be on the ground.
“It’s all mental,” the instructor told me. “You can do it.” I wondered if she’d give the same advice to a kid taking the SATs who never learned to read or write.
Finally, near the end of class, we had enough time for one more attempt. I faced the wall.
I will not close my eyes, I decided. I may not get up there, but I will not close my eyes.
I ran. Thirty feet to the wall. Twenty. Five. I sprang off the ground, my right foot hitting the wall, pushing me up. I felt the familiar feeling coming on, the rush filling me, my eyes starting to close. But I forced them open.
For the first time, my left foot hit the wall, pushing me further up. I reached for the top and grabbed the brick edge with one hand. I hung there for a second, out of momentum, amazed that my fingers were touching the top. And then I fell back down.
“Go again!” the instructor shouted. “You’re so close!”
So I tried. I kept my eyes open again, and I scrambled up the wall. My right hand grabbed the top. Then my left hand made contact and I could hoist myself up. I climbed up and sat on top, my legs dangling in the air.
I heard cheering.
The whole class was whooping and clapping for me, the instructor looking like a mother whose child just won the Olympics.
I ran up a wall, I thought to myself, dazed.
Do I think my fear of falling was immediately mended? I don’t know if I would go that far, but it felt good.
And while I walked home that night, I noticed a brick wall. I sized it up.
Normally, I would have thought of the wall as a piece of background art to my life. But something was different this time. It looked like that wall in the gym. It was familiar, approachable even. Dare I?
I took a few steps back and then ran a few steps up the wall, but not in some effort to get to the top. Because the physical world now, finally, felt like a game that I could play.