Monday, March 14, 2005

Fear Factor

Last week in my firefighting class, our teacher, a fire captain and instructor for well over two decades, gave us a lecture about a problem that some students have once they complete their prerequisite classes and enter the Fire Academy. An integral part of the physical testing of the Academy is the ability to be able to maneuver, sometimes while carrying or dragging a victim, within tightly enclosed spaces. There are some students that experience stifling claustrophobia when placed in this position.

During the break, I overheard one of my fellow classmates speaking to our instructor about this issue. He said that it is possible he may have trouble, especially if he was in a situation where he could not move around. Hearing him speak of his fear reminded me of a time two years ago where I was made to face a fear of my own.

Castle Rock State Park. Spanning over the Santa Cruz mountains, it is an expansive stretch of pristine forest, cliffs, mountains and trails. The ERT Leads gathered there one crisp, foggy morning, to engage in a day-long training and teambuilding exercise.

We were asked to hike to various locations, solve first-aid related problems, transport patients on backboards across rugged terrain, and organize ourselves in response to a hypothetical mass-casualty incident.

We were also given the opportunity to rappel down a 150-foot high vertical cliff. It was atop this cliff that I came face-to-face with my paralyzing fear of heights.

I am not sure where this aversion originated. So far as I know, I have never experienced a traumatic event related to high places. In contrast, my petrifying fear of lightning is well-founded. Twice in my life so far, I have come within ten feet of being struck. The first (and most frightening) experience occurred in the supposed safety of my own home. Understandably, I am reduced to a whimpering, cowering mass during thunderstorms. But I cannot remember any equivalent experiences in my life that involved heights. I only know that I had been deathly afraid for as long as I could remember.

Standing at the top of that cliff, hooked securely into the harness, I was overcome by anxiety. My body was shaking, tears were welling in my eyes, and my breath was little more than short gasps of air. The only words I could muster were "I can't do this."

The guide, who was also my belayer, simply replied "You don't have to."

At that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Does my fear control me ? Or do I control my fear ?

Do I choose to allow my anxiety to prevent me from descending down this cliff ? Or do I choose to put those feelings aside and face my apprehension head-on ?

It was then that I made the conscious decision that I was going to control my fear. I had to trust my belayer. I had to trust my equipment. I had to trust myself to follow the instructions, to keep my focus, and to hold my concentration. And most importantly, I had to promise myself I would * not * look * down *.

I stood at the edge of that cliff, took a deep breath, grasped my hitch and rope, and stepped off.

I shimmied down that vertical rock face in seeming-record time; even more efficiently than the junior guide on our tour. I was on auto-pilot. I kept repeating the same messages over and over. Control your fear. Don't look down. You can do this. Let the rope out. Step down. Bend your knees. Breathe. For Pete's sakes, don't look down.

Finally I reached the bottom, and turned my eyes up at the towering wonder of nature I had just dismounted. Instantaneously, I could feel my pulse quicken, and my heart begin to pound in my chest. Holy crap, what the heck have I done ? I could have fallen to a colossal death from this massive formation !

My momentary panic quickly dissolved when I realized that, not five minutes ago, I was at the top, head down in defeat, convinced I did not have the courage to make it to the bottom. And yet, here I was.

Not only had I completed the task, I had also conquered my fear.

This significant event came to the forefront of my mind this past week after hearing the conversation between my classmate and our teacher. I approached my fellow student and told him my story. Prepare yourself, I said, for the possibility that you may end up in a very confined space with little room to move. You have the power to control your fear. Resolve to talk yourself through it before you start to panic. Have faith that you can make it. Believe in your power, trust in it, and your strength and determination will pull you through.

Eventually, my classmate will have to face this, just as I did two years ago. It is my hope that when his day comes, he will remember this advice and make the choice to conquer his fear once and for all.


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