I got high before a flight, and now I'm afraid of heights

I can't go through life with vertigo -- I live in New York!

Published September 14, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Over the past few years, I've developed a fear of heights or, really, a fear of falling from heights, that has proved to be a bit of a problem in my oft-vertical existence (I live in New York City). It has made me a nervous wreck before and during plane rides and has even hindered my ability to take an elevator to a high floor of a building (a situation I can hardly avoid, working in high-rise offices) without contemplating plummeting to my death, trapped in a falling object. The six months when my boyfriend and I were long-distance (he in California, I in New York) were torturous: I would dread the five-hour flight to visit him weeks in advance, and would need a Valium (or two) just to walk on to the plane.

I used to have none of these problems. I grew up in New York and played the game that all New York kids played, of jumping in a moving elevator to create a brief floating sensation. As a child, and even as a young adult, I loved the feeling of an airplane taking off and teased my mother for her nervousness. But now, airplane and elevator rides are things to be endured with sweaty palms and a rapidly beating heart. I'm constantly alert for signs of malfunction; any click, shake or rumble is likely to set me off, as I wait for the fall that I think is inevitable.

Some friends and family have suggested that my fear is related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, much of which I witnessed from a 17th floor apartment with a south-facing picture window in my Upper West Side neighborhood. But I flew several times directly after Sept. 11, with almost no nervousness. The first traumatic incident I can remember was over a year later, on an international flight from West Africa. I had made the bad decision to eat brownies baked with marijuana an hour before I was to depart for the airport. The effect hit as I arrived at the airport, making the whole experience even more overwhelming than it would have been had I not been stoned. The flight itself, which made several stops before its final destination, was turbulent, and I was in a state of near-panic at every takeoff, landing, and almost everything in between. Ever since then, I've felt a similar panic every time I've flown; and the fear of elevators in tall buildings began shortly thereafter.

The most common suggestion I get is to come to terms with my own eventual death; but I'm not afraid of dying, I'm afraid of falling! Honestly, I don't fear being stabbed or shot, enduring a long terminal illness, or falling onto the subway tracks, the way I fear falling -- while trapped in a contained area like a plane or an elevator -- from a great height. I don't know why it occupies me so, but I wish it wouldn't -- I have a life to live that necessarily includes tall buildings and the occasional plane ride. What do you think is wrong with me? How can I get over this late-blooming fear that is quickly developing into a phobia?

Fear of Falling

Dear Fear of Falling,

I did a little looking around on the Internet, and I've known people who had this fear and got over it, so I feel confident that there are many practical approaches you can take. Doctors can help you fix this thing. I urge you to pursue the known remedies.

I don't cure fear of heights. I do something else. I repeat your words over and over in my head. I tease something out of the shadows and try to make it dance.

I find it interesting that it's the falling you fear, not the dying. Considering what you bore witness to, that makes sense: You know as you stood looking south that even if you could not make out their forms, flame-singed men and women were whistling down a blue September sky, the set going blank at the last second. Yes, it lies there before us, doesn't it, the vista of the irreversible, the sidewalk pushing thighbones up through ribs and shoulder sockets, final concrete resting place, annihilating bed.

I'm curious about something: When people tell you what they think -- that it's about 9/11, that it's about your fear of dying -- do you feel as though they're trying to plug you in to one of their flowchart boxes, make you an input for their output? Do you feel they're trying to take this delicious phobia away from you? Or is it truly that they're simply wrong?

I'm curious about this too: How would you end up falling? What would precipitate your descent? Would it be a stupid impulse -- on a whim, you eat marijuana brownies before boarding the plane? Or would it be something utterly beyond your control -- a stranger roars out of the blue and knocks your building down? Are you afraid of the consequences of something you might do, or are you afraid of something unforeseen? I know the two can get mixed up in dreams: Who is that shooting at your mother? Is that you or is that your father? Who's that shooting you in the foot? Is it you shooting yourself in the foot? Or is someone taking advantage of your Achilles' heel?

But I'm interested in the question, because we sing that fear together. I've got it too. So I'll tell you my fear: It's that I think, what the heck and I jump. It's not so much the falling -- yes, the falling is bad, I'm going so fast it's hard to breathe, but what gets me is that while I'm falling I'm cursing myself: Why did I go and jump? It was just a silly impulse, a bad decision, and now rushing up to meet me: the crushing checkmate of one careless move!

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