“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.”
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
This most famous quote occurred to me recently, as I was preparing to skydive again for the very first time since injuring myself back in June of this year.
My counselor and I have had discussions in the past about the many similarities between grief, fear, and excitement in regards to the way these emotions physically manifest in our bodies.
October, in general, always brings up a lot of emotions in me and, this year, I have been doing my best to acknowledge them – but not drown in them, like before.
It’s crazy to think about how out of control we generally are when it comes to the things that happen to us, but how – just like facing my fear of falling from great heights by skydiving, we are completely in control of how we choose to respond to these things, and are, therefore, completely in control of IF and HOW we allow such things affect us.
Anxiety, grief, fear… they do feel very much the same in the heat of the moment, – but, also, very much the same as excitement, exhilaration and euphoria. The biggest difference lies in how we choose to perceive them.
This part is so very important, because how we choose to interpret our emotions has such a monumental impact on us, mentally and physically – especially longterm. This truth has never been more apparent to me than it is right now.
I have put forth such strong effort and done so much work this past year, in an attempt to heal from all that has happened in my life – the loss of my parents, the unexpected death of my partner, the suicide of my friend, debilitating panic attacks and P.T.S.D. that brought my nearly 20 year career as a Paramedic to its early and untimely end. It’s a lot – but running has helped, as has skydiving.
My experiences with skydiving haven’t always been “Blue Skies” and bright smiles. Even aside from the incident that resulted in my injuries, I experienced multiple “bumps in the road” as I attempted to obtain my license. Most significantly, was how my mind and body instinctually responded to the overstimulation of all its senses – it literally shut down.
My brain would literally disconnect itself in an unconscious attempt to protect my body from feeling that level of fear again. I know this now, only after reviewing the videos taken during my Coach and Instructor jumps.
At the time, I was “blissfully” unaware, not realizing the chunks of time (and altitude!) I was losing in these lapses in reality. Once I discovered this disconnect, I became even more afraid. Consciously afraid. Terrified, to be honest. I let it consume me for days, weeks, perhaps even a whole month, and allowed it to negatively impact my performance, resulting in several difficult jumps. In essence, I literally became my own problem.
I believed I couldn’t trust myself and, when you’re freefalling through the sky with no one else around, you have got to be able to trust yourself. You have got to be able to fully function, pull your chute, steer your canopy, problem solve through any issues, and be prepared to save yourself.
It took the words of a wise man and Master AFF Instructor to help snap me out of it:
“This sport is about moving on. If things aren’t going well and you can’t make the split second decision to move on, this sport is not for you.
I know you’re scared – but you have got to get over it.”
– Craig Cushing (“Cush”)
Simple, right? Really, it is… if you’re willing to realize and accept responsibility – and, most importantly, get out of your own way.
This realization came to me on a low jump when I was struggling with how to maintain stability in freefall. I was still spinning when the time came for me to pull my chute. I reached back, tried to pull, but it wouldn’t budge. My heart began to race. I tried again – it wouldn’t budge. I was losing altitude fast and knew that, if I was unsuccessful again, I would have to make the decision to cut away and deploy my reserve. I tried a third time and, while it didn’t deploy, I felt it shift. I was beginning to panic but knew I could get it if I just tried once more – but I had to act fast. My body felt like it was on fire, everything in my vision turned white and, in my frantic decision to try a fourth and final pull, I nearly reached with BOTH of my hands to give it all I’ve got! This change in body position would have quickly flipped me over onto my back, creating an even bigger issue when my parachute deployed. I caught my mistake just in time, but closed my eyes and tucked my chin as I successfully deployed my parachute. My body was still freefall spinning at the time, which resulted in line twists all the way down to the base of my neck. When this happened and I realized my predicament, all of the sudden, there was calm!
Pure silence and utter calm.
All the details of the jump, in regards to my exit and freefall skills, no longer mattered. I took a deep breath and looked around. I now had just one job to do – clear my lines in order to steer and land, or make a timely decision that it can’t be done by cutting away and deploying my reserve.
In telling this story, even my closest friends shake their heads. “And this is why I don’t skydive.”, they say… and what a shame, I think to myself, that simply because something might go wrong, they choose not to experience one of the most incredible and soul freeing experiences humanly possible.
“Fear”, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While fear is, inarguably, one of the most powerful of human emotions, it is a normal response that has kept the human race alive through its entire history. This response can be paralyzing for some, while others can learn to be super efficient and effective with this response. So, why – if you can learn to manage your fear – would you want to stagnate and remain a victim to it?
Anger, frustration, fear, and other “negative emotions” are all part of the human experience. They can all lead to stress and are often seen as emotions to be avoided, ignored, or otherwise disavowed, but they can actually be healthy to experience – if we’d simply choose to manage them rather than denying them.
Now, I get it – skydiving isn’t for everyone, and I am certainly no expert it psychology, but there are so many other ways that we can learn to increase positive emotional states and personal resilience in response to stress and feelings of negativity so that these emotions no longer consume us or feel as overwhelming. This is where a trained counselor or therapist can be such a beneficial thing! They can help us navigate our emotions, get to the root of our triggers, initiate the healing process, and enable us to pave our own way towards living a healthier, happier life.
While I, myself, am still a work in progress, becoming aware of my own perceptions has truly been the key. Where, once, the physical sensations of fear would paralyze me, I am now able to remain in motion, analyzing and deciding – and then choosing a better way. I am no longer a slave to my circumstances, I am the “master of my soul”.
“OUT OF THE NIGHT THAT COVERS ME,
BLACK AS THE PIT FROM POLE TO POLE,
I THANK WHATEVER GODS MAY BE
FOR MY UNCONQUERABLE SOUL.
IN THE FELL CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE
I HAVE NOT WINCED NOR CRIED ALOUD.
UNDER THE BLUDGEONINGS OF CHANCE
MY HEAD IS BLOODY, BUT UNBOWED.
BEYOND THIS PLACE OF WRATH AND TEARS
LOOMS BUT THE HORROR OF THE SHADE,
AND YET THE MENACE OF THE YEARS
FINDS AND SHALL FIND ME UNAFRAID.
IT MATTERS NOT HOW STRAIT THE GATE,
HOW CHARGED WITH PUNISHMENTS THE SCROLL,
I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE,
I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL!”
– WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY
One thought on ““The Flip Side of Fear – Lessons Learned in Skydiving.””
I love Invictus, and it’s what I routinely refer to for the added inspiration. Great story, and thanks so much for sharing your skydiving experience. It’s so cool I get to live vicariously through you, and read a thing or two about fear too.