Fear of Falling


There is a scene in one of my very favorite terrible movies, Final Destination, in which one of the main characters is sitting on a plane ready to take off and has a premonition. Suddenly, violently, his mind is filled with images of a fiery crash so intense that he starts to panic to a point that he and his friends need to exit the aircraft.

Every time I am about to take off in a plane I have this same premonition.

In the movie, the character has correctly predicted an event that he could not logically have known would occur. He and his companions watch as the plane explodes mid-air moments after leaving the ground.

So far, this has not happened to me.

These visions and the phobia that accompanies them started in late 2001. It is not, as one might think, related in any way to a belief that a terrorist is on my flight and that we will explode due to a nefarious attack on the American people for being infidels. But the horrible tragedy of that year somehow flipped an awareness switch that I now can’t turn off.

“Adrienne! Planes are tiny metal machine boxes in the sky!”

In a way that never occurred to me before, I now think about the innumerable tiny parts that need to function for a plane to fly. I see a bolt rust and fall out. I see a sensor light go unnoticed. Suspended in the air all I imagine is the enormous potential energy of gravity waiting to pull me quickly back to the ground.

Perhaps I ought to study aerodynamic engineering to allay these fears. Or perhaps this might just make it worse. I logically know that I am far more likely to die in a car, or by tripping down a flight of stairs, or even being eaten by a shark. It’s that primal animal brain that feels my heart rise up in my cheat, that keeps my body aflutter with each jerk or sway, sends my palms sweaty and my breath shallow. Take off and landing are the worst because I am most keenly aware of the goal to get up into the air or down out of it. Because I know this feeling is irrational, I have developed a system. I watch the cabin crew with hawk-like precision to analyze for any twitch or strain of facial muscle.  Surely that sweatered woman would not look so bored if she feared her life were in danger. Surely her face would reveal if I had real cause for panic.

Around the same time I also had occasion to develop a phobia of elevators, triggered by riding the one in my college’s theater building. It sometimes fell, just a little bit, perhaps a half foot of drop upon arrival, right before the doors opened but it again awakened me to the possibility that something could go wrong.

I used to dream recurrently about that elevator. I was always just about to get out when it went plummeting, somehow simultaneously slow motion and sped up at the same time. Always as my feet left the floor and I began to felt my free fall self floating, I’d calculate the chances of survival down the three flights to the bottom. Just as I began to come up with the answer, a shaky maybe at best, I know I was about to hit the floor and wake up in a panicked sweat.

The point of all this is to say that once you sense danger, vulnerability, or threat, however irrationally, it’s hard to make those feelings go away. It seems impossible to get back to a place that is obliviously brave – to find that boldness engendered through lack of awareness. I used to love flying and thought little about using a vertical left. It never occurred to me to think about mechanical failure until one day it did. And now I always do.

Our work can be a little this way too, no?

As a young creator use the most direct route to the creative product because, well, we don’t know any better. If a singing clown will best deliver the message, so be it. But one nasty collaboration, one spectacular failure, one horribly mean critique can sometimes flip a switch that’s hard to unflip. “How could I ever have thought a clown was a good idea? And singing? I don’t know how to do that.” It poisons our obliviousness. If one choice can be hugely stupid and fail, certainly another could as well. Which is probably a much more rational thought than my fear dying in an elevator crash. But about as useful to getting anything done.

How do we recapture that ease of moving forward without a fear of falling?

For a while during the height of my phobia I took a lot of stairs and did a lot of driving. I came up with rationalizations – “It’s so much healthier to walk up anyway!” and “Having the car gives so much more flexibility!” – but I knew the driving factor was anything but reasonable. And those detours at stumbling blocks get tiring to maintain. And when I realized I was actually reinforcing the brain patterns that told me it was sane to fear the things I avoided, I knew it had to stop.

How do you get over fear of riding planes and elevators? Continuing to ride planes and elevators is a good start.

If you worry you aren’t a singer/dancer/comedian/ventriloquist and steer clear of trying, you will definitely never sing/dance/be comedic/ventriloquate. And if you tell yourself there’s a plethora of work out there and that you can just detour up the stairs, you’re missing the point. Creation is an act of exposure and vulnerability by its nature. And the more bounds you put on it, the likelier it is to shrivel.

My falling phobias have not disappeared but their hold isn’t as strong. Every time I have that Final Destination style premonition and it doesn’t come to pass, I’m a little less under its sway. So every time I think about solving a creative problem in a way that is motivated by fear, I try and do what I do on planes: Turn to the others around me and talk as if I’m not afraid, as if I could do this all day. What else is there to do? At the end of the ride one of two things will always happen. You’ll have gotten to some kind of destination or you’ll have fallen out of the sky and died.

And if you die, at least you won’t be conscious to know about it.


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