Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Heights of Panic

It’s been years since I’ve had the nightmare. The one where I’m in a car driving or riding pleasantly along. In the mountains, or along a cliff, sometimes on a freeway or a country road. We encounter a curve and the mood changes. Our car fails to negotiate it and over the shoulder and downward we plunge. It feels like the rocks and waves are rushing up to meet us. I know it means death and a scream tears from my throat. And that’s when I wake up. Usually waking everyone else in the house too because the scream was out loud, not just in my dream. My heart pounds, my breath comes in gasps, I’m crying. The terror is so real.

It’s a dream I had repeatedly from childhood on into my adult years. Sometimes the end wouldn’t come until our car was fully underwater. With each repetition it felt more and more real until in my dream I would be saying, “It’s not a dream anymore, this time it’s real!” Fear overwhelms.

I’ve always had acrophobia, an extreme irrational fear of heights and falling. I hated riding or driving in mountainous areas as the reason for the fears from my dream was so in my face. But as an adult I would pray for God’s help and force myself to go in order to participate in activities I enjoyed such as women’s retreat in Big Bear, California. Even with prayer the nightmare preceded these events and I would border on panic the entire route.

One year the nightmare came with painful intensity. I woke both myself and my husband with my screaming. Sobbing, I said to my husband, “I can’t take it anymore. Will you please pray for me?” And he did.

I wrote Weapon of MassDestruction, a fictional story based on this incident, for the weekly challenge at And I’ve not had the horrible nightmare since. Mountain driving and high places were still challenging for me but manageable.

Until a couple weeks ago when my husband and I decided to spend a Saturday afternoon driving up to Artist Point in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in the North Cascade Mountain range.

Artist Point is a mere 5100 feet in elevation. Mt. Baker, at 10,781 feet, holds its lofty white head high above. But the route, the only route, is about 55 miles long and the last sections of it are a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns with very few guardrails.

I had not been up this highway in over thirty years but my reaction took me by surprise. A painful, panicked reaction. We emerged from the heavily forested region where views of the precipices could not be seen to suddenly being out in the wide open vista of rocky cliffs above and below. 

My chest tightened, my heart pounded. I murmured, “Oh, this is getting hard for me.” Then as my husband negotiated a particularly tight turn, I felt the world tip and spin around me and without my seatbelt holding me upright I would’ve probably resorted to a fetal position—not an attractive look for a sixty-year old woman. It was the nightmare feeling in full reality. I yelled something, I don’t know what—the whole scenario is blurred in my mind now. Scared my husband half out of his wits. So grateful for his skillful driving.

My husband pulled over at the next pullout, which didn’t really reassure me as the edge was RIGHT. THERE. OUT. SIDE. MY. WIN. DOW! Or at least it seemed that way. Hubby asked me if we should turn around and go back down the mountain. I managed to calm my breathing. And I said, “No. I want to go as far as the road goes.” No way was I going to let this fear triumph over me. It’s been decades since I was last up here and I wanted to see beautiful Artist Point and the                                              other amazing scenes. 
Mt. Baker shrouded in clouds.

I felt bad for scaring my husband. I felt bad that it sounded like I didn’t trust     him; that it looked like I thought he meant to kill us both.

But that is the nature of a phobia. It takes over the senses and cancels out reality.

According to what I’ve read since this incident, the extreme fear of heights can be an inborn one, with some people more affected by it than others. In addition I have vertigo so constant changing of direction will affect my balance and make me feel that I am falling when I am not. An article in Wikipedia states, “The human balance system integrates proprioceptive [the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement], vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion.” I am challenged in this area already so if you put me in a world where visual cues have receded, don’t be surprised then to find me in the fetal position.

I enjoyed our stroll around Artist Point 
once we got there, but fighting back tears of shame the whole time did detract a bit. 

Before we headed back down the mountain my husband reassured me that there was no shame to be had. We discussed the fact that as a child the responsible adults in my life had ridiculed me, for the fears I expressed on this very route, the scene of the crime, so to speak, and used the opportunity to frighten me further. Sort of a situation of traumatized trauma. I work on forgiving them and accepting release from this tyranny.

On our downhill trek my dear husband purposefully drove even more sedately and with a mind for my comfort. I kept my eyes looking up with the name of Jesus in my heart and quietly on my lips. Fear still lurked but panic stayed at bay.

I am confident that Jesus my Lord does not look at me as shameful because of my fear. (Psalm 69:33; Romans 8:1, 38 ) He gives me grace and tells me to have it on myself. No shaming from him. (Hebrews 4:14-16) Reminding me that it's in the middle of terror that bravery and courage are demonstrated. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)