How I jumped off a skyscraper, lost my mind and found it again. An essay on trauma and recovery.
I always thought the best way to overcome your fears was to face them head on, and in a single puff, like Keyser Soze, they’re gone. They spin away, dandelion seeds on the wind. I’ve since found that’s not always the case. Some fears have deep roots.
On a Sunday afternoon in September last year, I abseiled down a 234m skyscraper. It was a charity event I’d agreed to despite a long-held phobia of high places.
Afterwards, I expected to feel exhilarated, but that didn’t happen. I just felt tired.
A few days later I was walking home from work, one moment I was soaking up some late afternoon sunshine, the next I was crying. There was a surreal sense of disconnection, almost as though I was floating above myself. Thankfully I made it home before the shaking began.
The trembling hit like a train and wouldn’t stop. My teeth rattled so hard I was worried they’d splinter inside my head. It was terrifying.
Several awful days passed where I was sedated to control the shaking. It would pull me out of sleep and strike at any moment during the day, like electric shocks you couldn’t see coming. My doctor referred me to a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy for trauma.
I struggled with the idea that I’d brought this on myself, through such a mundane event. I wasn’t hurt, I spent a Sunday afternoon dangling from the side of a skyscraper, securely attached, in no actual danger whatsoever. I found it hard to comprehend my disproportionate reaction. I was embarrassed.
The therapist led me from self-flagellation, which I’ve always had a talent for. I had a horrible phobia of heights to start with, I could barely stand on a chair without vertigo. I spent weeks before the event, publicly building it up, raising money and such so I didn’t feel I could back out. I drove past the skyscraper in question each day and googled videos of past events. My family panicked with me when I told them of my plans, and begged me not to do it. It’s safe to say I was quite worked up.
So much so by the time the day itself arrived, my therapist explained, deep in the instinctive recesses of my brain I believed I was going to die.
I was traumatized even before I’d left the ground, in the grip of the powerful fight or flight instinct I had heard about but didn’t really understand. I know more now. In order to respond quickly to a (perceived) life and death threat, my brain shut down unnecessary activity, like reason. Adrenaline started flooding through me, designed to help me flee or fight for my life. Except there’s another option when you’re cornered. The less well-known F. You freeze. Fight, flight or freeze. I froze.
When it came to the pointy end of going over the edge, I’d panicked, hyperventilated, desperately clung to the metal bar next to me, frantically tried to get a grip on reality. I focused as much as I could on obeying instructions. I was able only to submit.
The shock was extreme, which explained the subsequent feeling of exhaustion. Dozens of people take part in this event every year, and, apart from raising money for wonderful causes, they enjoy it. I’m still not completely sure why my experience was so intense.
I became hypervigilant. Always alarmed. I couldn’t drive, because I was so likely to see a threat where there was none, I was a danger on the road. I found it hard to be around people or noise. Simply walking along a footpath was stressful, because of the constant expectation something might jump out at me. I took to walking compulsively down the middle of the road as though that were normal, up and down my street.
I had awful dreams. Horrors involving my kids being hurt, my dogs or people I loved. I was utterly crushed by any bad news I happened to see. I felt I was drowning. There seemed no point to life, no end to pain. And I was so tired. I was tormented by nightmares in my sleep, I was tormented when I was awake. I recall asking my therapist if having such grim thoughts meant I was as monstrous as they were. It was a bad time, that lasted with varying degrees of intensity for several months.
I felt terrible guilt. We all like to think if faced with an emergency, life or death, we’d fight. We’d run towards the flames, punch the shark, fight off the attacker. We don’t always get to know what we’d actually do. But now I did. I’d go belly up like a submissive dog. What if it had been my child or my husband in real danger? I felt sick every time I thought about it.
They are symptoms, I was told, and there is a comfort in knowing your abnormality is normal, I guess.
I had relentless flashbacks of the event. The metal buckles and steel loops on my harness. The flat grey wall where we practiced before the descent. The scaffolding and pens, where we were divided off, that reminded me so starkly of the pens of an abattoir. The smell of the metal around me. The sense of shuffling backwards, my feet desperately looking for grip, and then that feeling of nothing.
We talked about all of this, my therapist and I. We looked at images of the brain, and lists of common reactions to traumatic stress. I practiced the techniques she taught me, designed to relegate the experience to the past where it belonged.
We talked about fear. To see its profound impact, to appreciate its effort to protect me. To be kind to it, like you might be kind to a child cowering from monsters under the bed. It wasn’t about facing fear and conquering it, beating it into submission or purging it from my heart. It was about acknowledgment and respect. It was about gentle perseverance and repair.
We identified each trigger. My panic attacks were not as random as I thought. We did that by talking and writing over and over about the event, so that I could begin the important process of distancing myself. I began to pick apart a pattern to the stimuli that would elicit a traumatic response. Heights, obvious. Less obvious, the smell of metal. But metal was so strong a trigger that stepping on a drain, or walking too near a wire fence, or even just the smell of metal would spark a panic attack. Knowing why, made all the difference.
We talked about avoidance. When it seemingly made the most sense to shrink from noise and the hidden dangers in smells, tall buildings and crowds, we discussed why it was important to attend to my reaction. I didn’t find this stage of the recovery easy. The instinct to turn inward was very strong, and I resented attempts to peel me away from myself and my vigilance. But I listened because I was desperate. I used the tools I was learning to coax my brain back to reason, even as it fought me.
We practiced exposure therapy. Once I knew the triggers, I could work through them one by one, until they began to lose their impact. I found places in the city, metal places, high places, crowded places, approached them with care and systematically worked through the simple techniques I learned to calm my brain.
It got easier and easier, until one day I stood on a giant steel bridge, high across the river, I faced away from the water, gripped the edge and tipped my head back. I was fine. I was rewarded then with a sense of exhilaration. I didn’t care that I must have looked a sight.
I went back to work, worried that I might not be ready, but it actually helped immensely to be busy. I simply didn’t have time to obsess. It anchored me. Routine was important.
The condition all up had me off work for two weeks, although it felt like a small lifetime, unable to drive for several months and in therapy also for several months. But I was able to recognize my symptoms on my own, and I had tools to deal with them. I was aware there may be tendrils of trauma that went deeper than this one event, that might further explain my extreme reaction, but I wasn’t interested in peeling back the layers of my past in endless soul searching. This was enough for now.
Almost a year later, I’m stronger than I was before, even as I’m more aware of my own vulnerability. I know we can’t ever entirely shield ourselves from trauma. There’s a lot in life we can’t control. But I feel better equipped to get through another sideswipe, should that come. Even if it took time, I could walk myself through recovery, if not on my own, with help.
I am very aware how privileged I am, to have somewhere safe to be, people who love me and a workplace which supported me while I was ill. I’m lucky to have a family doctor who would see me at short notice, and to have so quickly found a therapist I trusted. All of these things were crucial. I know the longer this condition is left untreated, the more complex it might be to untangle. The brain is a powerful organ and instinct is a formidable thing.
I think, in my experience at least, fear is a bit like grief. However unpleasant, it’s not something you get rid of, the idea of closure seems ridiculous. It’s a part of me and, like grief, I understand why. We wouldn’t grieve if we didn’t love. We wouldn’t fear if there was nothing to lose.
Recommended reading: Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet.
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