The antidote to fear

About 23 years ago, when I was 23 years old, I was pushed out of an airplane at 13,000 feet.

In all fairness, I had put myself in that airplane. I had driven myself to the skydiving school in Davis. I had signed up for the tandem jump and signed away all my rights in the event of a wrongful death. I had zipped myself into the jumpsuit and hooked myself to the instructor who would be spread-eagle-spooning me from above as we hurtled toward the earth. I was a pretty willing Icarus—right up until the moment I hovered on the threshold of the plane's open door, at which point I started to hesitate. But before the hesitation could fully register, I was pushed out into the sky. 

I remember having just enough time to form one complete and coherent thought, as the bottom rapidly dropped out from under me: "Oh my God. I've made a terrible mistake." 

I had made the day trip up to Davis at the urging of my friend Juliet. Juliet—who, unlike me, was the kind of person you might expect to jump from an airplane—was a college friend with whom I was staying while on vacation in San Francisco. She had suggested the skydive as a way for me to kill some time while she was at work. "Oh, and do the one-minute free fall," she had said just before I booked the appointment. "Don't do the 30-second one—it's way too short."

So there I was, in the midst of the longest 60 seconds of my life. When I had seen videos of people skydiving, it had always looked like they were happily floating and flying through the air. I don't think I even imagined there being much speed involved, but if I did, I probably thought it was similar to racing downhill on a bicycle, the wind rushing against your face. However, the actual sensation I had in the midst of the free fall was not one of floating or flying at all. It was more like the sensation you might have if you were an anvil that had just been dropped from a skyscraper—a rapid descent, at a ferocious velocity, of something never meant to be in the air in the first place. The wind didn't so much rush against my face as temporarily reshape it.

It was all I could do to simply arch my body and trust that the instructor on my back was still alive up there. Bits and pieces of thoughts made their way through my disoriented brain: "Not bird...human I am heavy...stomach hurt...parachute pray."

And then, suddenly, it all changed. The instructor was alive. The parachute was open. And spread out below me—four thousand feet below me—was a beautiful patchwork of farmland. The wind that had been shrieking at me just a few seconds before was gently whooshing in my ears now. The feeling of heaviness was gone. And now, yes indeed now, I was floating. Now I was a bird. I'm not sure how many seconds it took to get to the ground from that point, but those were among the happiest moments of my life—a flying dream in which I was fully awake, fully alive.

The story I told myself after the fact was that I went skydiving not to kill the time but to kill my fear. And I did kill it, for a time. It was not long after this episode that I worked up the courage to flirt with Amy, even though I knew she was way out of my league. Shortly after this, I decided to leave the security of my first job after college and try out the life of a freelance editor and writer. While I wouldn't say I was free of anxiety, I did move through the world fairly undaunted. At least for a while.

Fear, of course, is resilient. Even when vanquished, it lies in wait—like Voldemort when he was bodiless in Romania. Eventually, fear came back and settled into me. And while I've fought it ever since, I haven't quite managed to shake it off fully in quite some time.

My fear was in full force toward the end of last week, when after about 9 blissful days away from my job, I started to panic about my future—about whether I would go back to what I know or forge ahead into some new, uncharted path. (Honestly, I think the only thing more terrifying than jumping out of an airplane is having to work on one's LinkedIn profile.) 

This morning I met my friend Arianna for coffee, and among the many wise things she said to me was this: "The best antidote to fear is curiosity." And she's right. I know that I need to keep bringing myself to the thresholds that scare me and diving off of them to see what's below—even if it means having to sustain the disorientation of another free fall or two.

I have to remind myself that there is a parachute, even if I don't know what color it is. I have to tell myself that it will open—that I actually know how to open it myself now. I have to believe that when it does open, I will indeed remember how to fly.