I am terrified of heights. I am also terrified of people I love around heights, but I’d had a strange week and so I went climbing with one of my favourite people, which put both of us uncomfortably high up.
Every time I do this I question why. I’m not at all good at it, so why keep on embarrassing myself? Is it my way of choosing the sport I know I’ll find the hardest? Do I just enjoy torturing myself?
It’s not even that I think doing the thing that terrifies me on repeat will make me less terrified. I have no expectations that I’m going to get any less scared of heights – realistically I’m pretty sure that’s a useful fear. Maybe, though, this is making me less scared of life. It’s definitely helping me feel like I’ve overcome a hurdle (even if the hurdle is objectively the easiest climb on the whole wall). That feeling is pretty important in a place like St Andrews where it can feel like you’re fighting against a tide of deadlines and commitments and people who are just generally better than you.
It’s amazing how much you forget about the rope when you’re up the wall. It feels like it’s just you and your breath and your aching forearms hauling and holding you up there by force of will. It makes it feel like you’re alone, end-of-world-survival-instincts alone sometimes, but mostly it makes you feel the power of having dragged yourself up there. And then you fall. And there’s the rope again, you’re not alone. So I take a breath in and I remember that at the bottom of that rope is someone who I trust, to catch me when I fall off the wall, to catch me when it feels like I’m about to fall off the edge of the world. Someone who’s there with everyone that catches me when I fall and fail in my everyday life.
Belaying asks for and forces a whole different kind of trust from you. Not only is the person you love way up there up the wall, but if they fall they’re in your hands. It forces you to be sure that your technique is good and leaves no room for anything else. It doesn’t let you freak out and abdicate. It makes you trust yourself because you know your friend is trusting you.
For years I swam as part of my team at home and I was consistently the slowest. It’s not exactly the greatest way to make you love your body, especially not with the whole swimming suit aspect added in. On top of that is all the layered ways the images and stories we see every single day has taught me to divide up my body, to categorise it’s good parts and bad parts. My body is more than the sum of its parts when I’m climbing, it’s a whole and wonderful thing that is taking me places. My body is the vessel for all the rage I have at all of those stories. My body is mine. And maybe I can’t learn to love it at the minute, but I’m definitely getting there with trusting it.
There are weeks, though, that the fear of heights is just one thing too many. On those weeks, my teeth are gritted just to get through the everyday, let alone get up the wall. It’s time, then, to have a bit of a lean back on my rope, to spend the climbing hours getting coffee and breathing. Those times mean just as much to me as the climbing days. They mean I get to trust my friends, without any of the hurdles or pushing myself. Letting yourself be is an underrated skill, and surprisingly difficult to acquire.