The feeling of falling

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I stood on a tiny, rocky outcropping, staring down into the brilliantly blue water churning over 50 feet below. Jagged rocks, set into the water like jewels, sent a wave of gruesome images through my mind. I shuddered. My ten-year-old sister grinned. I heard the crunch of her bare feet on the gravel as she sprinted to the edge, watched her body suspended in midair before she fell, and listened to her delighted squeal on her way down.  A few seconds later, I heard a loud splash at the bottom, where she was greeted by cheers from our parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was left alone on the cliff.

At the age of twelve, I was filled with worry. I had anxiety over everything, including things that were supposed to be fun. Water slides, roller coasters, even sledding down the steeper hills of a golf course could set my nervous system aflame. So when my family decided to go cliff-diving at our biennial reunion in Missouri, I didn’t quite match the excitement of my cousins. As we were tubing on our way out to the cliffs, I asked the driver of the boat to go extra slow when it was my turn.

Once we arrived at the peaks, my family poured out of the boat and into the water in a jumble of bobbing life jackets. I took one look at the sun-baked cliffs scraping the clear blue sky and decided that I wanted to stay as far away from that edge as possible. Instead of climbing up the cliff with my sister and cousins, I followed my dad and my baby brother to some smaller outcroppings, where I watched his four-year-old bliss as he jumped into my dad’s arms over and over again. I tried my best to ignore the sounds of screaming and laughing as the others leapt into the water from the tip of the tallest peak.

After my cousins had jumped, my sister came bounding down the side of the cliff. She had watched our cousins jump, but hadn’t gone yet herself. She begged me to come back up the cliff with her, although she knew that I wasn’t interested in jumping off the edge. I agreed to come up with her, wanting to see the view over the lake and curious about what I was missing. On wet, bare feet, we carefully picked our way up the trail leading to the top.

The view was stunning. It was a gorgeous day, and the sun sparkled over the vibrant blue water stretched out before us, a reflection of the endless clear sky above. My sister waved to my parents on the boat below us, who had cameras at the ready. She took a deep breath, ran, and was gone. I stood on the cliff, the sun, rocks, and water keeping me company. The distant chatter of family members floated up on a breeze. I stared down the drop into the waves, thinking of how much I hated heights. I was terrified of heights, in fact. I despised the feeling of falling.

I walked back the way my sister and I had come. Then I turned around. I broke into a run, feeling the pebbles under my feet. I reached the edge and pushed off as far as I could, desperately hoping it was far enough to avoid the menacing rocks at the base of the cliff. After the initial jump, I was struck by the horrifying, exhilarating realization that I had surrendered all control.

For the first few milliseconds, it felt like flying. My eyes were overwhelmed by beautiful, boundless blue, my body frozen in midair. Then I started falling, fast and hard. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. My heart leapt into my throat, my stomach crashed into my lungs, and my head was spinning too fast to comprehend what was happening. My limbs grasped desperately at the sky for something, anything, to hold onto. 

“Please God, let this end,” I thought, wanting nothing more than to be back at ground level. Then I hit the water.

It was a painful smack. The backs of my legs felt as though they were being stabbed by a million tiny needles as I was forcefully pulled to the surface by my lifejacket. Instead of hitting the water in a straight line, I had bent at the waist in the vertigo of falling. My thighs had slammed through the unforgiving surface of the water. I came up gasping to a sea of shocked faces on the boat, where my family had been preparing to leave. No one had taken a photo or a video. No one had even considered that I might jump. And I was just as surprised as they were.

I wish I could say that I had faced my fears and it had turned out to be a story of triumph, but that wasn’t what happened. My legs hurt for the rest of the day, and they were still sore the next morning. I had fully confirmed my hatred of heights. But I think I experienced something that was even more important.

When I look back on that day, I remember the sights and the sounds. I remember the feeling, but not the thinking. I don’t know what exactly happened in my mind as my toes left the edge, but that feeling of reckless abandon stayed with me. And, if just for a second, I proved to myself that I was capable of anticipating the fall — and taking the leap anyway.

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