Two Towers, Part II

It only slowly really dawned on me just how much courage my daughter has.  To the casual observer, the life she lives doesn’t seem to require much courage, though we can never really know another’s demons.  But the primary reason is that I never really had to struggle with a phobia as she has, and thus, never really understood it.

I’m not saying I wasn’t irrationally scared of something, although I dispute the irrational part.  To me it’s rational, knowing that when I was four, observing in innocent curiosity the little black spider crawling towards me on the stick I held, it really did bite me on the webbing between my fingers, and I had the mark of it for a long time after.  So my fear of spiders was from experience, not a phobia, and didn’t fall into the same league as a genuine phobia, at least to me.  After all, when my kids were growing up, I conquered it long enough to “show them” that spiders were mere nuisances in the house, nothing to be afraid of as THEY squished one or captured it to be released outside.  That way, you see, I didn’t have to go get close to one again.  The kids did.  It worked perfectly.

Not the same thing at all.

But my daughter had the family phobia, on her dad’s side: acrophobia or agoraphobia; there were long discussions as to just which it was by the family members who had it.  It was definitely a fear of heights, compounded by the wide open spaces that revealed just how high the height in question was.  Low, flat open spaces? No problem.  Being high up in an enclosed space that hid the actual height? No problem.

It wasn’t my phobia, and I had trouble giving credence to it when my husband demonstrated his problem while hiking a clear, level path on the side of a low hill, or being near a high window.  I knew these places were perfectly safe, and I’m afraid my empathy got somewhat replaced by silent snickering.  Then I became pregnant, and the family brought me into the problem: what if the baby had the same phobia?  Can one raise a child not to “get” the phobia by not talking about it and never acknowledging it?  They thought it was the best way to go, as if it were contagious and no exposure, no problem.  Being ignorant, I went along.  I certainly couldn’t expose a child to fear of heights, since I gloried in them–as long as there was something to hold on to.

My first indication that this lovely theory was just so much wishful thinking came when she was two, and we were on a field trip to the state capitol building.  We were climbing this beautiful marble staircase, which had a lovely marble railing supported by marble columns with–uh-oh–spaces in between where a child could look out and down and see just how much farther away the floor was getting with each step. Her steps slowed, then stopped.  I tried the ignore-it bit, urging her to come along like she was just an ordinary dawdling child.  We did finally get her to the top of the staircase by switching her over to the center railing where the view was mostly other steps and people’s legs.

We took the elevator back down.

The next opportunity this phobia had to display itself was a trip over the Blue Ridge Parkway when she was around eight.  It’s a beautiful place, low, rolling mountains, bluer with the haze of distance.  The highway is cut on the edge of the slopes, so land rises above you on one side and drops off on the other.  I was entranced, pulling off at nearly every opportunity to park and gaze, soaking up the experience without driving right off the road.  My daughter, on the other hand, was soon riding curled up down on the floor in front of her seat, despite the ironclad family seat-belt rule,  so she didn’t have to look out the window and see so much “down” extending all around her.  I wanted the drive to last forever.  She just wanted it over.

The fact that she preferred to sacrifice this vision of timeless beauty for the opportunity to see nothing farther away than she could reach with her hand finally helped it soak in.  My daughter had a real, genuine phobia.  While I couldn’t achieve the full empathy of understanding how it felt, I did finally get that it was real and powerful.

During the next couple years, it was easy to forget it existed, as few things in her usual environment triggered it.  In fact, she willingly climbed up the rope ladder into the tree house we put up in the back yard and showed no discomfort on our high backyard deck.

She was about ten when the family trip took us to Itasca State Park.  My family had lived nearby while my brother and I grew up, and it was a regular destination for us.  This was my kids’ first visit.  One of the mandatory stops was the forestry tower, open to the public for the long climb up flights of stairs, to squeeze through a hole in the floor and emerge in the observation room, windows on all sides to view lakes and trees and, if you were a real forestry employee, watch for and report fires.

The boys were up it in a flash, loudly proclaiming their enjoyment of every step and every viewpoint.  Somewhere in the 2nd flight of stairs I paused, realizing my daughter was not keeping up.  Not only that, she was curled up in a ball on the landing below me and crying.

All my kids had grown up on my stories of climbing the windmill tower and how glorious it was.  They’d also been prompted during the planning stages of this vacation that this forestry tower would be their closest chance–and safest–to live that kind of experience.   She so badly wanted to know what this would be like, but her two bouncy, active brothers sent vibrations all through the tower structure and her phobia kicked in, overwhelming her.

She couldn’t go up.  Nor, just one story above the ground, could she go down.

I sat next to her and talked to her, trying to find out what she really wanted and to figure out how, or even whether, I could help.  What she wanted was to go up to the top.  She needed support and encouragement and always the safety of the choice to change her mind.  Most of all, she needed her brothers off of the tower, and staying off for however long it took.  Not only did they make it wobble, but they would laugh at her, and under the circumstances, that was intolerable.

We talked it over, putting together a plan while the boys had their fill of the tower.  Once down, they were soundly enjoined not to set foot on the tower until my daughter and I got back down.  They were also not to wander anywhere they couldn’t see the bottom of the tower.  Knowing them, I figured that had half a chance of working, at best, but right then, my daughter needed my full, undivided attention.

It worked like this:  she would hold the railing with one hand going up and hang on to me with the other.  She could close her eyes any time she needed and still feel her way up.  At each landing I’d ask if she wanted to continue, and it would be her choice.  She could sit down and rest at any time.  If she needed to, she could bury her face in me, and I promised to make sure she got down safely even if I needed to carry her.

We started up. And she doggedly, determinedly, kept heading up.  We paused occasionally, while she gathered herself and her resources for the next step, the next flight. Finally, a somewhat shaky but triumphant daughter stood in the top of that tower, looking out over the trees, pointing out lakes and matching them to the information inside the walls for identification, seeing how rolling hills made for rolling treetops, and spying birds and clouds above it all, everything she’d heard about from me.  She stayed long enough to really savor the experience.

Then, together, we made it back down.

We even found the boys again, after about five minutes of looking and calling.  It seems their definition of staying in sight of the bottom of the tower was, well, about what I’d thought it would be.

A lot of years have passed, and she’s done a lot of things to make me proud, make me wonder at the person and the package of skills and talents.  But nothing ever matched this.

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6 Responses to “Two Towers, Part II”

  1. September 1st, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Courage is pressing on when the fear is overwhelming. Great story! I was afraid of heights when I was a kid, too. I usually made excuses to my friends when they suspected there was a reason I didn’t climb trees. It’s not so bad, now, but I once quit a job because it required me to walk on rooftops to measure them. I was on a ladder one day, trying to make my leg move onto the roof so that I could measure it but it wouldn’t move. It was like one of those dreams in which muscles don’t respond to commands.

    I have several stories of avoiding heights. I’ll keep most of them to myself.

  2. September 2nd, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Heather says:

    Ladders are a whole different thing. They MOVE! I can promise you, every time you go above 5 rungs, it will start to move no matter how well braced the bottom is, or how much the person holding the bottom swears it hasn’t budged. I have experience, from many years past, which is where all such experiences with ladders will stay. The only exception is with ladders nailed in place, such as the ones ascending up into the haymow inside the barn. Those were a childhood playground. But unsecured ones….

  3. September 3rd, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Perhaps it is irrational, but I am more comfortable with ladders than pitched roofs. I don’t have to worry about either working in a cubicle.

  4. September 4th, 2009 at 12:41 am

    other Greg says:

    I am rarely so impressed as I am by your daughter,
    and by you helping her.

  5. September 4th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Heather says:

    Thanks, other Greg. Hers was the hard work, mine the job of facilitator. It never would have happened without her fighting through her fear. She is impressive. I never quite say that enough, somehow. As a parent, too much time was/is spent in correcting and suggesting, and not enough in letting them all know my pride in them. I wasn’t raised with a lot of praise, and it sometimes escapes me that it needs to be given more. Not the way it so often is today, inflating everybody’s self-esteem, but an honest “Wow! You are impressive!”

  6. September 7th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    other Greg says:

    Facilitating is hard work too. To know when to let them walk on the edge of the abyss, and when to snatch them back. To take responsibility for being wrong or slow.

    You did exactly what a parent should do. You gave her the time she needed. You talked with her. You were there to be leaned on when she needed to lean, and you were nearby for safety while she learned how to do it herself.

    How much easier it is to scream, “Get down off there! You will fall and kill yourself!”. Fear can be nurtured.

    How much harder to swallow your heart and hope they don’t. Bravery can be nurtured.

    How much easier it is to glance at your watch, decide you have no time time to waste on the stubborn brat, and drag her howling up or down. Bravery can be squashed too.

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