Fear of Heights

Had a bit of a panic attack on the day before Christmas, brought on by my acrophobia, or fear of heights.

During our visit to Maryland (that’s where I’m from, and where much of my family still resides), my wife and I took our two daughters and their two cousins on the D.C. Metro to visit the The Newseum. For those who don’t know, the Newest is “a dynamic, engaging and interactive museum of news that allows visitors to experience the stories of yesterday and today through the eyes of the media while celebrating the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment” that is closing its doors at the end of 2019 due partly to poor management.

It was pretty cool, with lots of great photos and cool artifacts, like a section of the Berlin Wall and a Time Warner World News Corporation armored truck riddled with bullet holes from its coverage of the Bosnian War. One thing that struck me as kinda silly and pointless—reflective of some poor management decisions—was the lion’s share of an entire floor dedicated to satirists like Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee. This, in addition to the small theater playing highlights from late night talk show hosts’ opening monologues. We get it, journos, I wanted to say, You guys know how to have fun. This possibly speaks to a larger problem I had with the place: the museum gave visitors almost no sense of what journalism was like before TV. And, since everything there was presented in these TV-made images, the more familiar the better, the whole experience to me felt like little more than Forrest Gump: The Ride.

Anyway, about halfway through the visit, my wife suggested we go on up to the building’s top floor and step out onto the balcony, where, she said, there awaited a beautiful view of the Congressional building.

My panic attack occurred pretty much the moment I stepped out of the elevator and onto the sixth floor. See, the way the Newseum is built, walkways guide visitors from exhibit space to exhibit space, and if you happen to look over the railing of one of these walkways you’ll see the bustling atrium all the way down on the first floor. I didn’t look over the railing; I didn’t need to. Just the awareness of being at this height set my heart a-pounding, and the prospect of pairing this awareness with being outside, where wind lives, was a non-starter.

Making matters worse, my fear of heights has tripled since becoming a father, because no longer am I concerned merely about my own safety, I am also equally if not more concerned about the safety of my kids, both of whom have issues of impulse control and delusions of immortality, as all children do.

(Which makes it a little weird that I told my wife and kids as well as my niece and nephew to go ahead without me. Maybe, underneath all my panic and dread, I still could recognize that my fear of heights is baseless?)

In any case, I told them to go have fun, get a picture, I’ll stay inside. Seeing the look in my eyes, my wife said, well, at least take a look at the top of the World Trade Center North Tower, suspended from the ceiling by cables so that we on the sixth floor can take a close look at its charred twistedness, the result of plummeting 1,500 feet.

Which brings me to another weird thing about my fear of heights: I actually sometimes fear lows as well. What I mean is, sometimes I will stare up at a tall building and imagine the horrible loneliness of being up there. Just the imagined cold and quiet of that space can make me feel unmoored and slightly dizzy. Is there a word for this? Hypophobia? Infraphobia?

Terrific, I told my wife, glancing at the the North Tower before hustling back to the elevator and making my way down to the third floor, where I watched Edward R. Murrow grill Joseph McCarthy as the sweat dried on my undershirt.

So it seems my acrophobia is enough to sometimes get in the way of my living my life to the fullest—this isn’t the first time I’ve voluntarily missed out on a nice view—but at the same time the fear seems to me so logical that I don’t even sense it as a fear so much as a well-functioning self-preservation instinct.

I once went skydiving, years and years ago, partly as a way of facing my fear, and after living through that experience I suffered no acrophobia for about six months. I very clearly remember standing on someone’s balcony a week or so after skydiving, bragging how I had cured myself. But the fear came back, worse than before, and now I suffer panic attacks a mere six stories off the ground. That which does not kill us only makes us stronger, but of course that only sets us up to be killed by something even stronger. Happy New Year!