I’ll be the first to talk myself out of dangerous activities. You likely won’t see me tightrope walking, hang-gliding, scuba diving, base jumping, or free climbing. Don’t get me wrong—I love skiing and will try a black or double black, but I will also happily cruise blues down the mountain. I will hike to gorgeous, steep views but I will stay far from the edge. I will ride dinky fair rides that are holding on by a screw and tall, loopy roller coasters unless it is an indoor, virtual-reality coaster.
An easy way to seek a thrill in Dallas was riding roller coasters at Six Flags or the State Fair. The State Fair was famous for The Texas Giant, a wooden roller coaster that guaranteed speed and a healthy dose of whiplash. Going to the Texas State Fair in October to celebrate my birthday is a long-standing family tradition. We stuff ourselves with chicken legs, corny dogs, and funnel cake before hopping on some rides. In 2005, days after my high school graduation, my dad had an unexpected quadruple bypass heart surgery. Two years later, in October of 2007, my mom, dad, and I once again found ourselves at the fair. My mom is not a fan of rides and will say a firm but nice “no” when asked. I knew she was a lost cause. My dad was my only hope to have a partner on the rides. I could have gone alone but, where’s the fun in that? My dad is the one person who is always able to coax me into doing an activity that scares me. He uses a mix of rational thinking, shame, and humor that hardly ever fails. Little did he know I would “Cat’s in the Cradle” him in 2007. (“It occurred to me. He’d grown up just like me; my boy was just like me.”) I pleaded with him to go on a ride with me. I teased that his heart was better than ever and nothing bad would happen. Now, to be fair, I looked up guidelines to see how ridiculous I was being when I told my dad to ride with me. The Cleveland Clinic says it is okay to ride a coaster, with doctor’s approval, four weeks after surgery. Being two years out, he was A-OK. As I begged him to go on a ride with me, laughing and joking that he would be fine and his heart wouldn’t give out, he looked me in the eyes and sternly said, “Honey, I don’t want to die on a ride at the fair.” I laughed out loud while my mom turned her head to hide her chuckle. Eventually, I convinced him. He sat in seat number 22, a lucky number for our family. He did not, in fact, die on a ride at the fair.
Last summer, on our road trip up, Deaven and I met her family in Los Angeles for a conference and went to Universal Studios. If I had been, it was many moons ago. I couldn’t wait to ride coasters. Normally, if we had planned the visit far in advance, I would google Universal Studios, find out about the best rides, and any tips and tricks. However, we had short notice on plans and were in the middle of a cross-country road trip after getting married, so my brain was frazzled. Instead, Deaven’s family and friends set off on an adventure. We began with a traditional outdoor coaster in Harry Potter land. It was the start of summer in Los Angeles, so it was mighty warm. We had heard of their indoor coasters, so we headed to The Transformers ride. It was hot. People were looking to cool off. It was summer. School was out. While we stood in line, one of us, whose identity I will protect since it wasn’t me or Deaven, farted. It was crowded and the line wasn’t moving. We were right at the front. The smell drifted through the crowd around us. We lowered our heads, lifted our shoulders, and covered our noses and mouths with our hands. We watched with huge grins as people looked around and fanned their hands in front of their face. One employee made a fan out of a sign, while another sprayed a bottle of disinfectant in the air. We all laughed and tried to look innocent, hoping the line would move faster. I had never been on an indoor coaster, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was halfway thinking it was a traditional coaster in a building. However, this one was full of stops, jolts, and special effects. We boarded the ride and the employees strapped us in. I was nervous of the enclosed space but tried not to think about it. Midway through, the ride suddenly stopped. We debated whether it was part of the show until the lights came on and a speaker announced technical difficulties. A family friend came with us to Universal. She had never been on a roller coaster before, so I calmly told her not to panic while simultaneously reassuring myself with my affirmations. “We aren’t trapped. These things happen. We will see the light of day again. We won’t die in Universal Studios.” Minutes later, the ride resumed. We were all shaken but no worse for the wear. We triumphantly journeyed on to a Harry Potter indoor ride. As we waited in line, I confidently assured the group that the chances were very slim of this other ride having technical difficulties. As we strapped in, I sat beside the family friend. My wife sat in front of me. Off we went. Well, once again, halfway through, the ride came to a screeching halt. We sat for more than a few minutes, while I looked around wide-eyed, breathing out my affirmations with every deep breath, and clutching on to the bar in front of me. With each passing minute, I pictured us stuck for hours. The walls closed in around me. As our group chatted in the chair in front of us, I looked down and to my side to hide my tears from our family friend. They then asked me how I was doing and looked back at me, only to see me in tears. “I’m okay,” I muttered. All of them tried to cheer me up. I insisted that I was fine and wasn’t concerned about being stuck in the seat forever. The ride started a few minutes later, and I decided I had my fill of indoor coasters and was not a fan.
When I look back at it, my panic is funny to me. My fight or flight is an ingrained, natural response to the threat. My body cues it; it feels like there is no other choice. I couldn’t talk myself out of what my brain and body already decided was a disaster.
I experienced a similar feeling in junior high. My class went on a field trip to Texoma Lutheran Camp. One of the activities was rappelling (abseiling for my European friends) down a small cliff. I walked up to the edge to gage my interest, enthusiasm, and how scared I should be. My classmates, teachers, and I watched a demonstration. We listened to the instructor clue us in on the safety precautions. What I was probably told on this trip was that there was a slight chance of leaning too far back, flipping, hitting your head, sustaining a brain injury or dying. When someone says slight chance and doesn’t have an actual number to back it up, my brain hears 50/50. It tells me I am the unlucky 50. I let all my classmates go before me while I pretended like I was working up the courage to go. My classmates all went before me. You stepped into a harness and put on a helmet. They clipped on you in. Then you walked off or bounced off the side of a cliff. My classmates easily rappelled down. I sat back and watched, wondering how high-pitched their screams would be when I accidentally flipped backwards and had a head injury. They brought gear for pre-teens, not prepubescent girls like me. They kept having to change out and adjust my harness to make it smaller. I doubted the gear’s chance of saving me when I undoubtedly leaned too far back. All strapped in, I walked like a cowboy in my finest chaps and approached the ledge. I could barely hear all my classmates cheering me on over the sound of my beating heart. I also managed to listen to instructions over the sound of my heartbeat and blood rushing through my ears. I grabbed the line, approached the edge, and stopped. I scooted forward off the edge. False start. I backed up to the edge again. This caused my classmates and teachers to cheer even more. The more my classmates and teachers yelled and clapped, the more anxious I became. I was torn because I wanted to do it, but I also wanted to live. First, tears slowly started streaming down my face. They were accompanied by quick inhales of breath that turned to sobs. It was a quick, easy way to stop all the cheering. Everything was silent, except the instructor asking if I wanted to remove the gear and me wailing. I chickened out. I walked away defeated but alive.
I was lucky enough narrowly escape the grim reaper again in the Galapagos a couple years ago. Our group of 15 or so people took a walking tour of the islands. We strolled through a path on the island and admired land tortoises before descending into a lava tunnel. My pleasant stroll in the sunshine and open air abruptly ended as we walked farther into the dark tunnel. As the light behind us disappeared and we walked ahead into the musky, dimly lit tunnel, I told myself the tunnel would end. We wouldn’t all be trapped down here. People walk through all the time. Your anxiety is silly and not needed. Then came the “what ifs”, the doubts that slowly trickle in and we took each step into the darkness. “You’ve walked through a cave in Georgetown, Texas. This isn’t much different,” I reassured myself. The voice of the tour guide turned into static as my own panicked thoughts filled my head. I was my own worst enemy as I argued with myself about whether we were going to die or be fine. As everyone listened intently, I tried hard to force a smile barely held up by my cheek muscles. My cheeks started shaking from my trembling lips and the tears. My wife looked back with a big smile, admiring the majestic tunnel, only to see my fake smile and tears starting to stream down my face. We quickened our pace and walked on to the front of the group. I couldn’t stop thinking about how narrow the walls looked and how I felt like all the people in our group made it feel smaller. The cave would collapse. I didn’t want to be stuck. Approximately two minutes after I started crying, I looked ridiculous as our tour guide, Deaven, and I were the first to see the light at the end of the lava tunnel. We were free!