On Being Scared
“What are you thinking about?” one of my roommates asked me a few weeks ago at the climbing gym.
I snapped out of my focused gaze, trained on a bouldering problem that I had tried, halfway completed, and chickened out of finishing. I’d spent the rest of the night wandering aimlessly around the walls, half-heartedly swinging on low-hanging jugs and waiting for my friends to wrap up and be ready to head home.
“Nothing,” I laughed. “Let’s go.”
Once we were safely in the car, though, I turned to her in horror.
“I think I have a word for this year,” I announced.
You might remember that, despite my general rejection of the idea of picking a word for the year — you don’t know what it’s going to hold, don’t try to force an overarching theme on all your experiences! — last year I felt pretty strongly that 2018 was going to be the year of “little” for me. Not looking for big changes or enormous experiences, but rooting down and being faithful in the little things.
And it great! Hard, but great. Wrapped up 2018 and thought, “What a nice word experience!” and washed my hands of it. Back to setting and managing goals like a normal person.
Unfortunately, I was getting increasingly suspicious that a theme was appearing regardless; and that night had only confirmed it.
Lindsay (aforementioned roommate) and I were taking a lead climbing class at our gym. It’s a three-part program — two two-hour classes and one test — and so far we had learned how to tie in properly, a few different ways to clip, and belay technique.
I had also learned that, despite being a pretty loud person in normal life, I was apparently not that loud when climbing. Shouting cues back and forth with your belayer — the person managing your rope and, like, your life as you climb — is fairly key to getting up the wall.
We’d climbed a few walls already, and while I’d been nervous, I hadn’t had much of an issue topping out. One of the routes we’d tried was a personal favorite of mine, and one I could do with my eyes closed. I hadn’t had to take (break) yet; and, honestly, I wasn’t sure if that was even allowed during the class. I’d heard rumors that if you had to take before you were supposed to, it lowered your chance of passing the class.
But when our instructor, Travis, led our group of four to a more inclined route at the front of the gym, I broke out in a cold sweat. I can’t overstate how juggy the route was — big, positive, grippy holds basically the entire way up the wall — but incline climbing requires technique I’m still learning, and leading it wigged me out immediately. I waited while everyone else climbed to 7th clip and took their prescribed practice fall, then tied in myself, took a deep breath, and hopped on.
Long story short, it was bad. I was tense, clawing at every hold with strength-sapping fervor and paying zero attention to how my body was positioned. By the fourth or fifth clip, I was barely breathing and shaking profusely. Travis, Lindsay, and the others called their encouragement, but I couldn’t move my hands for another grab.
It was at this moment that I discovered the importance of being loud, because when asked, “Can I take?” Lindsay didn’t hear me.
“Take?!” I screeched, apparently still too quietly. My hands, already overgripping their friendly holds, seemed to double their sweat output instantly. I felt one slip a bit and started hyperventilating.
“What happens if I fall?” I yelled, except apparently not. And then, two seconds later, it didn’t matter, because it was going to happen anyway. “Falling,” I announced in a small, scared voice to myself. And my violently shaking fingers gave out.
For as quiet as I apparently was while trying to communicate my predicament on the wall, I made a noise during my actual fall that I have never heard before and hope never to make again. As a rule of thumb, I'm not a screamer — in times of stress or pain I go very, very quiet. But apparently, should that stress or pain involve falling from a great height, all bets are off.
The rope caught me 10-15 feet and less than a second later, and I slapped a hand over my mouth, extremely embarrassed and defeated. I could tell from the expressions on Travis’ and Lindsay’s faces that despite my four-part warning, no one had anticipated the fall, and they looked equal parts surprised and concerned.
I tried to think of a way to play it off as I was lowered back to the ground, but — seriously, the banshee cry had kind of given me away. My face grew hot as my feet hit the floor, and I apologized profusely as the group checked on me. Everyone was incredibly kind, and I was joking about it minutes later, but the truth was it had psyched me out completely.
I returned to the route after class ended and shakily completed the 7-clips-and-fall sequence just to prove to myself I could; but other than that, I spent the rest of the evening quietly playing it safe. When I went to sleep a few hours later, I dreamed about the route, and felt my own disappointment in not finishing it over and over.
Spoiler alert: Linds and I tested out a few days later, and we both passed the test. I’ve kept climbing, sometimes with shaking legs and hands, and I’m steadily learning and getting better. But the fall in class made its mark, and — fast forward back to my declaration to Linds in her car — confirmed tackling fear as my theme for the year.
I’m not sure what it is about being scared that bothers me so much, but I think 2019 is going to be about doing scary things. Doing them anyway. The idea had already been tugging at me through some other, non-climbing-related things. The plunge during lead class just sealed the deal.
At the heart of being scared, for me, is almost always fear, pride, or some combination of the two. And I’m convinced that pretty much everything good and fun is on the other side of those things.
Some of those things might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things — most of the things I’ve done despite being scared haven’t been big, sweeping gestures of courage that changed my life or others all that much. A lot of times it’s the small joy-givers, the just-for-fun projects, sports, or experiences. But overcoming fear in those areas gives me confidence in all the others, and a lot of the things I’ve done as a result of them have made me more, well, me. Many of my favorite memories are the direct result of doing things I was nervous to do but decided were still worth giving a whirl.
I’m going to write a separate post of some of those memories and fear-facing experiences, because as I’ve started thinking about it, there’s just too many good stories and takeaways from them. But this post is already pretty long, and I’m curious — what have been your experiences with fear? Anyone ever had a year they dedicated to facing them? Anyone have a totally different theme they’ve seen emerge for their 2019 so far?
Let me know your thoughts — seriously, please do! I love hearing from others, especially when I’m more or less airing out my own thoughts on this little blog. Leave a comment or drop me a line. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here practicing yelling louder while lead climbing.