Sometimes the scariest thing isn't out there, it's inside you

Feb 22, 2012
Outside Magazine

IT'S NOT THAT I'M AFRAID OF FALLING; it's that I'm tempted—unbearably, almost irresistibly, tempted—to take a leap. I don't know how or where this developed, but at some point I realized that, whenever I was on a rooftop, all I wanted to do was take a run and then a jump, and feel myself sailing through empty space. I'm not afraid of the emptiness below; I'm afraid of my lack of fear. Some necessary inhibition that most children acquire never seemed to take hold in me.

Fear is, of course, the most irrational, even unreasonable of impulses: Heights and depths are what I tell myself I crave. I grew up in a house on a lonely mountain ridge. I drive, by choice, along ill-paved mountain roads in Ethiopia, Bhutan, Big Sur—a huge drop, and certain death, on one side of me. Yet none of that unnerves me like a hotel room with a terrace, which invites me to go out and look over the wall, see the cars down below, and imagine how I could turn my life around (and the lives of those around me) with a single radical act.

It's bewildering to me that what I fear is entirely within my control. A few months ago, I gave myself up to fate by driving through the pitch-black mountains of Yemen, a precipice on one side, the man at the wheel furiously chewing qat to keep himself awake. Kidnappers prey on foreigners in those peaks, and teenagers waving large guns occasionally loomed out of the dark to flaunt their power at us. I was ready to surrender. But put me on a rock, a ledge, and all I want to do is act, irreversibly. I'm torn the way you are torn when drawn to a woman you know will undo you. I don't want to get too close because I want to get close too much. I feel, I suppose, something of what an addict feels.

My phobia of heights is inherently different from the fear of spiders, or of cats or crowds, because what I'm afraid of is not what some malign outside threat will do to me; it's what I will do to it. What fear can be so abject, and so impossible to cure, as the fear of who you really are, deep down?