Sunday, April 10, 2016

Facing Fears: The Notre Dame Towers!

I guess all fears start somewhere, and I distinctly recall the first time I felt a fear of heights. As a very small child, I was never afraid. And then all of a sudden in fourth grade, around the time my panic attacks started, it happened. I was at Joyland, a small amusement park in Lubbock, with my friend Sam and her family for a work party sponsored by Sam's dad's employer at the time, Gandy's. Sam and I stood in line to ride the gondolas that coast along the tree line around the park, and as soon as we went up I was frozen. I wanted out immediately, but had no choice but to ride it out until we returned to the ground. I remember closing my eyes and Sam (lying) telling me how close we were to being finished and that we really weren't that high.
Joyland "Skyride"
Since then, I've done my best to avoid situations in which I am stuck at great heights and cannot bail out at a moment's notice. To be clear, I am not afraid of falling. That is never the fear for me. It's the vertigo, not being in control of my own head (powerless to stop the spinning), the inability to snap my fingers and be back on the ground instantly, feeling trapped up there. It's a fear of fear, brought on by heights.

Flash-forward to 2009. I did a short summer study abroad program to London and Paris. It was my first time abroad, and only my second flight ever. Though it was one of the best times in my life and opened my eyes to the fact that I'm much braver than I ever imagined, I was fearful and anxious. So when the time came for my best friends, RachelGaddie and Dave, to ascend the towers at Notre Dame, I quickly volunteered to hold their backpacks and wait for their return on safe and stable ground. I had already encountered my fear of heights at the Centre George Pompidou, where one must enter the museum on the third floor via an open-air escalator or clear glass elevator, and the underground tube stations in London, with their steep and never-ending escalators. So at Notre Dame, I chose to not even try.
RachelGaddie, Dave, and me in Paris in 2009
Since that day, I have regretted not trying. Sure, I may have had to turn around and climb back down the narrow spiral staircase, slithering past droves of people unphased by the terrifying ascent, annoying others around me who cannot and do not understand my terror and panic. But I have always felt I should have tried. What if I really could do it, and I just let fear tell me I couldn't?

And that brings us to the present-day. I told Jeremy about my regret at not attempting the Notre Dame towers in 2009, and he promptly placed that at the top of our Paris priority list.

Notre Dame de Paris, 2016
So on Monday March 28, we joined the line of people standing outside Notre Dame to face a fear. It had been cloudy and even a little rainy for most of our time in Paris and Monday was no different. After about two hours in line (yikes), it started to rain. And pour. And monsoon. I pulled my hood up, and Jeremy held tight to our collapsible pocket umbrella, but we were soaked. It was freezing and wet and should have been miserable. But we laughed and laughed at how ridiculous it all was! Jeremy was holding the edge of the umbrella so it wouldn't blow inside-out, which created a perfect gutter for all the rain to pour directly into his sleeve. My shoes were filled with water and my toes were pruning. Our umbrella had snapped at the joint where it collapses, and Jeremy was fumbling to keep it functional at all. Jeremy kept yelling, "Is that all you got?! Wooo hoo!" (a la Lieutenant Dan on the mast of Forrest Gump's shrimping boat during the hurricane or Jim Carrey in Truman Show trying to escape his fake world) and I kept feeling like we were on Splash Mountain!

Eventually I noticed the line had shifted away from the cathedral wall, and looked around to see why. We were standing directly beneath a gargoyle, doing its job very well, spewing water all over us! The rain was nowhere near as bad as it seemed because we were standing beneath the gutter!!

This video that I found on YouTube basically demonstrates what it was like that day:

Finally, the storm subsided and we made it to the front of the line! I didn't feel nervous. I felt excited to have a second chance, and confident I had improved in my fears since 2009. We started up the narrow, spiraling, slanting staircase. Finally, there was a trefoil window in the tower that allowed a glimpse outside. A pang of panic. Oh my, we are already REALLY high and we're not there yet!! Don't look. Focus on the stairs. All of these people are fine, and so am I. Then we arrived at the landing. The first place you exit the stairs is on a balcony 114-feet (roughly 10.5 stories) high, marked in this photo:

First Viewing Platform
I hid in the stairwell for a minute, letting everyone behind me go first. I peeked around, and glanced outside. I was slowly able to come out of the stairs, look at the statues, and even enjoy the view! We could see all of the places we had visited on our trip- the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, the Seine, etc. We took some photos, and I felt surprisingly good! I was doing it! I was still amazed that it doesn't seem to affect some people at all, because even though I was not terribly afraid, I was still by no means "comfortable."

Then you have to walk along the entire facade of the church, including across a small bridge between the towers, to (ideally) go up the stairs of the second tower to the very tippy top (226-feet or 21 stories). Then you exit by going down the stairs of the second tower, all the way to the ground. Like this:

It was time to walk across the bridge to the second tower. You have to go out around this narrow little ledge to get to the bridge. I didn't like this part, but we did it. But as soon as we got out to the bridge, I panicked. I could feel the wind whipping around me, and I no longer had the safety blanket of a large, stone building on one side of me! I panicked, quickly told Jeremy (whose hand I was surely crushing in my clammy grip) that I wasn't okay, and squirreled back around the corner to "safety." As I worked to gather myself, slow my breathing, and calm my spinning head, the bells rang loud and that didn't help! I was terrified. I had lost my confidence!

Jeremy scouted ahead and came back to tell me exactly what to expect on the other side. Knowledge is power, you know. I tried a few more times to cross "The Bridge" but couldn't make myself do it. My anxiety flares when I feel trapped in a "bad" situation, so anytime someone came up behind me I felt like I couldn't easily go back, and that terrified me. After a good long while hugging the stones and working through breathing exercises, I decided it was time to go back down. I went down the entry stairs, the way we came up, and Jeremy went ahead and crossed and came down the correct way.

I'd be lying if I said a few tears didn't fall on my way down. I'm not sure if I was proud of what I'd done or disappointed I couldn't do more. But I was filled with both emotions. As I waited for Jeremy to come out the other side, I looked up at where we were. I finally tried it. And I even did some of it. And maybe next time I go back, I'll be able to cross the bridge and exit the proper way.

No comments:

Post a Comment