Thursday, 8 May 2014

Vertigo Roadtrip

And just as I happened to mention my "crippling vertigo", there was a whole programme on about it. Not my crippling vertigo, needless to say, but people like me, who suffer from extreme acrophobia. Now, I had never previously considered my vertigo to be a phobia or indeed to be that extreme, but it seems that I am well up there with the people appearing on this programme. I hadn’t realised that it was that abnormal or unusual to have a racing pulse, jelly legs and a dizzy spell when crossing a narrow footbridge hundreds of metres above a river gorge. Or to imagine yourself falling off a skyscraper balcony. Or to crap yourself at the mere sight of a ten-metre diving board. Or to say “Ooh, I think I’ll keep my eyes shut” when in a cable car lurching up into the Alps.

Or maybe these people’s cases of vertigo weren’t as extreme as they had originally led the production company recruiters to believe, although a couple of them did throw a bit of a wobbly for the cameras after climbing just two blocks of stairs in a London office block. I reckon some of them might have just been after a free holiday. Because their cure through intense exposure therapy involved travelling to Innsbruck and Dubai. Really, if they were that terrified of heights, wouldn’t Blackpool Tower or a trip up the Shard have sufficed in the “scare them shitless” stakes? Not to say that the world’s tallest building, the Burj Kalifa skyscraper in Dubai, wasn’t worth seeing. It was astounding. And yes, if you can get yourself out in the open air at the top of that, you have definitely cured your acrophobia.

Mel Giedroyc (now suddenly brunette and without cake) was on hand to give everyone a cuddle as required, but the doctor in charge was an American called Jennifer Wild, an Oxford based psychologist and specialist in behaviour therapy. She was soft-spoken, with an intense stare, and knew how to apply gentle encouragement very insistently and effectively. Her clients responded surprisingly quickly to treatment (I would say suspiciously if I were considering the free holiday hypothesis). A grown man went from absolute hysterics in a swimming pool to leaping off a springboard into it quite happily in a matter of minutes. A woman wailed at the mere sight of a bridge, but was strolling across it in a great state of excitement just moments later. But all Dr Wild seemed to do to cure people was make them jump up and down or push against glass walls. I need this lady’s number.

Because I have humiliated myself time and time again in various locations around the world. I have never completely lost it, but I have had what might be termed a “funny turn” atop various buildings, from the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to Conwy Castle in Wales to the Sky Tower in Auckland to the Royal Albert Hall in London. I’ve had to sit down with my head between my knees until my breathing and heart rate have slowed. But I have always continued on my path, albeit looking straight ahead and my pace quickening, on various hideous bridges, like the iron one that goes to the spa in Scarborough, or the glass-bottomed one over the largest underground canyon in the world in the Skocjan caves in Slovenia. But blind panic and feeling close to fainting have never been far away. And please don’t mention Red Pike. Or the rope bridge in Alnwick Garden.

But I have an incident to compare myself to, which I use to convince myself that I am not that bad after all, and do have things under control. This incident occurred when my husband and I were on a group holiday to Jordan. One day we were taken by our guide on a hike in the hills above Petra, up to the High Place Of Sacrifice, via a less trodden back route. I couldn’t get myself too near the edge of any of the rocky viewpoints, but we saw a whole range of unforgettable sights, one of which was standing on the rocks directly above the Treasury, watching a constant stream of tourists snaking out of the Siq far below. My photos cannot do the constantly changing hues of pink, yellow, brown and red in the rocks justice, or the deep azure blue of the sky. 

Note there is always foreground in my cautious photography

However, on the way down to the Qasr-al-Bint in the heart of Petra, and nearly at the end of our trek, one of our group came a cropper to his vertigo. Before our final descent, we had to round a corner via a reasonably wide, flat ledge. The ledge had a ceiling of rock above it, but it offered no protection against a potential tumble down a steep slope of loose rocks and pink oleander trees to the ancient dwellings below. So this guy just freaked out completely. He refused to go any further. None of us, not even his wife (quite used to him doing things like this) could persuade him to put another foot forwards. In the end, he announced he was going to do the whole walk we had just done in reverse, which was a winding path of several miles over rough terrain that none of us could have committed to memory. Our guide, torn about what to do, chose to stay with the bulk of us but gave the man’s rationally thinking wife and an experienced walker from our party clear directions for an alternative shorter route down to the theatre in Petra. And he told them to meet us in the cafe at the bottom. Only they never turned up. They just decided to go straight back to our hotel in Wadi Musa. But we didn’t know this. Our guide panicked and spent several hours up in the hills near the High Place of Sacrifice trying to find them. Eventually the rest of us got back to the hotel, and found them sitting outside, enjoying a beer. We could then at least ring the guide (once he hit a patch of mobile signal) and let him know everyone was safe.

Vertigo man was only really on the trip in the first place because his wife had made him come. She was the one who wanted to see Jordan. His idea of a holiday was to sit around a pool drinking. And drinking is never the best thing to come and do in a Muslim country. But at least this incident made me feel better about my own vertigo.

But then, on the same holiday, I saw people do this...

and this...

And I realised that I really am not that on top of things, so to speak, after all. And as I remarked when writing about via ferrata the other day – what am I avoiding because of my fear? What am I missing?

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