Breathe. The walls closed on me the further I ascended up the narrow staircase. I kept repeating to myself that it wasn’t too late to turn back, but it was. I had committed myself to this journey. As I peered out of the grizzled Gothic windows down to the abyss of the modern streets below; my heart sank, and I started to gasp for air. It’s not too late to turn back, I repeated.Everyone has a fear of something.
From the most common spiders to the downright weird. For me, however, it has always been heights. I could never recall the origins of my phobia however, I do remember continuously finding myself falling into harms way. My nursery described me as a boy with no sense of danger’ and that was true for the most part, but despite this, these accidents never involved heights. I was fearless of sharp objects, I danced into the paths of oncoming traffic, I was even the first tram related accident at the Sick Children’s Hospital (true story) and yet I cowered at the sight of a fifteen foot drop.
I could never muster up enough courage to tackle this challenge. I always got that sense of vertigo in looking down towards my world, which for a seven year old isn’t that big. If you’re so scared of heights, just don’t look down. Well, let me tell you. It does not work. Just because I can’t see what’s below me, that doesn’t hide the fact that I know it’s there. It’s like being trapped in a house with a serial killer and you decide to close your eyes because if you can’t see him then he can’t see you. However you know he’s still there; you still have that sense of fear. It’s a pretty extreme analogy, I know, but it makes my point. However, this all changed for me with a single moment in my life. One that changed my perception of my irrational fear; that allowed me to adapt to the situation and control it. This moment in my life was called the Ulmer Mјnster.The sun warmed my back as I walked down the melting cobble streets of Ulm in south Germany. I remember it being a very picturesque town with an impressive church, the Ulmer Mјnster, towering over the landscape in the centre of town. For most of that day we toured around the shops and caf©s and took in sights. However, the one thing I remember most about that trip was when we got to the square where the world’s tallest church stood and my dad asking Who wants to climb the church?’ Sure, I thought to myself. What could possibly go wrong?Turns out everything. Even though I found beginning of the climb was easy enough. Peering through the grizzled Gothic windows down onto the street wasn’t too bad. I began to get the sense that I could do this without the threat of my fear pulling me down (this was probably the first 20 metres into the 162 metre climb.) However, the further I heaved myself up those mountain like steps, the more and more anxious I became. At first I was only clutching onto the banister to help support my balance, I thought, next thing I realised my breathing had become heavier and more syncopated. Again that vertigo and my lack of realising my limits had gotten the better of me. It didn’t help that I had to navigate myself past exhausted tourists who were stealing the air from my lungs as they descended back down the endless, winding staircase. Which an already claustrophobic environment even worse.By this point I was only a third of the way up the church and was ready to turn around and retreat back to the safety of ground level but my dad kept urging me to push on. He kept telling me I wouldn’t want to miss the view at the top. I was defeated by this point but I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want him to see my fear. I see now, in my old age, that everyone has a weakness but you have to understand that at the age of seven all you think about is the fear of disappointing your parents. The fear of being judged by your parents for being scared, that you might somehow embarrass them. Your parents are the people you look up to for guidance and you believe nothing can stop them. So I, resentfully, continued to climb that stairway to heaven. Trying to hide what I really was. A frightened human being.It’s not too late to turn back I thought to myself. Again and again as I climbed. I could never remove these thoughts from my mind, I just had to keep moving and hope I wouldn’t hit the brick wall that I feared. Every now and again I came across one of those familiar Gothic windows. Staring through them, I remembered how high I was from the safety of ground level. Then those discouraging thoughts came rushing back to me. I felt like I was going into that brick wall head on yet it never came. I kept pushing up that endless spiral knowing that I would reach the summit eventually. I could only decide if that would be sooner or later. Those last stages of the climb felt like I was back at the beginning of this endeavour, when my optimistic thoughts were at their high point. Instead of stopping to look through those windows to see how high I was, I soldiered on knowing that if I slowed down to ‘admire’ the view, those thoughts would return to cripple my new found strength. My legs ached with every movement but I didn’t care, I was making it to the top no matter the cost. I remember feeling a surge of cold air hitting me hard in the face, almost forcing to take step back. I didn’t dare to open my eyes and see what was happening. Was what I feared most becoming a reality? Falling from the top of the world down into nothing. Eventually I managed to escape my trance and open my eyes to see I was in the exact same spot. However something was different; it seemed brighter than it was before. It might have been the lack of oxygen playing with my head but though it didn’t feel like a hallucination. I continued up those repetitive steps with a feeling of accomplishment and disbelief in what I had achieved. However the thing I remember mostly about being 162 metres off the ground (other than that incredible view that I’m glad I didn’t miss out on) was how easy it was in hindsight. I felt almost embarrassed by my attitude in dealing with the situation but proud in overcoming it. For years I had always been afraid by heights and now I was at the top of the tallest church in the world. Over and over I thought what was stopping me in doing these activities; what was stopping me from doing it again?Since then I’ve returned to the top of the Ulmer Mјnster two more times, both with more ease, following these accomplishments, I continued on my new conquest and defeated the Eiffel Tower, again with relative ease. I had also come to the realisation, in my original climb of the Ulmer Mјnster, of my stupidity when it came to my awareness of the surroundings around me. My fear of heights had always prevented me from doing activities that I always dreamed of doing yet it was my saviour. It prevented me from doing extremely ignorant and dangerous decisions and without it, I would probably still be making these stupid decisions until seriously injure myself. Since then I have become more cautious around sharp objects, I have become more aware of my presence around oncoming traffic, I have become more careful when it comes to tramlines and I no longer cower at the sight of a fifteen foot drop.