250 Feet Up
By: Anvita Gurumurthy
No, no, no. No, no, no.
My shallow breaths became even more shaky as I dragged my legs to the next step, and then the next. I felt as if I weighed a thousand pounds. I’m sure my dad’s hand almost broke that night from my constant and desperately tight grip on it. As I slowly climbed, the ancient gray walls seemed they had been going on forever. How much longer could this take?
After a couple more steps, I saw a hole in the wall about the size of a window. I later learned there had already been a couple of them, but in my panic I hadn’t noticed. The hole, seemingly black as I approached it from below, suddenly lit up with millions of tiny lights when I got closer. Mainly yellow, I saw them light up the entire city of Porto, Portugal. The stout buildings, the flowing river lit up blue by the lights on the bustling bridge above, the little houses downtown-- I could see it all, just for a second. It was dazzling, but all I could feel in that moment was the sheer height of where I was looking from, made worse by the fact that even the tallest buildings seemed hundreds of miles away. I jerked like I had been given a shock and shut my eyes tightly.
I was reluctantly trying to climb the tallest tower in Porto, the Torre de los Clerigos. I remembered seeing it earlier in the day from all the churches and restaurants we visited, since its remarkable height made it loom over the town, impossible to miss. But now, thanks to my family, I had to climb all 225 steps to the top.
I could feel my dad pulling me up more steps. I could even make out a little of his voice as he urged me to keep climbing. I knew my mom and brother had already gone way ahead of us. But the immense and quickly growing fear inside me took over my body. That, combined with the darkness gave me the feeling I was having a dream. No, not a dream. A nightmare.
Eventually, we reached a small balcony. It wrapped all around the tower in the same material as the walls-- ancient and menacing. Later, in the pictures, I saw that the balcony railing was beautifully sculpted with sweeping and gorgeous designs. But all I could see at that moment was the space between the railings, the pitch black sky with the lit city below. There were lights brighter than the sun wedged into the ground and my eyes took a long time to adjust to them, making me almost blind when I first got up there. I could hear my brother and mom, and I went to join them, grasping onto my mom’s hand and letting go of my dad’s so that he could take pictures. I tried to ignore the bright light in the ground, loud noise, and terror rising inside of me by focusing on the gray wall, but my curiosity got the better of me and I turned to look at the view. It was both stunning and breathtaking, but after a moment, all I could feel was the height. My knees wobbled like they were in a blender and I clutched my mom’s hand even tighter. My breaths got clipped and shaky as I struggled to calm myself down. Phrases I had heard before floated through my mind-- “Think positive!”; “Go to your happy place!”; “Smile!”.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t think anything. I couldn’t move. My mom and my dad started talking, and my mom and brother went up the stairs to continue to the top. My dad stayed, and started talking to me. I zoned out of my panic enough to hear, “Come with me, we’ll take more pictures then go back down.” I felt a brief but genuine flush of relief at the fact that I’d soon go down. I stumbled with my wobbly knees to where my dad’s hand was leading me, which turned out to be the very edge of the balcony.
“No!” I managed to get out. “Not the edge!”
My dad seemed to understand and took me to the wall at the center of the balcony. I stayed there, back against the wall, while he went to get pictures. I saw the city below through the railings and the uncontrollable panic came over me. Again, my muscles felt like cement and my heart was racing as if I had run a mile. My only thought was: No, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. I repeated it again and again, giving into the fear. After what seemed like hours, I realized I was okay. I could move again. My breaths were controlled and longer. Though I was still scared, and my knees still wobbled, I had somehow gotten my fear under control enough not to completely panic.
I learned something that day. I thought about it as I descended the steps again with my wobbly knees. Fear isn’t something you can just make go away with positive thoughts. Accepting the fear instead of denying it, for me, is how I can control it. So yes, I still have a huge fear of heights. I know I can’t just make it go away, and I’ve accepted it as a part of who I am. And the next time I find myself in the same position, I now know how to control it.