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 had rocks in my pockets, weighing me down. 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?
I was reluctantly trying to climb the tallest tower in Porto, Portugal; 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.
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 the steps below, suddenly brightened with millions of tiny city lights when I got closer. Mainly yellow, I saw them illuminate the entire city of Porto. 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 at 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 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 from 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 began to tell me something. 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 and concentrating on the word. After what seemed like hours, I suddenly zoned back in and became aware of my surroundings-- the concrete wall behind me, the gilded railings in front of me. 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. Soon, I could see my dad walking back toward me. Slowly, I took tiny steps, gripping the wall, as I followed my dad back down. This time, the lights seemed to have dimmed, and I could look at them. I let go of the wall and took a couple steps on my own, for the first time that night.
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 get through it. Letting the fear come over me and not fighting it is easier than trying to convince myself I am not scared, because I am. 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. I’m not yet at the point where I can think about overcoming this fear or even control it well. I hope that eventually, I’ll get there, but for now, I am willing to allow myself to be scared, because for me, that is so much more doable than erasing it.
As I neared the final steps of the winding staircase, I could see the floor below me, flat and steady.
I gripped the wall again as I stepped off the staircase, following my dad. I paused for a second to take a deep breath. It’s over, I told myself, relieved. Walking towards the exit, the extravagant and old doorway, I felt a rush of cool air from outside and I let it flow through me. I stepped outside into the breezy summer night with lights all around, and leaving the experience behind me.