Swinging through acrophobia

The pendulum of healing

Acrophobia: The fear of heights

In July of 1999 I found myself 60 feet up the mast of a tall ship sailing into New York Harbour at sunset.

The World Trade buildings were silhouetted, haloed with the sun behind them. All of Coney Island was glowing cotton candy pink, orange, fuchsia.

The harbour was filled with traffic. My two inch steel perch on the spreaders? It was swinging wildly like a drunken grandfather clock. All off this was a missed handhold away from ending up in the murky and dangerously busy shipping lanes of the Hudson River. We weren’t wearing any kind of harnesses.

It was a sensational moment. Or should I say a sensation-filled moment. Sounds, smells, colours, motion, spray and a little bit of terror and joy washed over me. So much so I can still close my eyes and feel myself there.

I wasn’t alone. My shipmate Tanna was there too. She was bursting. Screaming with both disbelief and excitement: Jimmy boy! I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe I’m here! Funny thing was, neither could I.

I was terrified of heights.

Not afraid. Not anxious. Terrified. At a preverbal level, I had a profound understanding of my mortality. I knew deeply that if I slipped, I was likely dead, or if not, the realities of my experience of life would change dramatically.


Homeostasis is the principle that we generally want to keep the systems of our existence stable, dependable, and safe. A 60 foot fall would be a dramatic disruption to my homeostasis. As such, each time I climbed the rattlings to the spreaders, then finally up the main mast, I would have little moments where preverbal parts of my living system would scream. My knees and legs and hands would go weak. It was almost as though I was shutting down. When the ship would move suddenly, violently, I would grip the lines tighter and swear with the kind of rage that has made sailors though the centuries famous for swearing. Once down on deck and on dry land? Run. I had to run. Away. Quickly. Usually screaming or singing some silly made up song about what I was doing. My fear filled me with energy. That energy had to go somewhere.

Let’s rewind a bit here. When I was up the mast entering New York harbour? I wasn’t terrified of heights. Two months earlier? Terrified? You better believe it.

I had been living aboard the Amara Zee – a replica of a Thames River sailing barge since the beginning of April. We were touring the eastern seaboard of the United States performing environmental political theatre for anyone who would have us. While on the ship, we were not only crew members, but also the actors and technicians for the show we would put on for people watching on the shore.

We had to become comfortable with every aspect of the boat. I helped the engineer. The engineer/designer/Mr. Fixit was Laird MacDonald. He was a neat guy. Regularly sweaty and typically shirtless, Laird somehow kept the twin perkins engines that powered the 90 tonne ship running smoothly. And he helped me overcome my fear of heights.

Each day a bit higher.

Each day I would climb the rattlings. Each day I would go a bit higher up. Each day I became more comfortable. Three points of contact and one hand for the ship Laird instructed. I felt safe with Laird. Laird felt safe climbing. I attuned to his feeling of safety and as I did, I just got used to being up so high. It wasn’t quite an emergency every moment I was up there. I could forget about the impending doom below. So. With the ship docked, and moderately steady, I became able to climb all over it. The test came when I had to do this at sea.

Ships move a lot more than you might realize. Even secured to a dock, our ship would be moved by the wake of other boats. I got used to this movement. It became expected. The regular kind of movement. Out at sea there were a lot more variables.

The Amara Zee is a Thames sailing barge replica. These are unusual ships. Instead of a fixed mast, this ship’s main mast could be raised or lowered depending on what we needed to do. In order to do this the topmast would be lowered vertically along the mainmast, then the whole package could fold over.

Raising a mast is a bit of an ordeal. We had to crank it up by hand. Luckily we were a bunch of nuttie theatre types so we made a bit of an event/spectacle of it. The work of cranking up the mast was accompanied by hippie hand drumming. Dancing. Random singing? Perhaps. I am certain there was patchouli involved.  I even think that the cook (who eventually ran off with the grocery money) was playing fiddle and step dancing through this process.

So. We were ‘underway’. Out a sea. The main mast was lifted. Then the topmast was raised. In order to keep it in place a foot-long, two-inch square of metal had to be pounded through one mast and rest on another. I can’t remember quite how it fit. I do remember being up there with Laird and pounding it in.

I wrote this once and I’ll express it again for emphasis: Ships roll around a lot when they are underway. This rolling was tolerable when standing on deck. Sixty feet up the mast? Every movement below was mightily amplified where we sat. Well… Laird sat. I clung to the ship with every ounce of strength I had. My legs were pretzeled around whatever they could cling to. I needed to make three points of contact with the ship AND use my hands to hold the metal and swing a hammer while Laird used a mighty pry bar to lift the inch thick cable that was holding everything up.

Did I mention that I was freaking out? And Laird? He was calm. Businesslike. And kind. He could see that I was suffering. He stopped working and just sat with me for a bit. He felt safe. And after a few minutes, I felt safe. Well. Safe enough to finish the job despite the fact I was 60 feet up a mast, swinging around like a fleshy pendulum while attempting to work.

Healing trauma is a complex task. According to Peter Levine, clinicians can help by remaining grounded. Remaining calm. Remaining safe. In doing so, the clinician is a safe harbour for the distressed client to return to. While I was 60 feet up the mast and terrified, Laird was this safe harbour for me. With Laird there, I could let go – quite literally – and cause my anxiety to rise. Once I’d had enough, I could pause. Could check back in with Laird for a moment, get that feeling of safety, and then go off again to increase my anxiety and my discomfort. This was possible because I knew Laird was there and that I had a feeling of safety to return to. Levine calls this moving between feeling safe then feeling heightened anxiety pendulation. My gradual exposure to heights and a swinging ship, combined with Laird’s comfortable, patient way allowed me to swing in and out of fear. In doing so I pendulated my way to higher and more precarious perches. As for the fear of heights? It’s still there. And for that I’m grateful. My fear of heights is reasonable. A 60 foot fall would be terrible. This fear? It was per-verbal data I needed to take in. Reacting to it would mean staying on the ground. Responding to this data? I’m just going to make sure that I’m really careful when I’m up  high. And having someone to help me pendulate through my fear is something for which I’m grateful, because I would never have experienced New York City in such a wonderful, sensational way as from the top of the mast of the Amara Zee.