Phobia


Ben H. Swett
Temple Hills, MD
15 October 1978

In September 1978, I had to go to London and Brussels on business, and took my wife with me. While I met with some Defence Ministry people in London, Wyn scouted around the shops and museums. We went to a couple of plays. Then we took a tour-bus trip across southern England to Stonehenge, on "the bleak and windy Salisbury plain." It lived up to that description the day we were there, but we enjoyed it.

On 1 October 1978, we caught a flight to Brussels, rented a car, and drove south through Belgium and east across Germany to Heidelberg, where friends of ours were stationed with the U. S. Army. For the next week, we drove all over southern Germany visiting castles and other scenic spots, and enjoyed it greatly.

While returning from Heidelberg to Brussels along the Rhine river, we stopped to see one of the castles. It was high above the river, perhaps 800 feet above the trees.

Near the top of the castle, I started out along a broad, high walkway to one of the turrets. About halfway there, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought, "This whole thing can fall off!" It hit me like a ton of bricks. I panicked, clung to the wall, slid to my knees, could not stand up, and literally crawled back to the main part of the castle.

After shaking for awhile, I got my breath back and said to Wyn, "Sheesh! I don't know what that was, but it sure hit me hard. I guess it must have been a case of acrophobia, but I've never had any problem with heights before. In fact, I used to scare my mother, because I was not afraid of heights. I climbed the windmill, climbed all the rafters in the barn, and walked on roofs, and never was afraid. But now, all I know is, I'm not going out on that walkway again."

I spent a week at NATO Headquarters in Brussels while Wyn waited and read and tried to watch television in French or Dutch, and we flew back to Maryland.

When we got home, we found a dead bird in the house--apparently, it flew down the chimney, couldn't get out again, and battered itself to death against one of the windows. I felt it was a shame the bird died like that, and didn't want it to happen again, so I bought a grating to put over the top of the chimney and borrowed a long ladder from one of the neighbors.

Halfway up the ladder, my whole body went rigid, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I could not move my hand to the next rung up the ladder. I could not. What's this?

The memory of that episode on the castle walkway flashed in my mind ... and it seemed as if another image was behind it, like a double-exposed photograph, not exactly the same castle, but similar. In the vague secondary image, the turret and the whole outer end of the walkway suddenly sheared off the castle and started falling into the valley, breaking in pieces as it fell. Several men in armor fell with it, turning as they fell. I was shaking all over. Everything was shaking. I clung to the wall, slid to my knees, and crawled back to the main part of the castle.

Then--pop!--I was back on the ladder, halfway up the side of my house, shaking all over, unable to move my hand, with sweat running down my face and soaking my shirt. Now what? Crawl back down, hire somebody to put the grating on top of the chimney -- and not be able to climb a ladder again for the rest of my life? No. Better to fight this here and now, whatever it is.

Oh. A past life memory. Earthquake. Turret split off castle. I was not killed in it, but saw it happen. Memory and reaction were reactivated by a very similar scene. Now what? A tool. Use the difference between past and present. I began chanting, silently, inwardly, like a mantra: "That was then, this is now. That was then, this is now." Slowly, my hand loosened its grip on the ladder rung. With great effort, I focused my attention on my right hand and forced it to jump to the next rung. Then I rested for a moment and kept chanting, "That was then, this is now."

Rung by rung, I made my way up the ladder, three stories, to the top. Each rung was a little easier, but not much. Then I sat on the roof-ridge and fished the grate up to me by the cord I attached to it before I started up the ladder. Next, I would have to stand up, on the sloping roof, and reach up to put the grate on top of the chimney. I didn't want to do that--a lot--but better to face it now than run from it.

I sat on the roof and chanted, "That was then, this is now," but when I closed my eyes, the old scene came back and the shaking came with it. I had to keep my eyes open and look around at the present world while I chanted. That helped, and I realized that looking at the present world reinforced the validity of the mantra in my subconscious mind. After awhile, I was ready to try standing up.

It was easier than I thought it would be. I stood up, put the grating on top of the chimney, secured it with four bolts (I had to reach around to the other side in order to reach two of them), and stood there for a minute to lock in what I had just accomplished. The phobia was not entirely gone, but I was in control of it. I went back down the ladder slowly, stopping several times to prove to myself that I could stop and that I was not running away. All this time, I continued the mantra.

When I got to the ground and looked back up the ladder, I felt a rush of elation, as I rather expected I would: "I beat it! I won!" Then I very deliberately closed my eyes, reinvoked the old scene of a disintegrating castle, and said into it, "That was then, not now. It is past. Done." The acrophobic reaction fluttered my stomach a little and subsided.

And that's the way it has been ever since.

I am not as fearless of heights as I was before I visited the castle in Germany, but since I won that fight on the ladder, I have never been incapacitated by acrophobia. All I experience in high places is a little flutter that subsides as soon as I remind myself, "That was then, this is now."

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In retrospect, the trigger must have been a very similar scene, because I had previously explored several castles, in Spain and in Germany, with no such reaction.