I am afraid of heights. Big time.
I’m not entirely sure how it became the issue it did, but on Sumer holidays as a child my parents learned that it was ill advised to try and make me go up to the top of castle battlements or up precarious steps. On one notable occasion at Norwich Castle I nearly passed out, went green and more or less had to be carried down to ground level. I avoided anything that involved heights for many years. Funfair rides, lifts you could see out of, high bridges…I just did not go on them. I chose to drive through central London just to avoid going over the new extremely high bridge at the Dartford river crossing. A couple of near misses, finding myself on bridges high over rivers or roads reminded me that the fear was still there.
Fast forward to my move to Lincoln some years ago. I was asked to do some work the other side of the River Humber. I didn’t really give it much thought, but as I drove up the approach road to the Humber Bridge it gradually dawned in me that it was probably quite high and it might be a bit scary. It was only at the point of no return I realised what I was doing. To say I was stressed was an understatement…I moved into the middle lane to get away from the edge, froze with my hands tight on the wheel. White knuckle ride? Now I understood what that meant! I couldn’t change gear, couldn’t look in the mirror, and I swore all the way across and I do NOT swear! I couldn’t get above 30 mph. How the other drivers must have hated me, but if they were hooting and trying to bully me into going faster I was oblivious to it. When I got safely over I stopped, and was literally shaking. I burst into tears. I do not cry! I had never been so petrified in my entire life.
I had decisions to make. How much did I want the work? A lot. Not just for the money, but it was getting me into lecturing and teaching, which was something I very much wanted to do. I was a dog trainer. My job was to change behaviour. So this really ought to be fixable if I applied what I understood about behaviour. I had worked with those problems and fixed them in dogs – how much harder should it be with me? So that’s what I did.
First of all I needed a safe option to allow me to choose NOT to cross over if I felt it was too difficult. That was easy, if more costly and time consuming. I was able to take a much longer route along the river, crossing the river near Goole. Not over a high bridge. So the next few visits I did that. Each time I travelled up there I allowed myself to consider my choices before I reached the Bridge and then make an active choice – to go the long way around, or to opt for the Bridge. Sometimes I even stopped in a layby to think about which I was going to do, and to take a deep breath and get myself calm.
If there was little traffic to hold up I opted for the Bridge, I stuck myself in the middle lane, took a deep breath, focused myself on just driving (a familiar and easy task) and gave myself permission to swear. And over I went. Very slowly to start with, but with time I became more confident and eventually I was able to drive at normal speeds.
I rationalised it too. The chances of the Bridge collapsing at the very moment I was driving over was pretty remote. The chances of me losing control of the car and swerving, crashing through the metal barriers (designed to stop the many heavy trucks that travelled across the bridge every day) and pitching myself into the river below was also a tad unlikely. I decided that statistically I was pretty safe and I told myself repeatedly that my fear was irrational.
Sometimes I opted to choose the long way around. When the weather was bad or windy, or if there were too many big trucks. Or if I was just feeling less able to cope with it or not wanting to put myself under the pressure of going over the Bridge.
And guess what? I DIDN’T fall off the bridge when I crawled over it. I didn’t find myself inexplicably turning the steering wheel and plunging though the barriers into the cold grey river below. The sky didn’t fall in just because I drove over the Humber Bridge. I began to drive like a ‘normal’ person over the Bridge, not a shivering, gibbering wreck in danger of coming to a frozen halt in the middle.
Bold and fearless
It took well over a year but I ‘trained’ myself to drive over the Humber Bridge without batting an eyelid. Now I don’t even think about it if I have to go over it, although I suspect my heartrate is slightly elevated. It’s just a road with a brilliant view. It taught me a lot about how to change behaviour. Dogs can’t rationalise fears statistically the way I was able to, but we can offer them choices, weighting them subtly in favour of being bold and fearless, but not so much that we put too much stress on them and frighten them into not wanting to even try. Allowing them to opt out if they feel they need to. Let them learn through sheer experience, safely and carefully managed by the trainer, that potentially scary events aren’t dangerous after all. That the sky doesn’t fall in just because they took a risk. That they might gain something from it as well.