Friday, 23 December 2011

My name is Scott and I'm an acrophobic

What's your reaction to the photograph above? My emotional response is one of horrified panic. I can hardly bear to look at it. My complex physical reaction includes a tensing of the whole body, accompanied by – and I apologise if this is more information than you strictly needed – an unpleasant aching, constricting sensation in the Gentleman’s Vegetables region. Closing my eyes provides instant relief bot kan leid tu typang eerors.

Spiders give me the creeps. So do daddy long-legs (their movements are so indefinite). I don’t like pitch darkness. I live in dread of a proletarian dictatorship. Left-liberals tend to freak me out. But at the very top of my list of fears, phobias and anxieties – way up there, right on the summit – is a lifelong fear of heights. Yes, I suffer from High Anxiety. To be precise, it’s a fear of sheer drops. I can stand on a mountain and, as long as the sides slope away from me, I’m fine: but when faced with a precipice, I reel back, invariably uttering an unmanly cry.

The sensation is at its very worst with man-made structures – buildings, bridges, towers etc – presumably because the drops are almost always sheer. I’m all right as long as I’m the length of my own body away from the edge and know that, even if I lost my balance, I wouldn’t plunge to my death. But as soon as I’m close enough for a push in the back or a fit of the vapours to result in going over the edge, my nerve fails. The presence of a glass barrier between myself and the drop helps a bit – but the fear’s still there.

I remember an item on the local TV news which featured a reporter climbing up to the top of Nelson’s Column while it was being cleaned. I almost passed out.

As for films, I can’t even watch Harold Lloyd’s antics on top of tall buildings, even though I know there was a specially-built safety platform just beneath him. When – as often seems to happen – a character stands on the edge of a skyscraper and the camera tilts down to reveal the drop I have to cover my eyes, and my family have to tell me that the scene has finished before I can bear to look again. (I don’t mind watching Tom Cruise hanging one handed from the underside of a cliff-top crag at the start of Mission Impossible – but that’s probably because he’s just terribly annoying.)

When the Sky installer appeared earlier this year to upgrade our dish and had to hang out of a velux window to fit the new one, I couldn’t watch. (From where I’m sitting I can see the end of the strip of tape holding the satellite flapping distractingly in the wind. I could easily lean out and cut it with a pair of long-handled secateurs – but I’d rather it flapped away till doomsday than do any such thing.)

It’s not all about personal safety. When a relative who was decorating a nearby house asked me over to hold a top-floor window in place, which would have crashed into the glass roof of the extension below had I let go, I experienced cold sweats – and found it difficult to fall asleep for a week afterwards, because the memory of my arms shaking as  the screws were drilled in kept jolting me awake. (I’ve been constantly shuddering while writing this paragraph.) So it’s not just about personal safety.

During a friend’s lavish birthday celebrations at an outdoor activities centre a few years back, I climbed a tower – probably no more than twenty feet high – and had to stand on top of it while I was hooked up to a zip-wire attached to a tree about a hundred yards away across a lake. I then launched myself into the air and whizzed across, bellowing all the while (having been told to do so). I won points for producing the loudest noise, but the whizzing across bit was fun: it was the five seconds standing at the top of the tower before I’d been hooked up to the wire that was terrifying. (I only went through with it because my son was there and didn’t want him to witness his Dad wimping out.)

But the worst thing of all are the photographs of untethered construction workers on girders hundreds of feet above the ground, casually eating their packed lunches, feet dangling in the air. Even if a wide-shot were to reveal a Harold Lloyd-style safety platform a few feet below them, I’d still be horrified.

I know I’m lucky to have such an undebilitating phobia – I’m not aware that it has ever adversely affected my life in any way. And, because I know that no amount of being told to snap out of it or that my fear is irrational would do anything whatsoever to help, it has given me sympathy I might otherwise have found hard to muster for people who suffer from genuinely life-destroying terrors. I remember being astonished to learn that the reason a friend who acted as my UK literary agent for a while always insisted on meeting at his flat was that he couldn’t leave it. I’ve known several people who are utterly terrified of flying – not helpful when you’re in a frequent flyer type of job. And I suspect we’ve all known otherwise confident, competent people who simply cannot speak in public.

No, on the whole, I’ll stick with High Anxiety.

And now I’m going to post this and go for a walk in order to try to unclench my body. 


  1. I can't say that mine appears as serious as yours but I am also a sufferer. It is not that uncommon. One of my friends and I used to rate our vertigo- type experiences on a "sphincter- tightening" scale of 1 to 10. I got a 9 for climbing up a rusty ladder at the top of a disused power station in Wigan, for work-related reasons. I can still score a 3 simply by thinking of the point at which one of the rivets holding the ladder to the outside of the chimney came away as I was half way up...He would break into a sweat walking along a narrow ridge at the top of a hill.

    How are you with the film Vertigo? I found it really unsettling when I saw it as a teenager and never felt the urge to give it another go.

  2. I've been scratching my head wondering what sort of work would require anyone to climb to the top of a disused power station in Wigan! I would have had to resign, whatever the job, rather than do that. My sphincter would have been permanently closed by that experience, let alone tightened - actually, given my heft, I'm pretty sure the whole ladder would have come away.
    Never got Vertigo (the movie, that is). I never really took to Hitchcock's 1950s Freudian phase. I've only seen Vertigo once and have never fancied seeing it again - the basic premise is too tortuous and silly. I prefer Hitchcock films where relatively ordinary people are pitchforked into a world of trouble. Films featuring people on the tops of tall buildings are the ones that get me. If they lean out to have a look and the camera pans down, I have to cover my eyes while shouting "Don't do that!"
    I've always been horrified by the story of Eric Clapton's infant son climbing out of the window of Clapton's New York apartment and... Well, I'm shuddering just thinking of it. And that's reminded me of a workman plunging off scaffolding on the building opposite my mother's Westbourne Terrace flat, and the screaming that followed...