Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Fear of Falling Up and the Little-Big Feeling

I have a fear of falling up. Not because I've read the Shel Silverstein book Falling Up. This irrational fear goes way back beyond that, in fact, goes all the way back to the balloon release incident of 1979. I was four years old and I let a balloon go at the zoo, not on purpose, but for whatever reason I lost my grip and up it went. I asked my mom when it would come back down and she said it wouldn't.
"Where's it going to go?" I asked her.
"Up into space!" she said, like the idea of it was fantastic.
I imagined my blue balloon going up, up, up beyond all control. What if it didn't want to? What if it wanted to come back down and couldn't and it was scared? I told her this and began to cry. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry. It won't really go that high. It'll burn up in the atmosphere at some point."
And I became a frantic mess. I thought of my balloon, my poor sweet blue balloon that had become my friend, bursting into flames in outer space without me there to save it...Mom always did say it was hard to take me places.
I don't think this one incident triggered my fear of falling up. I think it's always been there, that fear of flying out of control and never coming down, and the balloon was just the first time I saw my own fear come to life. To me, it was directly connected to the Little-Big feeling and the Little-Big feeling is even worse than the fear of falling up. Both of them have been hitting me lately, and at no other time does it hit worse than when I drive over a bridge in the dark.

The Little-Big feeling came to me in a fever. I was lying on the couch and my mom was cooling my forhead with a wet rag.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Like there are big pillows on my head."
She laughed. "What does that mean?"
"Big pillows. They're really big."
"That sounds soft and nice," she said.
"No," I said, and I remember that my voice was calm and low because I found it strange that I wasn't panicking. "They're too big. They're squishing me."
I imagined that I was a cartoon character, a boy because I always thought of myself as a boy back then, and I was crouched on the ground trying to lift three pillows that were like boulders over my head. They might have looked like pillows but they were cement and I was tiny underneath them. It's funny that I have this problem because even then, at the age of five, I was tall. But it didn't matter. If pillows could be huge and weigh a ton then I could be very, very small.
I got the same feeling five years later when I saw a picture of the Great Pyramids with people standing next to them.
"That," my 5th grade teacher said, "is how big that pyramid is. Look at the size of that one compared to the people standing next to it."
"I don't see any people," I told her.
"They're the dots at the base," she said, pointing to the tiny blobs that weren't big enough to be the pyramid's toes.
I got the Little-Big feeling then, the feeling that I'm being dwarfed by a planet, something that exists in its enormity to simply remind me of how tiny I am. And when I get this feeling I want to crawl on the floor and lie very still so that it won't see me.
This is why I'm not sure if I could walk through any city with buildings taller than the ones in New Orleans. We don't even have skyscrapers and sometimes when I walk past the taller ones I can't look up or I'll feel an overwhelming sickness and an impulse to hide under a parked car. Which is embarassing.
But I don't have to be standing next to something Big to feel Little. If I see two things next to each other with such a size-difference I get the same panic attack, and when the attack happens that's when I feel like I am flying up.
I'm not exactly sure why this happens to me on the tops of bridges, particulary at night and particulary on the top of this bridge:

This is the suspension bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in Luling. Look pretty, does it? Well, it's not. It's a nightmare suspended on cables, bookended by monolithes. Oh and if you want to see what situation would make me throwup, passout, and die all at once it's if I were forced to do this:

This is a picture of two men who are riding up one of the suspension cables on the Luling Bridge, two men who clearly have never let go of a balloon at the zoo and or were burdened by enormous pillows on their heads. Just looking at this picture is making my hands sweat. This is what I feel is actually happening to me when I cross that bridge - that as I ascend, I am going up the cables and shooting into space and I will never come down. I actually get that feeling of rising that I get when I'm going up in an elevator and I have to remind myself that that feeling isn't real. That in reality I'm just crossing a road...a road that just so happens to be suspended over a river. BUT I CAN'T THINK ABOUT THAT! So I try to think of episodes of Seinfeld instead. Remember the puffy shirt one? Man, that was funny. You know, I heard on NPR that that same shirt is in display at the Smithsonian. Really? Yeah. Bet that's a huge building. Shut up! I want to hide under the steering wheel now and close my eyes until we're over the bridge. Well, you can't. You will die, if you do that, you will die. Garunteed. You have to keep control of yourself. But what if I lose control of myself? What if I want to, but I can't and I lose it and I never get home? Um...remember the episode when Jerry couldn't get that smell out of his car?

My anxiety shoots through the roof if I see something next to the bridge that looks even bigger than the bridge itself, like a crane that's about a mile tall so that it can lift people who don't suffer from the Little-Big feeling to work on top of it. The shapes of both things next to each other make my brain bizerk.
And lately, as I cross the Causeway bridge at night, this feeling consumes me. I can't figure out why this doesn't happen during the day but maybe it's because the daytime sky has points of reference - patches of clouds at varying points and different hues of blue. But at night, on a 24-mile bridge with only my headlights shining the way, the sky is the entire universe. Impossibly vast. I look up at it and I'm floating up, and the anxiety that hits me is like my whole body burning up in the atmosphere.

This is a problem. I'm not moving from across the lake until next month. After that I won't have to cross a bridge every day, just every once and a while. But until then, I have to commute every morning and night across that damn thing and since the time change, every evening is a struggle to convince my mind what is real despite what it sees. It sees planets and burning hot stars coming too close. It feels so small and insignificant and out of control, it begins to squirm and dart around the floor like an insect when the lights come on. During these moments when I feel the fear like flames on my skin, I remind myself where I am, how old I am, and that I'm responsible and smart enough to get myself across the bridge. I try to become the mother I need, and most of the time this works, until times like the other day the sick bastard in my head who wants to get me killed reminded me that astronauts say that they can see The Great Wall of China from space. AAAAAHHH!!! LITTLE-BIG FEELING!!! I can't think about astronauts, they shoot into space on a firecracker out of control! I can never go to China and see The Great Wall! It will crush me and I will die 50 horrible deaths at the sight of it!!! Then I get the feeling that my mother must have gotten with me that day at the zoo when I freaked out over a balloon...Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve...will you calm the fuck down?
Unfortunately, telling me to calm down doesn't work. Neither does trying to convince myself that my fear isn't real. But one thing has helped. Since I've figured out that my problem is visual - the contrast of Little-Big shapes, I've learned to cut out as many unnecessary sights as possible. One evening when I was crossing the bridge and squinting against the sight of the sky as if it were the sun glaring at me, I lowered the sun visor...and that was all it took. I gave the dark sky a ceiling. Suddenly, it wasn't filling up the top part of my windshield anymore, hinting at infinity. It was managable.

And when I'm able to get a foothold of the sane grownup inside of me, I remind myself that the smallest things can have equal worth to the biggest things. One atom no less important than all of Jupiter. No one person less important than an Egyptian pyramid. I remember that the blue balloon didn't feel anything - I was feeling everything, more anxiety and fear than a child of four should have to feel. More was going on then than I would allow myself to remember for years and years. Until recently. Which coincidently is when the Little-Big feeling returns like a firecracker shot right into my heart - whenever a lot of anxiety is going on. The size of this problem is equal to the size of my life anxiety, so I know that I need to work on it until it becomes Little again. As a sign of good faith to myself and to all of you, my dears, that things will get better, I am pasting a picture of The Great Wall of China as seen from space:

See? That's not so bad. Kinda cool. Gosh, they must be, uhhhh, 30 miles up or...or something. 30...miles...well that's...far.  Excuse me, everyone, I'm going to go crawl under the bed and pass out.


Susansweaters said...

It is amazing how early childhood experiences affect us. I really enjoyed your post and the pictures.

Tom Harold said...

I read this one and scan/read several others. This post makes me think of my visit to you a couple years back (three years already?!?!?!). Was this the bridge that had another bridge stuck to the side of it? I don't have bridge fears, but when we drove across that thing in the dark, I had to pull away from the side of the door to keep from feeling like it was going to fling itself open and I was going to fall out, or that the bridge itself was, at any moment, going to just fall into the depths below, just come loose with no notice and fall away. Spoiler: It didn't, and we're alive.

I miss your writing, and I miss MY writing as well. Something has to change.