Friday, March 16, 2012

Face your fears or you'll have to take the long way

From today's Briefing:

One of Cooper’s purchases at the school book fair last week was a book on phobias.
He’s fond of walking around with the guide and asking folks, “What are you afraid of?” Then he’ll cross reference the answer with the book to diagnose the fear (kind of like Lucy talking to Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas).
Afraid of the dark? You have nyctophobia. Afraid of moths? You have mottephobia. Afraid of teeth? You have odontophobia.
I’m afraid I disappointed him when I couldn’t give him a concise answer.
I have my share of fears, but they’re not easily defined. Like the fear of unwittingly making a string of poor parenting decisions. Or the fear of realizing too late in life that my priorities were all wrong.
And then I was within a couple of miles of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, and I remembered a simple fear: the fear of high bridges.
The cable bridge that connects two Gulf Coast counties is lovely to look at. And I don’t really mind being a passenger on the bridge, as I’ve been a number of times in previous trips to Florida. But the thought of driving over it makes my heart beat a little faster.
It’s about four miles long and at its highest point soars 193 feet above the bay. The incline is fairly steep. On either side is a whole bunch of water.
I could have avoided the bridge last weekend (early in our spring break travels), but the alternative route would have added at least 30 minutes to our journey. So I summoned extra courage and committed to the route my smartphone suggested.
As we neared the soaring bridge, I turned off the radio and gripped the steering wheel. I took some deep breaths. I asked Cooper to pull a dollar bill from my wallet to pay the toll. I said a little prayer, asking for safety. I mildly scolded myself for being scared of a road that thousands drive over daily.
Then I focused on driving, reminding myself over and over again to breathe. To not look unnecessarily to the right or the left. To stare at the few feet of pavement ahead, not the looming steep incline. To stay above the minimum speed limit (fear when driving often makes me slow down).
And then it was over. We made it safely across, and my breathing and heart rate resumed to normal. I loosened my grip on the steering wheel. I decided when it was time to drive back, I’d take the longer route.
My fear has a name: gephyrophobia. (I had no idea until this week, but it’s right there in Cooper’s book.) I’ve self-diagnosed it as a mild case. I don’t mind walking over bridges, and I don’t have trouble driving over most — just the really tall or curved ones.
It’s definitely not a fear of heights. A couple of days after crossing the dreaded bridge, I took my children on a parasailing adventure in which we soared 600 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.
We each were outfitted with harnesses and life jackets, then clipped onto a parachute contraption. A motor under the deck of the boat unwound a thick cable attached to the chute, and as the boat moved forward, we moved up and away.
After my initial fear that the cable would snap and that we would plummet into dolphin-infested water below, I relaxed. I enjoyed Katie’s laughter, interrupted only by her exclamations of “This is awesome!” I enjoyed Cooper’s thoughtful observations on everything around us. I relished the peace of floating in air — something I’d only imagined before.
And I told myself that if I can fly 600 feet in the air with all control relinquished to weather conditions and the two guys in charge of the boat, surely I can drive 190 feet above water on a steel and concrete bridge in which I have complete control (save the folks driving around me).
I’m just not sure I can apply such rational thought to my irrational fear. I’ll know for certain Saturday, when I either cross the bridge or choose the longer way home.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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