That’s me as I was pushed out of a plane at 15,000 feet, potentially about to plunge to my untimely death.
But let me start at the beginning.
I can be quite an anxious person, a worrier and over-analyser, and not one bone in my body is inclined to being an adrenaline junkie. As any of my friends will know, I would pick a cup of tea and a good book over a rollercoaster any day.
However, when we knew we were travelling to New Zealand, it seemed like the thing to do to try some sort of ‘extreme’ activity. It is, after all, a country of outdoor pursuits and adventure. There were also a couple of other added pressures: 1) My former tutor group’s bucket list, which, amongst various other extreme activities, did include skydiving (marginally more appealing than bungee jumping and swimming with crocodiles), and 2) My former colleagues’ leaving gift to me – a voucher to spend on ‘an activity’ in New Zealand. They reassured me that it could be spent on anything – a nice meal perhaps. However, I knew they would be disappointed if I didn’t use it for something a teensy bit more exciting.
The inevitable was apparent; all roads pointed to skydiving.
In the initial stages of having the idea, it all seemed so far away and exciting that I was totally on board. Of course I could do it. I’m a cool chick. Then we arrived in Queenstown, adrenaline capital of New Zealand, and went ahead and booked it: our jump would be from 12,000 feet (the slightly cheaper option), giving us 45 seconds of freefall before the parachute was deployed.
Panic now fully set in. I couldn’t think about the event without my stomach turning, without a lump coming to my throat, without snapping at James (my long-suffering, patient husband). I even broke down in tears one day as the anxiety got too much.
So why the heck spend hundreds of dollars doing something so profoundly ridiculous that I clearly wasn’t looking forward to, which was not within my comfort zone and normal range of acceptable activities, and which was turning me into a short-tempered, emotionally unstable wreck?
Mostly for the simple fact that if I didn’t do it, the regret would be too much. I wrote a while ago about challenge and about stepping out of your comfort zone. I knew that just like the decision to quit our jobs and travel to the other side of the world, if I faced this challenge and overcame the total fear that was consuming me, I would be not only incredibly proud of myself, but also changed, encouraged, emboldened. Maybe that sounds a little over-dramatic, but that’s how big a deal it was for me.
Then it was cancelled.
So it turns out skydiving is really weather-dependent, and the wind had picked up too much. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t completely relieved either. After all, it was still going to happen. I had built up so much emotion and adrenaline in anticipation, and now had no outlet for them. We re-booked for a couple of days’ time and busied ourselves with other things.
The day came. We were cancelled again, then re-booked for later in the day. All this change to the initial plans were causing havoc with my nerves, and we ended up having to wait for hours at the airfield, a blessing in disguise as I was able to watch lots of people jumping, tiny dots falling out of the sky at incredible pace, the parachutes opening, and then coming in to land right in front of me with ease. For some, it may have been awful watching them all, but for me, I felt reassurance that I was more aware of exactly what was going to happen to me. Call me a control freak if you will.
When we were finally called up, they suited us up and got us into our harnesses, gave us an unfathomably brief explanation of what to do (bend your body like a banana during freefall and land on your bum when we get to the ground), and had us walking over to the tiny little plane in no time, which encouragingly had a shark’s jaws painted across the nose.
My instructor, Jens, had not (in my opinion) indulged my fear enough, despite the fact that I was doing everything within my power to show him how scared I was:
“What if I throw up and it all flies in your face and you can’t see anything?”
“What if I have a panic attack?”
“What if I pass out and miss the whole thing?”
“What if my head flies back, hits you and YOU pass out, and I’ll have to deploy the parachute and fly myself down?”
He mostly ignored me and told me to focus on the fact that it would be a really expensive plane flight if I didn’t end up going through with it. In retrospect, it was so good that he didn’t pander to my dramatics.
Into the plane we got, where I got uncomfortably close to a man that wasn’t my husband (those harnesses are TIGHT), and all of a sudden this tiny sheet of metal, with a flappy plastic door (which I was sat right next to) was hurtling through a field and into the air. Jens had actually put us right next to the window so that we would jump first, saving me the extra panic of seeing other people falling out of the plane. I was really grateful for that, although really enjoyed hearing James relay his experience of how weird it was watching people drop out one by one.
As we rose, a sense of calm came over me. The scenery was spectacularly beautiful; the aptly named Remarkables mountain range with their snowy peaks surrounded us, and Lake Wakatipu glistened aqua in the sun as we weaved our way up and above the clouds. I felt so privileged to be able to see this stunning scenery from such a unique angle.
The effect was slightly ruined by Jens poking a plastic tube up my nose: “Breathe this in; it’s oxygen. We probably don’t need it, but… ya know.” He had obviously taken my earlier concerns more seriously than I’d realised.
Then, a few minutes later: “There’s a commercial plane in the air space so we’re climbing up to 15,000 feet. Lucky you! A free upgrade! You’ll now be free falling for 60 seconds. Also when that little green light goes on I need you to help me open the door and shuffle your butt out so your legs are dangling in the air.”
What the heck? I was way too busy getting into my banana persona to be thinking about even more instructions.
Before I could panic more, the green light flicked on, the door was going up (with very little help from me) and all I remember is repeating, “Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh” over and over again.
And with very little warning, my head was yanked back and out we fell.
The first ten seconds(ish) are a blank, and the feeling is pretty much impossible to put into words. Fortunately, I was reading ‘The Blind Assassin’ a few days later, and Margaret Atwood provided the best description I could think of: ‘terrified bliss’.
It is total sensory overload; I don’t think your brain can really comprehend what is happening and so it takes some time to adjust. I know that my stomach did a somersault as we fell, but from fear and adrenaline rather than that feeling you get on a rollercoaster. And then Jens tapped me on the shoulder, and I opened my eyes, and as soon as my senses came back to life, I was completely over-awed by this insane experience. We were plummeting at about 200km/h (that’s approximately 55 metres per second). That’s REALLY INSANELY FAST. I wasn’t really looking at the ground plummeting towards me; I was too busy looking at the mountains and the lake and the sky and everything else. My lips went completely numb almost immediately from the cold, and the wind pummels your face like nothing else, but it’s so intensely exhilirating. I didn’t even think once about the possibility of death; I was too caught up in the moment and enjoying myself. Yes, actually actively enjoying the experience! Who would have thought?!
In what seemed more like 15 seconds than a whole minute, Jens deployed the parachute which gave me more of a jolt than I realised it would, my banana pose was abandoned (who knows how I remembered to hold it for the entirety of the freefall) and all of a sudden, the loudness of the rushing wind in my ears was gone and it was entirely peaceful. I had been worried about this part too, not being terribly comfortable with heights, but I wasn’t worried at all. It was all just so beautiful, so calm and so majestic that it wasn’t worth giving over any brain space to fear.
“That was AMAZING!” I kept saying.
The landing was sweet as (as the Kiwis would say), although I was way too busy being teacher’s pet concentrating on my bum landing that I didn’t realise we’d had a change of plan and were now landing on our feet. Thankfully all limbs remained intact and unbroken.
My extremely chilled out and not scared at all husband arrived on solid ground soon afterwards, having had an equally brilliant time, with nowhere near the same amount of panicking.
Here is our journey:
I genuinely don’t think I have ever been so anxious and fearful about a single event. That may sound silly to someone for whom this would not be a big deal at all. But for me – the worrier, the over-analyser – this was such a major hurdle to overcome. The negative expectations of things we fear are rarely reality when they actually happen, and for someone like me it is so important to prove to yourself that this is the case.
I am unashamedly proud of myself for doing it. My first words when that parachute opened up was, “I DID IT!”
I faced my fear and I overcame it.
And it was awesome.