Acrophobia (The Fear Of Heights) Is No F*cking Joke

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
Leslie-Ann Smith / EyeEm / Getty

My kids eagerly bounded toward the giant glass doors, and as I watched them crane their heads toward the sky to catch a glimpse of the top of the building, my heart began to race. I felt a familiar pang of dread, and I wiped my now sweaty palms on my shorts. Though the day was hot and the humidity of Chicago hung close around my skin, I shivered.

My feet were still firmly planted on terra firma, and yet, my panic level was slowly and steadily rising.

As my eyes crawled slowly up toward the zenith of the tallest building in the country, I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and took a deep breath.

“Thousands of people go to the top every day,” I told myself. “You probably won’t die. Probably.”

I willed myself to scrounge up some courage and feign the same excitement my kids were displaying.

And yet, the thought of riding an elevator to the 103rd floor of Chicago’s famed Willis Tower (the Sears Tower, if you are a true Chicagoan) made me physically ill. As a person with acrophobia, the fear of heights, I much prefer the views I can see with my feet on the ground rather than panoramic views from 1,300 feet in the sky.

But my kids were impatient and relentless in their desire to see the world from so far up.

“Mom! They have a see-through ledge you can stand on! Can we do that, too?”

Gulp. Sure?

I paid for our tickets and slowly ambled toward the elevators with the other visitors. As we waited for our turn to get on the elevator that would take me to my personal version of hell, I tried to resist the urge to announce that we were getting the hell out of there, because what reasonable person would step on the edge of a 1,300 foot building?

When the doors opened and I caught my first glimpse of the view unfolding in front of me, I took a swift breath in and tried to calm down. I felt my ass cheeks tighten, my fists clench, and pure dread sweep across my chest. Though I could rationally see that the 103rd floor was perfectly safe and that the other visitors were delighting in the majesty of Lake Michigan’s splendor, my body reacted as if I was in immediate danger.

Unless you are a fucking bird, no human needs to be higher than 3 feet off the ground, thank you very much. And even that’s pushing it.

I spent most of our visit deep breathing, practicing mindfulness, and praying to God that I wasn’t going to fall to my death. And my ass cheeks stayed clenched. Because safety comes in the form of tight glutes.

And while yes, I now have a souvenir photo of me cheating death on the Ledge, the truth behind this photo is that I backed into the space, knelt down while holding eye contact with my daughter, and demanded through clenched teeth that my son take the picture immediately. Smoke and mirrors.

Christine Burke

Living with acrophobia is no fucking joke, people.

While all humans are born with the innate fear of falling, because let’s face it, most humans will innately stay away from an edge that will result in a fall, people with acrophobia can have debilitating panic attacks at the mere thought of being in a heightened spot. And our fears aren’t just limited to standing at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or on top of the Eiffel Tower either. People with acrophobia suffer just as greatly at the thought of climbing ladders, high escalators, or nosebleed seats in stadiums.

Acrophobia affects about 7% of the U.S. population, roughly about 22 million people. While acrophobia tends to affect women more than men, it’s one of the most commonly recognized social phobias.

Basically, people with acrophobia can become paralyzed with fear even a few feet off the ground.

So, for those of you who think it’s hilarious to taunt a person afraid of heights by pretending to fall off an edge or ladder, you can just stop that shit immediately. Making fun of a someone’s very real panic only serves to make you look like a douchecanoe. Full stop.

Common symptoms of acrophobia include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea, and overall feelings of dread. When the symptoms set in, the panic that a person with acrophobia feels can be so debilitating that they are unable to remove themselves safely from a high place.

My most recent bout with acrophobia occurred while hiking with my husband in Utah. Because the scenery in Utah is awe-inspiring, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone while out on the trails because I was transfixed by the sweeping views of canyons and rock formations. I practiced my deep breathing techniques and recognized the triggers my body sent when I felt fear, and for the most part, was able to manage my anxiety.

Christine Burke

Until I couldn’t.

On a particularly treacherous stretch of trail, I felt a full-on gripping sense of panic. My body just simply stopped moving. My eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t breathe, I started shaking, and as the panic gave way to a full-blown anxiety attack, I started wildly looking for a way to hold on to the rocks next to me.

My panic was putting me in actual danger of falling off the trail — a trail with a 1,000-foot drop-off no less.

My husband, a few yards ahead, turned around and immediately started back to help.

I started to cry in earnest, and my husband gingerly eased his way out on to the trail and grabbed my hand to ground me. The feel of his hand, the sound of his voice, and the nearness of his presence was enough to lower my anxiety to where I could take a few steps to a wider path of trail. I felt terror with every step and didn’t take a deep breath until we were back on solid ground.

Acrophobia is exhausting.

When I was able to get my bearings (read: actually make my limbs move again), we started the slow process of heading back down the trail, without the souvenir selfie this time.

Living with acrophobia means sometimes not getting to the top of a mountain. Or a ladder.

And that’s okay.

There’s something to be said about knowing your limits.

And once you’ve seen one panoramic view, you’ve seen them all, right?

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