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Confronting My Fear Of Heights

Confronting My Fear Of Heights

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.

Note: Climbing onto random high off the ground things with no safety net is dangerous. Please exercise the utmost caution while doing so. I am not responsible for any injuries incurred after reading this article — as oxymoronic as it may sound, please use your best judgment when doing dumb shit.

I had nothing to hold on to.

Above me, the sky was a bright blue that perfectly contrasted with my yellow dress. Below me, my partner/photographer [1] knelt with the camera facing up at me. If everything went as planned, I would get a gorgeous shot of myself standing against endless sky, with two elegant construction cranes in the background. If I were to suddenly lose my balance, I would come crashing down, and —

I gulped. That was the last thing I wanted to come to mind while I was up here.

It was a Sunday afternoon. I was at MacArthur Station in Oakland, California, sitting on top of a narrow metal rectangle that was about 5’6” high and 1’6” wide. In order to get the shot I wanted, I needed to stand up and turn so that I was facing the other station platform.

Essentially, I would be standing on top of someone about my height, with nowhere for my feet to go if I were to suddenly lose my balance.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

My fear of heights, among other things

I would say that I have a normal fear of heights. That is, I have absolutely no problem with rooftop bars or roller coasters or anything where I know I’m fairly protected from uncertain death. I’m a little more nervous about climbing stuff (hello, random California rock formations) where all I have is the thing I’m holding onto, and I’m extra nervous when I have to stand on something high up and not have anything to save me in case I were to mess up.

“Trust your body!” my partner called up to me. “You’ve been walking and balancing for twenty-two years. All you have to do is stand up and turn.”

Easy for you to say, I wanted to retort. My boyfriend does circus, as in that form of entertainment that more often than not requires one to do a lot of complex, adrenaline-inducing shit from very high up. I’ve seen him do handstands on the (very narrow) ear of a bunny statue that was eleven feet in the air. Stand up and turn, my ass!

He had a point, though. Slowly, shakily, I forced myself to stand …

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

… and then I realized what I was doing, and that gravity was a thing, and quickly lowered myself back down, desperately ignoring the pounding of my heart and the cold panic that had begun spreading through my arms.

Frustration bubbled up from the pit of my stomach. What the fuck, Mimi? I thought.

You see, this was actually my second time up on this rectangle. I had tried earlier, totally chickened out, and had dutifully gone onto the train when it pulled up at the platform. And then I’d been sitting in the train, looking forlornly at the thing I was supposed to have stood on, horribly disappointed that this was the one thing I couldn’t will myself to do.

Obviously I couldn’t let myself get away with that, so I’d turned to my partner and told him that I intended to try doing the damn thing again, even if it meant missing the train we were currently on, because it was a Sunday afternoon and it wasn’t like we had anywhere pressing to be. [2]

Forcing myself to “the point of no return”

So now I was back up here, for the second goddamn time, having purposefully missed my train. The next one was coming in thirteen minutes, so it really was now or never.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

You may be reading this and being all like, “what the hell? This asshole is willing to miss a train and risk a freak accident, all for a fucking picture?”

At this point, it was no longer about the fucking picture. Shot or no shot, I was going to stand up there, because I had run into this nasty scared feeling before, and I knew that if I could make myself do this, I would not only begin to get over my fear of heights, but that I’d automatically become a lot braver when it came to other pursuits. This nervous-in-a-cold-sweat feeling was the same one I got whenever I was about to do something big, something that mattered.

I was forcing myself to a point of no return — as in, here I was, on the thing, with nothing to hold onto and scared out of my mind. The train was coming in a few minutes. I had until then to either get my shit together and stand up, or to declare to myself that I was not ready for this challenge and live with all the psychological consequences of giving up. If I was going to act, I had to act now.

Fuck my love of those stupid self-improvement books and double-fuck my need to take action and actually apply that shit, I thought. Then I grinned. But also, thank the powers that be that I’m not satisfied being content and secure. You know how many cool things I could do if I weren’t afraid of heights? I want to be totally free from this mental barrier that I’ve put on myself.

I took a deep breath. ICANDOTHISICANDOTHISICANDOTHIS, I chanted in my head, so loud that it drowned out the no i can’t do this, i’m scaaaared’s tiny, annoying whine.

I’m gonna fucking do this!

I squatted down against the side of the rectangle. I was not about to fail a third time.


A calmness washed over me, starting from the middle of my chest and spreading outward.

My heart stopped pounding so hard.

My breathing got lighter.

Slowly, I lifted myself into the standing position.

“All you have to do is turn!” my boyfriend called.


I turned.

That was it.

I turned, and all of a sudden I was standing on top of that thing, the wind gently blowing through my hair, looking at a vast expanse of sky that was bluer than I had ever seen it before.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

I felt like I could reach out and touch it. And, for the first time, I really truly understood what it felt like to get over something that had been holding me back forever.

I didn’t need something to hold onto. My balance was solid — it really was about just trusting my body and letting it do its thing. I’d been walking in heels and on my tiptoes for years; of course being able to stand without falling was something I instinctively knew how to do. Everything had been in my head the entire time.

Wearing away the resistance

Of course, right after that I snapped out of it and realized that, holy shit, I was standing on a high-up narrow little thingy that I was pretty sure no one was supposed to stand on, and all of a sudden my heart started pounding really fast again. I quickly lowered myself down and got onto solid ground as quickly as possible.

So, obviously, I didn’t entirely get rid of the fear (nor do I really want to — rational fear is there for a reason!). But I do know that, if I had to stand on a tall, narrow surface again, I would be able to. I may still be scared, but I’d be a lot less scared than I was the first time I tried it, and I’ll be a little less scared the time after that, and so on until I’m comfortable standing on tall things. [3]

“That was really cool,” my partner said to me as we sat on the train later. “Seeing someone get over their fear like that? I really enjoyed it.”

I thought of all the emotions I’d experienced in the past thirty minutes — hesitation, reluctance, plain old fear, frustration, anger, resolve, triumph, exhilaration.

“I enjoyed it too,” I replied. “Let’s do that again sometime.” ♚


[1] Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve given up trying to position my tripod Christopher just right and have relied on the iPhone-camera-button-pressing skills of others, most notably the person I am dating. I set up the shot and he taps the little circle when I’m in position, and then we switch. How’s that for a blogger cliche?

[2] For full disclosure, my boyfriend and I take photos of each other, and we’re both super extra when it comes to getting the perfect shot. After all, life is short and the opportunity for that picture may never arise again! I am fully aware of the fact that I take “did it for the ‘gram” to … extremes, and I’m grateful every day for a partner who does the exact same thing.

[3] This doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop being careful! Climbing onto things (especially things that aren’t meant to hold people) is totally dangerous and, while I can’t stop you from trying it at home, I will remind you to please be careful when doing stuff like this.

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved.

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