On vertigo

Vertigo is a strange unbalanced sensation that makes you want to throw up. Climbing around spooky old Spanish castles and cathedrals, I’ve had my share of strange experiences, looking down from high stone keeps and creepy pigeon-infested bell towers, climbing weird spiral staircases, and crossing flimsy medieval catwalks. I didn’t understand poor Jimmy Stewart until I looked over the wall and into the moat from atop the main keep of the castle in Segovia–straight down almost two hundred feet. My palms get sweaty, my neck gets goosebumps, and something odd happens to my stomach. It’s not so much I’m afraid of heights, but I also hate walking on transparent floors which you can see through. I don’t mind flying, proof of which are my more than seventy trips to Europe in thirty years. Yet, looking over the edge from some high-up place–a rocky, mountain path with no railing, a glass elevator, a very high suspension bridge. Vertigo is more about how your brain is trying to deal with the imminent danger it seems to be perceiving. It’s almost as if your body is bailing out at the worst possible moment, just when you need strong legs and a clear head, both things seems fail. Seeing birds fly below your horizontal line of sight is unsettling and a little nerve-racking. I can’t watch high wire acts or trapeze artists, and rock climbers give me the heebie-jeebies. I have no idea why people try to climb vertical walls using only their hands and feet. Although I drive over freeway fly-overs, the bay bridge in Tampa gives me second thoughts. I once drove over it by accident. Sky-scrapers don’t give me second thoughts, but I won’t look down a stairwell from the twenty-seventh floor. Heights don’t paralyze me, don’t leave me speechless, but they leave me thinking. As long as I don’t have to look down into the abyss of empty space in front or below me, I am very happy with being up high. Vertigo, however, always catches me by surprise, robbing me of my courage. I know it’s totally irrational, but rationality has nothing to do with it. So don’t ask me to skydive, bungee jump off a bridge, repel down the side of building, or ride a scary roller-coaster that turns its victims upside-down. Perhaps my sense of self-preservation is too great for high-risk behaviors or dangerous hobbies. Vertigo is a physiological response, however, which is very real regardless of what provokes it. As a child I never liked the slides in parks, but I didn’t mind climbing the rope up to the top of the gymnasium, touching the iron ring on the ceiling, and coming back down, even though that climb was forty or fifty feet. Yet, looking off of a balcony into all that empty space between me and the floor makes me sweat. I suppose that rock climbers and hang gliders who have no fear of heights, no vertigo, won’t understand this strange feeling of utter helplessness and blind numbing fear. Yet, the vertigo that Jimmy Stewart feels in Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller about dopplegangers and simulacra is very real, paralyzing, strange. So I avoid scaffolding, catwalks, multi-floored stairwells, glass elevators, transparent floors, high places with low railings, scary theme park rides, balconies, high suspension bridges. I just don’t know how the birds do it–having wings helps I assume.