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Fear is a Good Thing

18 Oct 2015

I am the parent of my friend group. In every activity, I am the stick in the mud who hands out water bottles, takes up car keys, and generally tries to keep the group from choosing life-threatening actions. The following sentence therefore might seem strangely out of character for me: I have cliff jumped for years.

Somehow this slipped through my caution-filter. I don’t mean Acapulco-style, huevos-of-steel CLIFF JUMPING- But smaller, normal person cliffs: 20, 30 feet tall. I think I was desensitized to the concept back in 6th grade during lake days with the youth group, jumping off old silos into the water below. Tiny adrenaline spikes suitable for my scrawny prepubescent body. These became the gateway plunges.

My high school years were a whirlwind of further inoculation. Freshman year I jumped 30 feet into a natural crater on a mission trip to the Bahamas. A few years later the same into a quarry near home. Cliffs at the lake, more silos, rope swings. Plunging at high speed into a body of water lost all danger. For someone terrified of small spaces, public speaking, and spiders- heights somehow managed to lose any hold over me.

Fear is crucial to human survival. A long chain of healthy terror resulted in me standing here today.

Clever readers may note that the Steffey Organism is in fact a plant cell

Things are easy to draw if you just obscure most of their body

See?  Now we both know why that cave is there.

nope.

An implied role attributed to my life is to not end that chain.

Sometime last fall, I was invited to go with a couple of close friends to jump at a place called Love Colony. It was a boring weekend at campus, and I had nothing better to do- so of course I would go! After a short drive and hike in, we got to the cliffs. We set our gear down, changed while looking up at the ledge above, and then hiked up to the top. I grabbed a nearby tree and leaned out to briefly check for rocks.

The average human brain would raise a flag at peering over the edge of a cliff at the water below. Not my brain. My brain did not bother to run calculations or posit a potential warning and suggest further thought into the scenario at hand. My brain yelled “GERONIMO” and threw the levers forward at full steam. I left the cliff with no forethought.

The main cliff at Love Colony is slightly over 50 feet high, and with a tiny bit of physics knowledge and some data of my weight and standard falling speed on earth, we arrive at roughly 40mph on impact with the lake below.

Trust me, I'm an engineer

I hit the water with a splap. I had to make up that word to convey the sound heard upon me crossing the threshold into the lake’s surface. The “spl” was the beginning of a splash, and then the “ap” was the deafening snap from my lower back.

TERROR.

In that moment, I became every horror story my mom had ever told me about idiot kids who jumped off cliffs and were paralyzed for life. I saw 50 years of being confined to a wheelchair, speaking at school rallies to warn kids about the dangers of being a moron. I could write a book; I could do a tour while confined to my rolling vegetable-mobile. Life would be different, for sure, but I could make it work. I would be the poster-child for bad decisions, and for a brief millisecond under the water- everything felt manageable.

This could work.  I still have Netflix to look forward to.

Then I surfaced, gasping for air and trying desperately to arch my back into a position not sending shards of pain rippling down my torso, while also maintaining a pretty decent grasp on not drowning. The pain brought tears to my eyes. I treaded water as I struggled to find a swimming position that didn’t feel like I had just embedded an upturned narwhal into my spine.

As I bobbed there wincing through the pain, it slowly dawned on me that I was not - in fact - paralyzed for life. The pain shooting throughout my torso was actually a wonderful sign of a functional nervous system. I would have laughed in relief, if not for the fact that every intake of air just angered the narwhal.

I managed to swim (flail in a uniform direction) back to land while assuring the rest of the group I was okay, and after crawling back up onto the rocky shoreline like a fish 2000 years over-eager for his evolutionary progression, endured the incredibly painful hike and bumpy drive back to campus where my muscle relaxants awaited.

So that would be the story of the scariest moment in my life.


Except that wasn’t it. That was point B.

I tell that entire thing, simply because I have no other way of explaining the absolute sheer terror that coursed through my body only .5 seconds prior to Point B: at Point A.

Point A, I can only assume occurred at roughly 1.35 seconds into my jump. The largest mental difference between jumping off a cliff that is 30 feet high versus one that is 55 feet high is less focused on the impact speed, and more the length of the freefall. A 30ft cliff jump lasts approximately 1.35 seconds for a 180 pound male like myself. My jump from Love Colony was 1.86 seconds.

At 1.4 seconds into my freefall, my brain decided it might be a good time to contemplate on a few things. Most notably, “Why have we not hit the water yet?”. After a brief moment of introspection, it decided it should probably check with someone else to ensure things were okay. Inner-Ear returned a positive check: Yes. We were still falling. Quite rapidly. My brain mulled over this information for a few milliseconds, concerned that something still seemed off, and decided to confirm with Sight that things were still going as planned. Sight calculated approximately a standard cliff’s worth of distance below us still remaining, and sent that information back to HQ. HQ promptly stopped responding and decided to let Fear take over the controls while it was out.

I cannot explain in any amount of words how much pure terror I experienced in that moment. The disconnect between where my brain assumed the water should be and where it actually lay 20 feet below short-circuited every bit of logical thought.

Nothing on earth will ever compare to the raw panic overload of point A. I tried writing this post back when it actually occurred- but I couldn’t bring myself to even briefly recollect the moment in order to spit out words. Even a year later, it is not fun to reminisce on that moment. Some of my worst nightmares end with me waking up in bed after that exact millisecond of too much freefall.

It is thoroughly illogical, baseless, and really should not even compare to the following instance of assumed paralysis. All I know is that when I reminisce on point B, it’s with laughter and a mixture of awe and thankfulness that I wasn’t killed. But even a flicker of recognition of point A literally makes me weak in my stomach.

I don’t cliff jump anymore. I am back to doing everything in my power to preserving the family lineage of staying well alive, hopefully for many generations of Steffey to come.

Matt Damon made this look so much easier...


*This post has been difficult to write, simply because I can’t focus on Point A for more than a few seconds without feeling absolutely sick. As it turns out, being unable to focus on a subject makes it incredibly hard to describe aforementioned subject.

         

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