A Counselor Looks at 40
On June 23 of this year, two things happened to me that I found equally surprising: I turned 40, and I went skydiving.
To be honest, I never really thought I’d reach 40. Call it a melancholy sense of fate or chalk it up to an anxious childhood, I’m fairly bemused that I’ve attained middle age. Its been said, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage;” well, by any way of keeping score, sometimes I feel very old, indeed.
Perhaps that’s why I agreed to jump out of an airplane that day. Maybe I wanted to prove that I could still do something crazy, something spontaneous, something “young.” No doubt that played a part in my decision.
But, you know what? The real reason I went skydiving is this: I was afraid to do it.
I often tell my clients who give themselves anxiety that, sometimes, it is therapeutic to do the thing that you’re most afraid of doing, just to prove that you can do it. So, leave your door unlocked one night, get on that elevator, jump into the ocean, tell someone “no;” do it and realize that A.) you can, in fact do it and, B.) it wasn’t so terrible. Well, the Lord hates a hypocrite, so when my (younger) wife suggested skydiving in Vegas on my birthday, my instinct was to shout, “Are you nuts!?!” but instead, I took a deep breath and said, “okiguess.”
We booked the trip in advance, so for weeks I had to practice using the coping skills that I’ve spent years teaching to others. I also forced myself to tell as many family and friends as I could that we were going to do it so that I’d be too proud to back down. As the day approached, I felt myself growing more and more tense. “Remember your coping skills, Mike,” I’d often whisper to myself.
Come the day and I was steadfast, but nonetheless frightened. I visited the restroom four times before getting into the jumpsuit. The professional assigned as my tandem jumper took one look at me and could see he was going to have fun. “How are you?” I asked him. He sighed. “Well, my wife just left me and my dog just died and I’m feeling depressed. But, let’s go jump out of an airplane!”
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked him.
“Today’s my first day,” he replied…and so on; you get the point. They strapped me to this real joker (who was great! He’d actually jumped over 20,000 times) and up we went to 15,000 feet.
I thought about Band of Brothers: if they could do it while being shot at over Normandy, I can do it over the calm desert outside of Vegas. I thought of George H. W. Bush: if he could do it on his 90th birthday, I could do it 50 years younger.
But mostly, I thought of my clients who struggle with anxiety. I thought of the hundreds I’ve seen and how many times I had counseled the use of coping skills and positive self-talk to see oneself through an adversity. I thought of how I wanted to be able to tell them that I was able to do the scariest thing I could think of so A.) you can, in fact do it and, B.) it wasn’t so terrible.
Terrified into silent compliance, I numbingly followed his directions to dangle out of the plane and then Whooosh! out we tumbled.
Hurtling toward the earth at over 130 mph, I wish I could say that I thought, “The glory and majesty of God surrounds me as I float gently back to his creation,” or even “Wow! This is awesome!” but instead I thought, “Bah bah bahbah whoda jajaja bumma jumma coo-coo wha wha!”
After 60 seconds or so of free fall, he deployed the chute and we spent five minutes or so descending more slowly as he sought to point out sights and I thought about the pain that the straps were causing as they dug into my legs. He landed us as softly as if we had stepped off the curb, and I wasn’t too proud to turn and hug this complete stranger who I had trusted with my life.
Even now, as I write this in the comfort of my office, I am getting a nervous thrill at the memory of that experience. I still can’t believe that I did it.
But I did, and that is why, today, I have a story to tell, instead of the regret of the thing I wished I’d done or the frustration I’d feel at the opportunity missed.
Sometimes, you have to challenge yourself to do the thing that you’re most afraid to do. I know that it’s difficult, but I am living proof that it is possible.