Jumping off a cliff was my biggest fear—so I decided to face it

The knee-high knit socks and rubbery shoes were anything but a fashionista’s dream. My flip flops would be useless in the rushing water, the tour guide noted, pointing down at my bedazzled sandals. The sneakers they provided me, although an eyesore to any other vacationer, would allow me to grip slippery rocks and sharp cliff overhangs. The tall socks prevented minor cuts and scrapes. I doubted this wisdom but was in no position to argue. I quickly handed a couple of dollar bills into a young boy’s hands as he went off to find me a helmet. Money well spent, a fellow jumper whispered to me. A response wasn’t necessary, my nervous smile was all he needed to sense my agreement. Peeling off my over-sized sweatshirt and shimmying into an already-wet life jacket, I calmly tried to recount the reasons I had signed up for cliff jumping in the first place. My distant memories of an eight-year-old self barreling off a diving board suddenly seemed so juvenile. Although my spirit was adventurous, I did have a strong inclination towards avoiding injury. As I stared up at the rope threaded along a narrow cliff path, avoiding injury now seemed unlikely.

It was a fear I had no desire to conquer. I kept a safe distant from the edge and willingly sacrificed a better view. Protecting myself trumped the excitement of the unknown. Until I felt choked by my very own safety net. I was in fear of something that had never even occurred, a potential disaster that cease to exist beyond the realm of my own damaging creative mind.

Although there was a strong language barrier, the cliff jumping guides made humorous comments to the naïve guests who had been coerced into a day of undeniable exhilaration. Or fear. Perhaps more the latter. They used long palm leaves to tickle our ears and told tales of aggressive monkeys and alligators that awaited us at the top of the waterfalls. At this point, I would have rather been kidnapped by an overzealous monkey than plunge 25 ft into the chilly waters. The disruptive bird calls and rustling branches surrounding us only further clouded my mind and were a subpar distraction to my inevitable fate.

As the trees began to blur together and we neared the summit, the trail became less and less defined. Despite being surrounded by ten other eager jumpers, I experienced sensations of solitude being enclosed by nature in its rawest form. My breath slowed and I suddenly felt as though the sound of our bodies hitting the water would be the only disturbance to this natural rhythm. Despite being here together, jumping was the most independent of all activities. No buddy system was going to help you once mid-air. Falling is an act of solitude, no matter how much you want to bring someone along.

I clung to the interlaced twine as I dangled on the edge of the cliff. I watched those before me as they leapt off the rocks while I counted the seconds until I heard them make contact with the water below. Two seconds. Three seconds. Four…seriously? My face was covered in a mix of dirt, sweat and maybe even a tear or two. I replayed their instructions again and again like an old movie reel that gets stuck right before the ending, right before the final scene. Toes together, legs out straight, hold your breath before you hit the water. And then, breath. The directions suddenly became overwhelming and unclear. I took a step back, as if buying time would somehow make this easier. I took one final exhale and felt my feet leave solid ground. My heart raced double time as I flew past branches and vines. I toyed back and forth with the fleeting emotions of regretting, then embracing, the fall. Suddenly, it was quiet. I had abandoned all instructions to swim upwards once submerged and felt my body gradually rise back towards the surface on its own. It was a mixed sensation, adrenaline pumping, but a calmness washing over me. I drifted towards the edge of the narrow pool.

As I pulled myself out over the edge of the water that now flooded over the river banks, I smiled up at the guide. Shoes clinging to the slipper rocks, I tightened my helmet strap and eagerly climbed toward the next waterfall.

I carried that moment with me moving forward. There were no pictures, no videos to replay. In a world where one’s validity is doubted if it isn’t marked on some form of social media, my newfound freedom was reassurance that this was something I needed to prove to myself, and myself alone, that I was capable of, no likes required. It was in that moment, free falling, I realized that a passive, yet safe, journey was not enough to fulfill me, to suck all that there was out of life. I needed to celebrate and address the very things that held me back to truly be the adventurer I so dreamed of. Traveling around the world to jump off mountains was not simply a means to see more. Traveling was the avenue I chose to break down my own demons and learn how to approach all aspects of life with such ferocity. Near, or far.

After all, it wasn’t the height itself I had been so afraid of. It wasn’t dangling on top of a cliff edge, or any potential moment. It was the falling. The act of letting go when I had so cautiously clung onto my entire life. The pushing away rather than the hanging on. Whether that meant plunging through the air into the water below, or any other sense of the word. The courage of one would equate to the courage of another. That falling isn’t necessary from one place to another, but into another person, into unfound territory, into a new life direction.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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