How I stopped treating relationships like roller coasters

As a kid roller coasters terrified me. My older brother was no more of a fan than I, so I didn’t even have him to taunt me into attempting to ride one. Several school trips to Great Adventure ensued where my classmates either rolled their eyes at my fear or never knew about it due to my perfectly timed trips to get cotton candy or go to the restroom. For the most part I managed to make it all the way to college without ever having ridden a bona fide roller coaster. Never been upside down. Never ever-so-slowly climbed a steep incline, put my hands in the air and went shooting down the other side screaming bloody murder along with twenty strangers.

While in college, my best friend Erica was determined to change this. On a spring break trip to Disneyworld, she pleaded with me to ride the Aerosmith roller coaster at MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios). Her begging, along with the coercion of the other five girls on our trip wore me down and I finally agreed. We spent the early part of the day at a different park and took a shuttle over to MGM with the plan to eat dinner there, see one of the shows while waiting for the lines to calm down and then ride Aerosmith. Throughout all of this, I might as well have been counting down to an appendectomy. Each minute that passed twisted my stomach and tightened my chest, making it impossible to enjoy the beautiful Florida weather, the company of my friends or the caramel apple Erica had purchased to keep me quiet about statistics of people getting killed on roller coasters.

Waiting on line for the Aerosmith ride was humiliating as I watched kids a quarter my age jump up and down excitedly as we all shuffled along in tune to the Aerosmith music loudly blaring from dozens of loudspeakers above our heads. When it finally came time to step onto the ride and strap into our seats, I felt the beginnings of my very first panic attack. I turned to Erica.

“I’m having a heart attack,” I said ever-so-calmly. “I don’t think I should do this.”

She was buckling herself in and only looked at me long enough to roll her eyes and give me her “are you kidding me” stare.

“Just scream,” she advised. “Close your eyes if it gets to be too much.”

“I could die and then you’ll feel so bad that you forced me to do this.” I looked at her for a reaction. She gave me the stare again.

“You’re not going to die,” she sighed. “You’re going to be scared, scream and then when it’s over, you’ll tell me that you loved it.” I scoffed.

“Never going to happen.”

I settled back into my seat, ignored my pounding heart, my dry mouth and closed my eyes. Half a second later, we hurtled forward so fast I was too terrified to scream. I clenched my eyes shut and gripped the sides of my seat. I felt twists and turns at top speed, I became very aware of my ragged breathing but couldn’t resist a peek when I felt the ride go through an upside down loop. It was pitch black with neon lights seemingly about to fly right at my face. I could hear our friends giggling and shrieking behind us and against my will, I felt the beginning of a smile creeping across my face. This wasn’t so bad. Especially being in the dark, I had no idea what was coming so I never braced myself for drops or loops and the sensation of being upside down was not as terrifying as I had expected. Removing the anticipation factor was all I needed to relax a little and enjoy the experience.

I explain this because I recently realized that it correlates to how I approached dating for a long time. Something to be feared and avoided. My first love was with a guy who turned out to be emotionally abusive and the process of recovering from that relationship was incredibly difficult. Getting over him wasn’t even truly the hard part. Getting over how I allowed myself to be treated was the biggest obstacle. Which led to me employing my “avoid the roller coaster” tactics with quite a few guys who came along afterwards. I was consciously leaving one foot out the door with anyone who asked me out. It seemed safer. It was the same as squinching my eyes shut and clutching the arm rests when an incline appears. Or hopping off the line entirely once I got too close. I didn’t want to face or experience the heartbreak I knew could potentially be waiting for me.

For a while, dinner conversation with a new guy involved me adamantly stating that I had no interest in marriage or kids. And for a long time I wasn’t even sure if this was true. But I now know that what I was really saying was that I didn’t want to get to that serious of a point again with someone and be disappointed. Or get hurt. It was just easier to generalize it into one big pile of comments that suggested “I don’t see a long term relationship.” It felt like a way to exert control and protect myself but all I was doing was sabotaging from the outset any possible chance to develop something real. The same way that I pretended that exiting the line wasn’t out of my fear but my choice to not engage in something that didn’t interest me. It wasn’t the truth. I not only was jumping off the roller coaster line out of fear, I was wildly curious about what was inside but too scared to find out.

Essentially in both cases I was making the safe decision. Not going on the ride was avoiding all that stressful anticipation and the chance I might hate it. On dates I was just refusing to allow the possibility of again falling in love with someone.

I was afraid of making mistakes. And the feelings of regret and disappointment that could accompany it.

There seems to be some stigma attached to admitting that. To be afraid to be in love with someone again because the previous time it was a complete and utter disaster. It means admitting to a fault in judgment, but isn’t that the whole point of our relationships? Trial and error? It took years of fear before I learned that roller coasters could be exhilarating and fun. The price was making a decisions to be brave and tolerate waiting on a line for over an hour in mute terror (okay not really mute as I loudly panicked the entire time). Looking at it in retrospect, an hour of anxiety about what might happen leading to the eradication of a lifelong fear seems absolutely worth it. Something I could not have possibly learned if I had not just given it a try.

My awareness that I needed to quell my rampant desire to retain absolute control in relationships to avoid a painful outcome, although sudden, came straight from the source. I fell for someone. Hard. The excitement to feel this way again was once again tempered with the “but do we want the same things” fear and “I need to steer this in the right direction” determination.

When we discussed our exes, I found myself telling him that he was not over his last relationship and he wasn’t ready for a new one. Then I caught myself. I was doing it again. His incredulous expression and protests that he was indeed ready to the next step stopped me in my tracks. I was letting the residue of past mistakes not allow me to just let go and fall for this guy and embrace whatever could happen next. I mentally shook myself. I don’t need to pretend that I don’t want things in order to protect myself and I don’t need to project my fear onto him by claiming to know his mind. Out of habit I was seeing possible barriers to the progression of our relationship and trying to control the outcome before I could feel too much.

But what’s wrong with feeling too much? There’s no other feeling like that stomach drop freefall and when I’m not fighting against feeling it, it’s pretty amazing. I know that I want to be with a guy who will experience that with me. A guy who will also do what he can to shelter me from feeling the hurt that usually makes me want to formulate an excuse to jump off this line barreling into the dark scream-filled unknown otherwise known as falling in love.

And whatever is ahead for me and him, I have to do my best to open my eyes, ease up on the armrests, smile and enjoy the ride. I just might need a little bit of hand holding to get there.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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