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Conquering Fear in Costa Rica

So here I am crouched on some grated metal steps gripping my daughter’s two-year-old little hand, hoping I can hold onto her until my husband reaches us – so, he can rescue her. I am paralyzed sitting on these steps, not able to move, I don’t know how it happened, but I am struck with fear and stuck humiliated and defeated.

We were visiting the Grand Canyon for a lovely family break. Earlier in the day a man at the local diner where we had breakfast suggested that we seek out this amazing view from a fire lookout near the canyon. Eager for a breathtaking view, we take off in our Jeep. Through the woods along dirt roads and using the chicken-scratch directions from the man at the diner, we find it. A little clearing with a small covered platform towering atop several flights of stairs.

Now, I have a fear of heights, I always have. But I also, try to charge ahead. I ride ferris wheels, rock climb and stand at the top of the Empire State building. I just don’t look down. My 6-year old son is eager to get to the top and my daughter wants to join in the fun, so I am full of parental fuel. Up we go. After a few steps, my son and husband are in race to the top. My daughter is a little less steady on her feet, so we lag behind. Carefully taking one step at a time, the metal steps, are grated for traction, and this makes them look like fierce metal teeth ready to bite into my daughter’s soft little knees. I am watching every step. Then, about four flights up, my heart starts to race, I start to sweat, I feel a little woozy and now I have to sit down.

I knew as soon as I sat down, I was frozen. I was frightened and I couldn’t tell why, I don’t know where it came from, it just enveloped me and I’m sitting here on these steps with my daughter trying to focus on something around me, trying to figure out why I am sitting down.

I have no idea what’s happening.

I just know I can’t stand up.

I can’t move.

I am stuck here and so here I am holding her hand trying to convince her wait, for my husband come get her. He runs down the steps. He asks if I’m okay. “No I’m fine, just take her, I just can’t”, I sit there defeated by some silly steps.

Since this episode, I my fear of heights has doubled. I am not only afraid of looking down from tall places, but as I approach them, the fear of another paralyzing panic returns.

Flash forward, my two kids are 11 and 16 and we are in Costa Rica. Everyone had selected one activity that they really wanted to do; I wanted to see the Sky Blue River, my daughter wanted to go horseback riding on the beach and my son wanted to go ziplining.

In the first few days, we managed to schedule a ride on horseback along the black beach of Cahuita and then later we hiked Tenorio National Park to see the Sky Blue River. We were having a blast. The day before we were to zipline, we drove up to Monteverde Cloud Forest, we checked into our tented room for the night. It was like living in the trees. I could have stayed there for days. But we were only there for the night, so we could get up early for the zipline adventure.

The next morning after an early breakfast, we wandered to a wooden shack perched next to a river. Here, there were signs posted for the ziplining company where we had booked our nine am tour. We were in the right place, but no one was around.

“Maybe we got the day wrong” I said, checking my phone for the reservation information.

My son turned to me, disappointed, “Really, mom?”

“Nope,” I said, “this is it. I wonder where they are.”

Then, about five minutes after nine, a young couple comes down the hill from their breakfast to join us in the wait. So, yep, we were in the right place. Then another family joins us – we are all awaiting. About ten minutes later, up drives an open-air bus. Well, the bus had the top cut off, so it looked like a large jeep. Three young men and a young woman jump down and greet us.

Oh, yeah, we are in the right place.

My daughter had not been thrilled about the idea of zinging through the trees at breath-taking heights – she shares my fear of heights.

“Maybe I’ll stay here,” she says.

“No, honey, let’s give it a try. It might be fun” I say.

You see, I am the mom, and my son wants to do this, so I am trying to put on a brave face. My daughter is not even trying – she’s not moving very fast, she’s not excited about any of it. But she’s competitive and she won’t show her fear. When the young men come by to help us into our harnesses and fit us with helmets, she flashes me a look that says, “really, we need helmets?”

We are fitted with harnesses that strap around your waist and up through your crotch. They are adjusting them to ensure we are snuggly strapped in. This should give us comfort, but I can see on my daughter’s face, that she is feeling what I am…if we need all this safety gear, where are we going?

You see, we are at the bottom of a small incline, next to a river. There doesn’t seem to be any “high” places nearby.

After the whole crew of us is properly fitted with helmets and harnesses. We hop into the jeep-bus and we are off. Over the river and up into the jungle. As we drive along the hot dusty road, my son is in the front chatting it up with one of the guides. He’s eating this up. My daughter and I are sitting side-by-side a few seats back, not saying a word.

Soon we get to a clearing, where the bus can park. And we pour out onto the dirt. Here we get a little lesson on watching out of giant fire ants. Our guide walks us over to a large ant hill and shows us the terrifying creatures. They are the size of crickets and appear to be wearing some sort of brick colored armor. We are told, to steer clear of these ants. Another look of disbelief from my daughter. Where on earth am I taking her?

After our lesson on fire ants we march on. It seems like we are just walking through a small portion of the forest, and I am now worried that we have a long hike ahead of us, My daughter and I are walking near the end of the group. Maybe because I am older than everyone else on this excursion, and I am trying to conserve fuel or maybe because I really don’t want to do this.

We come to a stop, again, there is a little clearing in the vegetation, obviously this is where others have stopped.

As we make our way up to the group, we see that there is a series of steel cables tied to a large tree. Our guide is explaining the process of taking your first “zip”. We get a little history of ziplining and then our safety lesson. Don’t let go, you’ll spin. And what to do if you get stuck in the middle. Shit, you can get stuck in the middle, another glare from my daughter. I am not excited about this – but I am sure she will back out and then I can stay back with her. I muster up my brave face and smile reassuring her, saying, “it will be fine” with a nod.

Then one of the guides, Jorge, clips his harness in, and zips on over to the next platform. The platform is a small wooden ledge built around a tree, several stories up and about 300 feet away. We are standing at a ledge, that drops off, to where I don’t know. The ground is not visible. All you see is green. The forest canopy is blocking the view of the ground. You would think this would make it better. I’m not sure that it does.

As Jorge reaches the other platform, he unclips from the line and clips himself to the tree. And we’re ready to go! They ask for volunteers, and I know I DON’T want to go first. And mamma bear, doesn’t want her little ones going first either…so we let the young couple go. And then my son steps up, to take his turn.

I take a deep breath as I watch him get clipped into the line, they remind him of the safety rules, I’m sure I don’t breathe until he gets to the other side. Jorge catches him, and he’s safe. Or so it appears. He is now standing on the small ledge hanging from this towering tree.

Now decisions have to be made. I am standing between my babies. The one next to me is still holding her breath with the classic teenager annoyed face and other perched on a ledge – so far out of reach, it might as well be on the moon.

I have to decide in a split second, do I go first, to show my daughter it is going to be fine, or do I encourage her to go, so she isn’t left standing on this hill alone. I choose the later, thinking it would be easier for her. Thinking if she doesn’t go, I will need to stay with her. Yeah, I’ll need to stay with her.

“Ok, honey, your turn.”

She looks at me, and to my surprise, says, “ok.”

She takes a couple of steps forward to get her harness clipped in.

Again, I’m not breathing. I was sure she would put up a stink and say, no way. But there she is, standing bravely at the ledge, helmet on, listening attentively to the safety guidelines. And without a smile, without a pause, they push her out into the jungle –

There is a scream, but just a startled scream. She’s fine. And within a few seconds she’s landing on the moon, or the tree ledge and standing there with her brother. Now, despite my own fears, I can’t stay here. I have to get over there, that’s where my kids are…so I have to go. Shit.

I step up to the ledge and ask for a complete re-cap on the guidelines. My kids are cheering me on from the moon, but I don’t hear them, I am using all of my energy and focus to hear and understand what to do if I get stuck and doing everything I can NOT to look down.


I am sent flying over the trees. I squeeze my eyes close, and one second later I open them, remembering that I have to watch for Jorge on the other side so I don’t kick him and knock him off the ledge when he tries go grab me and pull me to the safety of the tiny wooden platform.

In seconds, we are all together again, perched on a wooden ledge several feet in the air, in the forest jungle of Costa Rica. There are 15 more of these to go! Each zip gets easier and about the third one in, I finally get brave enough to look down. It was beautiful! The lush green forest beneath us as we zipped from tree to tree and the final zip was over the river, back to the shack where we started.

No one was attacked by fire ants, everyone landed safely on each tree perch and we ended on the riverbank, hearts racing. Quite an adventure, I found out how brave my kids were and how brave I can be. I am still afraid of heights, and equally afraid of another panic attack, but I also found out that my fear doesn’t get to win every time.

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