Not poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine me to that sweet sleep which I owedst before I said I’d abseil off the church tower. That final week before the event saw a lot of small-hours reflecting.

Some of my wilder imaginings had eased a little. The primary fantasy had been connected to a severe, persistent, boarding-school-engendered case of body dysmorphia. In this fantasy, Person 1 of the two-man team running the abseil on the day would take one look at me, pick up his loudhailer—because for the fantasy to be its most nightmarish, he and his colleague would be at some distance from each other, say, a sports’ field length away; which field would, of course, be packed with spectators—pick up his loudhailer and broadcast to Person 2, ‘Mike, we’re going to need The Big Harness for this one’. Now, thanks to the practice with Andy, I could grasp the fact that that wouldn’t happen. Still, the fear remained.

For a few weeks after the climbing wall trip I‘d been puzzled by a strange pain in my fingers, working out, at last, that I’d held on so tightly to the rope that, like Ken, I now came with Real Gripping Hands. In fact, you don’t have to hold yourself on to the rope at all—the carabiner does that for you—but however much I knew that intellectually it was hard to feel it. I’d learned, though, that there would be a safety rope as well as the actual rope I was abseiling on, so that if I froze with fear I wouldn’t forever be left dangling off the church tower, alternately bleating and weeing myself with stress; nor would Person 1 have to cut the rope and let me plunge to my doom. No: if the worst came to the worst I could be safely lowered back down to the ground. Phew. That wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than the alternatives.

But despite all these reassuring thoughts and experiences, still, I was sleepless quite a lot. Imagining the moment of leaning back raised my heart rate, as did the fact that the church tower was higher than the drops I’d done before. But eventually I worked out that the other thing troubling me deeply was that there would be people watching. Various lovely, kind people, who I know socially, and through work, and choir, and all sorts of places, had—as well as sponsoring me—asked if I’d like them to come and watch. NO! had been my instant, reflex response. Richard was the person I’d asked to come and support me, and apart from him, I didn’t want anyone there.

Once I’d realised all this, terror ballooned in me, at once new and very old: it felt huge and instant and un-rewindable, like an airbag that’s been activated or a lifejacket which can’t be put back into its pack. Deeply locked into my sense of the world (again, thanks to boarding school) was the belief—no, knowledge—that if I attempted something challenging, physical and new, in public, it could only lead to humiliation, mockery and shame. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t put all this together in time to get myself out of this. But I didn’t want to let Izzy down; and besides, I was in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. Bit disturbing, though, to find my mind so full of quotations from the tragedies…

It was a very long week, but I woke on Sunday with a strange sense of calm. I had messages from Lem in Japan, a friend in Bangladesh, texts from many friends nearer to home. I felt safe and upheld in Meeting, and glad when Richard arrived, and we could set off together. When I arrived in Bowness, Eleanor was reading a book at the kitchen table, and Izzy was playing with the dog: both, in other words, seemed relaxed and everyday, and generally not to be having anything like the same kind of experience as I was. James (their Dad, and Rector of the church) walked into the kitchen. ‘Hello Richard!’ I said to him, brightly. ‘Bit nervous?’ he said. Just a little, James, just a little.

We made our way down to the church where kindly parishioners were laying out a sumptuous afternoon tea, and spectators were beginning to gather. There was what felt like an awfully long time of hanging about, during which one severely empathy-deficient person told me that ‘it wasn’t that high, really’. Privately congratulating myself on not decking them, I endured the feeling of impending trial that you have before an exam.

And then, at last, it was time. I went up the narrow spiral stone staircase in the belltower, arriving in the bellringing room where James did a magnificent job of distracting me by chatting about Sayers’ The Nine Taylors, the workings of the clock and so on. (I have no idea what he told me.) Then Johann from RiverDeepMountainHigh arrived to get me geared up. Harnessed and helmeted, I was clipped on to a rope while I made the quite-stressful-in-itself trip up a series of ladders, at the top of which I emerged out onto an extremely narrow strip of roof, between where the sloping bit came down on my right and the crenellated top of the building came up to about waist height on my left. By this stage I was pretty much incapable of thought, or indeed of understanding any instructions. Johann, as Andy had been, was patience itself, repeating himself—now put your hand under that rope. No, under it. Under, not over—and showing quite how much experience he had of dealing with semi-paralysed newbie abseilers. Then he explained that because of the crenellations, and a water spout, and the position of the clock in the tower, it wasn’t quite straightforward—and that because I was going first, we were going to have to work out how to do the actual getting off the top bit.

Oh.

Apparently this was the worst bit to watch, as I first straddled the edge of the wall, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to do it like that, so went back in, then turned round and got up on my knees, backwards, on the edge of the wall.*** This was so painful that it helped me make the next (and most difficult) move, that is, leaning out into space far enough so that I could get my feet onto the wall. And yes, as everyone had said, once that was done, the worst was over; and I felt hugely en-couraged (ah, so that’s what that word means!) by the applause and cheering from spectators below. After that, I just did what Andy had taught me, and before I knew it I was down at the bottom where Richard—who had been primed—was there to hide me in a hug so that I could sob, in relative privacy, the huge and necessary tears I knew would need to come out.

It’s all a bit of a blur after that, but I know I was full of respect for how Eleanor and Iz did, and full of the delicious lemon drizzle cake I’d requested as a reward; full of gratitude and wonder at the warmth I felt from the people there and those who’d already helped me; and full of delight at how much money we made (current total c. £1,500, but do feel free to donate; see below).**** Most of all, though, I was full of relief, the true size and nature of which I only really understood afterwards, when I looked at the pictures.

Because—and this is breaks me every time I think it, let alone write it—when I look at the pictures, what I see—

What I see—

What I see is not what I dread seeing. I don’t see a fat person on a rope. Instead I see someone brave. Someone who is good-enough. Someone who dared to do something she was terrified of, and who was clapped, cheered and affirmed for it. With help, I challenged over three decades’ worth of a particular kind of self-loathing and an old, limiting set of beliefs about the world. I feel so proud of myself. I’ve no idea how long it’ll take me to come to the end of these precious tears—for the fear and shame I’ve felt for so long, and the joy and wonder of letting all that go.

*For more on the wonder of healing, have a look here.

**To read the poem from which this post’s title is taken, have a look here.

***Thanks to James, you can watch the whole thing here.

****To donate to Izzy’s fund, click here.

… and if you’ve enjoyed this post, I’d love it if you’d like it, share it and spread the word about what the afternoon knows. Thanks!

21 Comments on thing 21: ‘come to the edge’: abseiling, part (ii)

  1. Wow, Lucy, I felt quite breathless reading this. What an incredible feat – and not just tackling a classic fear of heights, or (for me) a fear of being trapped – I would struggle with the roping up and harnesses – you actually did it in the face of all that old pain and damage. You deserve to feel proud of yourself.
    “En-couraged” – thanks for that too!

    • Louise, thank you so much for coming along with me on my trip. Your comments, and time, and – yes! – more en-couragement are really precious. Sending you a beam of appreciation xx

  2. Oh Lucy I have tears streaming down my face after reading both posts and watching the video. I know who anxious you were about doing this and you should be so proud of your achievement. I’ve also overcome this particular fear as I abseiled a couple of times in my late teens so I know from personal experience how much courage it takes to lean back over the edge. Your writing bought all the memories flooding back and I remembered thinking that the climb up was almost as bad as the abseil down! Know matter what life throws at you in the future you have proof that you CAN overcome your fears and that should give you heaps of en-couragement. I adore your honesty my friend! xx PS I really shouldn’t be writing this after my lunchtime wine as I’ve come over all emotional

    • My turn to be tearful (again!!). Friend Nicci, thank you so much- I love your after-lunchtime-wine writing (!) and it really ‘reaches’ me. I feel moved, delighted, touched that what I wrote could touch you. Thank you for letting me know that it did. I was pretty scared about posting this, but already – like the abseil itself – it feels so worthwhile xx grateful hugs and beams to you, too, across the miles.

      • My pleasure Lucy. As for your writing, it does “touch me”. We love your contributions to the magazine: always well written, quirky and thought provoking. Such a great combination. Thanks for the hugs and beams which arrived safely and were appreciated xx

  3. Even though I had seen it safely done, this piece made me hold my breath – and also chuckle. Also I *love* ‘on doing something different’ both for its substance, and for its form.

    • James. Dear James. Thank you, for the comment, and for the Thing itself xx I also am pretty chuffed with ‘on doing something different’. It was one of those one which came out pretty much as it is now, effortless and clear, right from the outset. Would that they were all like that! xx

  4. Lucy, Your feat has reached me in Canada! I admire your courage: Thing 21 is no small thing and what a joy to have been able to face down your fears and accomplish it, and to discover how strong the safety net of your friends and supporters really is.

    Here’s a poem for all of us who doubt ourselves and struggle to “let go” of the rope. Perhaps an idea at the end for another Thing?

    (For the sake of space on this page, I’ve moved the poem to the anthology. it can be found here.)

    • Well, I haven’t got as far as dancing naked on a grave, but ‘drop[ping] into a meadow’ – ie skydiving – is definitely something I’d like to do! Thank you for reading, for getting it, and for the lovely poem. For the sake of space on the page I’d like to move it into the anthology section, so I could do with the author’s name – is it one of yours? May I include it? x

      • Yes, “Let go” is one of mine and you are welcome to put it in the anthology section.

        Looking forward to reading about your next adventure, brave Lucy.

        • thank you, Elizabeth. Your poem is safely installed in the what the afternoon knows anthology. And I’ll see you next time!

  5. What a great read – edge of the seat (or indeed tower) stuff! A fantastic achievement Lucy. I could almost feel the vertigo. May the healing continue x

  6. Wow, Lucy, just wow on so many levels! It sounds scary and yet you were able to do it and conquer your fears. To slide from such a tall tower must have been terrifying and I’m not sure I would be able to do the same, so, kudos to you! And I hear you about the self-consciousness. My husband tells me I am so critical of my body, my weight and that I should stop it. I wish it were that easy so I agree with you that it’s all a healing PROCESS. It may be a long journey for us, but I’m sure it will be worth at least giving it a shot, right? Thanks for sharing this!

    • Joy, it really is worth it. This has taken me a long way along in my healing, and was so worth while. And I value your thanks for sharing it, too, because it was quite scary to do so (and therefore a part of the whole process). No pain no gain definitely has some truth in it!

  7. Wow Lucy, I’m full of admiration. Your description of the preparation and actual event was riveting and moving. (Yes, I cried.) The video shows how difficult it was technically: all those bits of ecclesiastical architecture to negotiate, as if the very act of abseiling wasn’t difficult enough. I hope this achievement boosts your self-belief, and you can carry that into other areas of your life.

    • Felicity, thank you so much for commenting. I hope it doesn’t sound perverse to say I’m delighted I made you cry. It’s so good to know that I am conveying something which touches people. And, yes, faffing about round the water spout and the edge of the building was very intense indeed. Still, I’d definitely do it again. And I never thought I’d say that! x

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