“Seeing Fires Where There Aren’t Any:” How a history of cliff-side traumas ignited a new response to vertigo

I, for one, was hanging on for dear life.

Every 20 yards or so, the hair-pin-turning, cliff-cut road dipped perilously into patches of sunken pavement, evidence of recurring landslides. To one side, a sheer cliff wall; to the other, air and the freedom to plunge into it. Nary a guardrail in sight. Encountering a car around the next bend might be deadly; heaven forbid an RV.

We were in the middle of nowhere Northeastern Oregon, cutting through the Wallowa Mountains en route to an obscure vista into Hells Canyon. Far from help.

And yet, Marlene, in the driver’s seat, zipped along as one might down Portland’s Sandy Boulevard on a quiet Sunday morning. Each drop into the sunken roadway felt fast and reckless. I sat stiffly, gripping a handhold in the Jetta’s ceiling, struggling against a morbid image that had forced its way into my mind: We were bobbing and spinning off the mountainside like a runaway top.

zumwalt-rd-joseph-or-4654I thought then, inevitably, of a certain dirt road in Peru. Not that; not now, I told myself, banishing the image.

I glanced at the speedometer and was incredulous: Is she really going 40 miles an hour on this road? She’s enjoying the German precision steering too much. Trusting the brakes more than she should. It’s my car. I know these things.

“SLOW DOWN!” It came out as a fearful bark.

“I’m not going that fast,” Marlene replied placidly.

This begat one of those disagreements that need not be recounted but to say we both had our points. It ended with my dearest — normally soft-spoken and easy-going — yelling at me, “DO SOME OF THOSE BREATHING EXERCISES YOU TEACH YOUR CLIENTS! YOU ARE SEEING FIRES WHERE THERE AREN’T ANY!”

Like some rarely spoken “safe word,” her outburst pierced the wall of panic building within me. I could hear her saying my experience was exaggerated. This is what trauma does. It dots the landscape of the mind with fires.

On that road of questionable integrity in far-flung Oregon, I was re-experiencing a trauma — or really, a collection of traumas — involving cliffs on three different continents, involving in one instance a terrifying nighttime drive shrouded in fog on one of the deadliest cliffside roads in the world, and involving — in all cases — a lifelong struggle with height-related vertigo.

The world spins. Hitchcock, who gives Jimmy Stewart the spinning heebie-jeebies in his thriller “Vertigo,” got it right.

For me, it has always been a bit like looking through a fisheye camera lens. In high places, my peripheral vision becomes distorted. My head swims; no matter how stable the ground beneath my feet, I feel I might fall. If this persists, nausea follows. In the worst cases, it feels as if I’m being pulled toward the precipice in question, and then I become terrified.

Heeding Marlene’s order to practice what I preach — for I encourage mindfulness skills in my therapy practice — I closed my eyes. Breathed deeply through the nostrils, slowed the breath. Loosened my grip on the armrests as much as possible. Set aside my distrust of Marlene’s driving. Put my life into the hands of fate and released my fears of suffering, confident that an accident on this section of road would be deadly.

As soon as the road dropped back into the forest, the veritgo subsided, and my anxiety abated, leaving only the irritating residue of adrenalin. We pulled over at an empty campsite. Took a brief walk beneath a dense canopy of trees. Listened to the sound of a rushing late-spring creek nearby. All was better.

Except for we’d be taking the same road back. I’d have to do it all over again. But the next time, at least I’d be conscious of it.

Like most troubles clients bring to my counseling practice, this problem I have with vertigo and heights requires a holistic approach. I prefer a five bodies framework: the physical body, the pranic body, cognitive/emotional body, narrative/beliefs body, and the body of bliss (spiritual/subtle energies).

I’ve had to work with my limitations, and narrative history, and trauma experiences, related to heights for my entire life. Problems with peripheral vision and sensations of dizziness in high places have been persistent.

Equally persistent is my enjoyment of a good lookout. So instead of doing what many do — avoiding a trauma trigger — I’m repeatedly seeking it out. Doing so requires an ongoing effort of physical adjustment, pranic management, cognitive superpowers, and narrative reconstruction — all for the sake of connecting with that body of bliss, which natural landscapes awaken within me.

That last part’s important: The experience of vast landscapes has always evoked a sublime sense of connection and scale that helps me find my place in the world, both uplifting and grounding at the same time. This makes my body of bliss hum, and I love it — usually. (In all honesty, Peru was a bit overpowering at times.) So I am willing to endure some discomfort to experience this.

I remember the first time it happened, that first dizzy spell. I was 7 years old and standing on the cantilevered grand central staircase of Biltmore House, a massive Gilded Age estate home in Asheville, North Carolina. The staircase gradually ascended, in a spiral of 102 steps, to all four floors of the 250-room mansion, and when I looked up from my vantage from the second floor, the spiraling lines of the stairwell coupled with the ceiling’s distant height rendered me instantaneously dizzy. It was a foreign sensation, a thing of shock. Until that moment, I had felt sure-footed and steady. Yet suddenly, with inexplicable weakness in the knees, I feared pitching over the railing. I retreated to a nearby wall and held onto a doorjamb for a moment, steadying myself.

Later, the same response would be evoked while climbing a rocky escarpment to take in a spectacular view of the Great Smokey Mountains. I was about 8 years old, and my much older cousin Carl, a father of five, was leading the hike. Reaching the peak required bouldering and climbing, an activity I was relishing — until Carl made an observation about the view when we were nearly to the top.

I turned my head to look where he gestured, and with the great vista of mountains rolling off into the horizon, my stomach lurched, the edges of my vision distorted. The earth started to spin. My hands quickly started to sweat, loosening my grip on the rocks. Fearful of slipping, I scrambled faster. Up top, I had trouble enjoying the view: It was a narrow perch on which we sat, and I felt dizzy looking in any direction but at my feet. I was also fretting about how to get back down safely.

Those were only the first experiences. Time and again, I have encountered the same swimming nausea, the same dizziness, sweating, shaking and gripping fear in places where I am on the edge of a vertical drop or high in a place of sweeping vistas. From the Grand Canyon to the Swiss Alps to the Peruvian Andes to a skyscraper with plexiglass railing around an interior atrium, I have struggled to keep my footing.

On three occasions, these involved traumatic, cliff-clinging, life-and-death moments: one a finger-gripping panic attack on a narrow path blasted 2,000 feet up a sweeping cliff-face in the Sierra Nevada; the others involving accidental encounters, less than 24 hours apart, with precipices high in the foggy cloud forests of Peru.

In the latter, a guide taking us through a Chachapoyan fortress walked me, casually and without warning, to the edge of cliff atop a 3,000-foot-deep ravine. I felt in that moment like the great cleft of earth was a gaping maw that would consume me. I could feel gravity’s pull, and it was horrible. A walking stick saved my life that day: a story for another time.

But this is what Marlene meant when she yelled that I was “seeing fires where there aren’t any.” Such traumas had compounded a belief about “something flawed” in my physiology (vision, sense of balance) by giving me a narrative of horrifying near-misses, the idea that I might become “out of control” in high places and could pose a danger to myself.

Of course, the trouble with high places is that if you do indeed lose your balance, death or serious injury may result. You really can be a danger to yourself. It’s not an irrational fear, and that makes it hard to rebut cognitively.

Again, that’s why I argue for a holistic approach. Later in the summer, about six weeks after our journey to Hells Canyon, I made an annual hike to a lookout that offers expansive views of Central Oregon and the east face of Mt. Hood. It is an aerie often buffeted by wind, the effect to which can worsen my struggle with the vertigo, and I often get dizzy on the exposed path that circles up above the tree line to the granite summit.

This time, prepared with some extra realization afforded by Marlene’s observation about “seeing fires where there aren’t any,” I experimented with new ideas to address this trouble. Happily, I can say I was successful. This is how I did it, within a Five Bodies framework:

First body, the physical body: I put on blinders. To accommodate for problems in my peripheral vision, I held a hand to the side of my face nearest the cliff and kept my focus on the trail. This effectively obscured the vastness of the scenery and gave my eyes something to focus on in the foreground. Coupled with a trusty walking stick for moments of uncertain footing, these adjustments to my vision essentially neutralized the sensation of dizziness.

Second body, the pranic body: Conscious action. Rather than waiting for panic and fear to arise, I began engaging actively with breathwork to keep my heart rate and adrenalin in check as soon as the trail approached the tree line. As I made the ascent, I focused on maintaining an even breath, as slowly modulated as possible.

Third body, the cognitive/emotional body: The focus on breath significantly altered the runaway-train nature of my mind, that generator of myriad morbid fantasies of slipping and falling to my death. When those catastrophic visions popped up, I gently told myself — with sincere self-compassion, not derision — that envisioning such things does not prevent them and might actually engender them, and that it was far better to observe the small wildflowers poking their heads up from amongst the rocks on the edge of the trail, or to simply return to the focus on my breath. I assured myself of enjoying the view of sky and forest below once I got to a place where I could safely manage the unavoidable sensation of dizziness.

Fourth body, the body of narratives and beliefs: Countering the long-held belief that my trouble with vertigo makes heights dangerous for me, I reminded myself how quickly and effectively I had calmed myself on the road to Hells Canyon, how through the power of focus and concentration I can hold or regain my center under duress, how I undertake these dizzying treks because of the prize: to breathe the rarified air and see the world from a new perspective. I reminded myself how important this is to me, the meaning it holds in my life, that I have in times past defied death to see such things and how, in the relative scale of my own experiences, this particular trail was easy. All I needed to do was stay calm and focused, and keep my walking stick on solid ground.

Fifth body, the body of bliss: As I said before, it’s the experience of this body that prompts all the effort in the first place. Atop this particular mountain, the sky was clear, the sun was falling behind Mt. Hood, the landscape stretched from Mt. Rainer to Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams to the desert plains of eastern Oregon. We did a ceremony here for a friend who had just retired from his terrible corporate banking job. The smell of burning sage and incense, the sound of incantations and blessings. A gorgeous, expansive view. What’s not for the fifth body to like? It doesn’t need interventions; it mainly needs invitations.

And so I reached the summit and came back down again — which is sometimes quite tricky with this vertigo issue — all without any significant disruption to my sense of balance, my enjoyment of the hike, my feeling of equanimity in the world. I had proven to myself, really for the first time, that it’s possible to hold it all together when I’m on the edge. Later, my friend Michael was surprised to learn that I struggle with heights; he said he’d seen no evidence of my fear as we summited the mountain that day.

More recently, on a rainy hike down a mushy leaf-covered trail in the Gorge to view rushing waterfalls after the Thanksgiving Day deluge, I skirted the muddy edge of a steep ravine using the same tools to put out the fires in my mind. Dizzy fishbowl vision aside, I did not suffer the usual host of symptoms.

More success atop an initial success always feels promising. The awareness that I have tools that work nourishes a sense of resiliency, which increases the likelihood of further success. Perhaps one day, I will face the vertigo with confidence. In the meantime, I don’t ever expect to be dancing on a precipice. But I’ll still be pursuing the life I love – even in high places – and in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Email her at tamara@fivebodiescounseling.com.

Photography by Marlene Andrejco.