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Thousands of feet above the Alberta prairie, with a guy named Andrew strapped to my back and a serious case of the dry heaves, I learned two things: 1) Skydiving was not going to be my thing; 2) From that moment on, I – and everything else in my life – just might be okay.
At 34, I had felt in a rut that I was desperate to escape. I thought I would find a new, more adventurous version of myself by jumping out of an airplane.
It lacked originality, but met all my criteria for a life challenge – it was close by, reasonably affordable, and the thought of doing it absolutely terrified me.
I chose a tandem jump, which meant the harness strapped around my shoulders, chest and upper thighs was securely fastened not to a parachute, but to my jump instructor, Andrew. Andrew explained that we would free fall for about 40 seconds before he would deploy the chute. My only responsibility was to listen to what he said and enjoy the ride.
I boarded the small plane that was to take me to 10,000 feet and drop me off (literally). I sat at the back with my instructor behind me, and within a few minutes of takeoff he had fastened the buckles that attached me to him.
I looked out the window and felt my stomach lurch. I have suffered from motion sickness and vertigo all my life.
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that this might be a problem. Maybe my ambition had blinded me to reality.
Now reality was staring me in the eye. I had been too nervous to eat that day, and my empty stomach was reeling. I had thoughts of backing out, making it through the plane ride, landing safely on the ground and going home to a ginger ale, a Gravol and a nap.
But there had been too many occasions when I had opted out, and I felt more afraid of not jumping than of jumping. I focused my eyes sternly on the horizon, willing my motion sickness away.
Andrew told me to slide on my bottom to the now-open door, as the wind sucked and pulled at the trembling plane. I did as I was told, and felt the shock of frigid air in my face and the weight of my instructor behind me.
“Are you ready?” he shouted. “Okay,” I answered. And I really was ready. In that one second I was a fearless adventurer. And then we jumped.
Instead of leaping forward and away from the plane, as I had expected, we rolled into a vigorous downward spin. This surprised me to the point of complete disorientation. My stomach felt as if it had been thrust up into my mouth, and all my efforts to quell my nausea disappeared into the thin, cold atmosphere.
Andrew righted us for the 40 seconds of free fall, and I felt the force of a 200-kilometre-an-hour wind. As I hurtled toward the ground, my lips pulled away from my face and flapped as if made of rubber. My face stretched upward in an exaggerated face lift. I felt less like an adventurer and more like a cartoon character.
“How are you doing?” Andrew shouted, his voice full of excitement.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I yelled as loud as I could.
Andrew was silent. I imagined he was wondering what it would feel like to be puked on in a virtual wind tunnel.
“Try to relax,” he said. “Try tightening up your muscles and then releasing them.”
The exercise didn’t help. The chute deployment was sudden and violent. It yanked my body up and back like I was a limp marionette. And it sent me instantly into uncontrollable dry heaves. My entire frame contorted with every lurch.
Andrew loosened my straps in an effort to make me more comfortable (or maybe to get farther away from me). My eyes watered so much that I couldn’t see, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I decided to close them and wait for it to be over. I felt sick, afraid, embarrassed and alone.
But then something inside me, perhaps the same inner voice that made me jump in the first place, whispered: “Don’t miss this.”
I used everything I had to stop my gagging. I forced myself to look down. What I saw was an incredible 360-degree picture with nothing to distinguish myself from the space around me. I felt part of it, and strangely it felt safe, peaceful and completely natural.
I no longer felt alone, but it wasn’t because Andrew was there with me – it was because I was there with me. I had an overwhelming feeling that everything was exactly as it should be, and it felt awesome.
Seconds later, we landed easily. My legs were shaky and I dropped to my knees. I told Andrew I was sorry for almost throwing up on him. He said it was okay, it had happened before. He undid the buckles and stepped away. I turned to thank him, but he was already gone.
Alone, sitting there on my knees, I could have felt like a failure. It was clear I would never be the intrepid adventurer I had set out to be that morning, and I would never escape me; not even by jumping out of an airplane.
But in those few quiet seconds high above the ground, I had found someone even better: myself. Imperfect and less than glamorous, but strong, determined and, in my own way, fearless.
I handed in my suit and quietly left the jump site. I still felt sick, and had to stop my car twice to almost throw up on the side of the road. When I finally made it home, I drank a ginger ale, took a Gravol and had a nice long nap.
Carmen Barry lives in Edmonton.