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lehel kovacs The Globe and Mail

I bear no shame in admitting that I once feared heights. I refused to ride roller coasters or climb ladders. I hadn't flown in a plane since I was too young to grasp the notion that I was literally above the sky.

When I was 13, I rode my first roller coaster. My friend's peer pressure got me on the ride but it couldn't pry my eyes open. As I heard the slow clank-clank-clank of the coaster cart pulling itself up that initial ascent, I was near tears. My heart leapt from my throat on the rush down and I didn't find it again for some time after.

I hoped this might have cured me of my phobia. Alas, it did not. Eventually, I was able to accept airplanes and roller coasters because there is a certain level of assurance embedded into those. I can put my trust in human engineering and the safety of the mechanics and manage to enjoy - or at least tolerate - the experience. The only things that still gave me the shakes were ladders.

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And then I became a roofer.

Roofing was the last thing I would have preferred to do for money. Yet my job hunting had been sour for months and I was itching for extra cash. So when I was offered a roofing position, I had a two-second battle between caution and lust.

"I can start Monday," I replied with dollar signs in my eyes and caution curled up, bloodied and beaten, in some dark alley corner.

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"Aren't you afraid of heights?" my mother asked with a raised eyebrow when I told her the news.

"Yeah," I replied with a shrug. "I'll deal with that on Monday."

The first day was easy. We worked on a one-storey house with a flat roof, and I found the courage to ascend nine feet of ladder rungs.

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The second day was a stark contrast to the first. The house was two storeys with an attic and an impossibly steep roof. I watched with growing terror as the ladder clanked up against the side of the house, stretching higher and higher until it reached the top. To achieve such height, the ladder had to be set at nearly 90 degrees. I stared at the crew ascending, rung by solemn rung, cringing with every shake and clatter of that terrible steel beast.

Naturally, I had positioned myself to be the last climber and had let those who came before me carry the tools up. I figured I would need at least two hands to survive. Grabbing onto eye-level rungs with fearful intensity, I made the slow ascent, tuning out the ladder's metallic groans as best I could.

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In what felt like both an eternity and a fleeting moment, I reached the top. Alive. I dug my spiked shoes into the old wood roof and carefully made my way to the peak. I had conquered what felt impossible only a minute ago and it felt good.

But I was still scared of heights. I was scared when I was on the roof, and almost every other roof I climbed from that day on. The fear never quite went away. But I learned to deal with it enough to keep working.

Then, three months later, it happened. I fell.

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It was a crisp autumn morning, and we headed east to tear the raggedy wooden roof off a farmhouse. A light fog drifted across the field as we pulled up, and I could relate: My own mind was a bit foggy. I had slept poorly and fatigue was still weighing down my eyelids.

The farmhouse was a storey-and-a-half high with an easy incline on the roof. Aside from tearing off the old cedar shingles, which would be tedious, the day was looking like a gravy train.

The boss climbed up first to survey, followed closely by another worker, then me. I grabbed the toolbox. A great big heavy thing it was, but easy enough to drag up 15 feet.

I reached the top almost lazily, still groggy, and put out a foot. By habit, I had always stepped off the right side of the ladder. But it had rained the night before, leaving the cedar slick as oil. On the left side was a dry wooden plank.

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Habit and a fuzzy mind bested the notion of looking at my footing - I'd done this hundreds of times by now. I put all my weight into the step to heave myself onto the roof, and my foot slipped in immediate response. I flew backward off the ladder.

I let go of the toolbox. Blue sky was above, and for one swift second, nothing was below.

Then my back thundered into hard-packed dirt. The toolbox chased me down, its steel lock breaking on contact with my forehead. Through blackness, I heard voices shouting. I writhed on the ground feebly. Then I arose, my head throbbing and my back shooting with pain, and muttered, "Let's get this day going. What do you want me to do, boss?"

I ended up getting a ride home at lunch and missed another day's work with a concussion and whiplash.

The roofing company shut down shortly afterward for winter and I didn't return in the spring. But what should have caused a permanent phobia instead erased my fears. The fall was probably the worst that could happen to me, and it made me indifferent to heights. I just hope my next fear can be conquered without a concussion.

Knowlton Thomas lives in Vancouver.

Illustration by Lehel Kovacs for The Globe and Mail.

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