It was my 57th birthday and I was in New York City standing on the observation platform of The Edge. It is a perch suspended 110 floors above the streets of Manhattan. I was looking at the expansive view of the city several feet away from the tall sloping glass panels that formed the barrier between myself and the vast emptiness all around me. I felt surprisingly comfortable, much more than I envisioned a few minutes before in the lobby. It was only when I got close enough to touch the glass wall and looked down that I felt the fear. It was a panic. Pins and needles shot up through my feet and legs. I thought that the floor beneath me was about to give way. Nothing about it felt safe. I braced myself by moving my feet and balancing as if I were leaning into a strong headwind. I am not sure why, but it helped ease the fear and allowed me to stay there longer.

NYC from The Edge, fear of heights
The view of Manhattan from The Edge

Acrophobia is the fear of heights. It affects an estimated 3-6% of the population. It is an anxiety disorder whereby the patient (me) experiences intense anxiety when in a position of height, such as a bridge, tall building, or even a staircase or ladder. It also occurs when simply thinking about being in one of those situations. I can experience the anxiety of acrophobia and all the physical sensations that accompany it, shortness of breath, loss of balance, tightness in my chest, and tingling in my feet and legs by just imagining I am standing on a ladder. It can be hard to determine when one of my challenges disrupts my life enough that it rises to the level of a disorder. My mystery allergy qualifies. I started experiencing acrophobia while walking up 3 flights of stairs in an office I recently worked in. This felt like an expansion and intensification of a fear I have had for a long time. It was time to address it with my therapist.

In therapy, we worked on my latent and now expanding acrophobia. What was driving it? What belief was I carrying that led to this fear? I believe when I am at the top of a tall building, or a mountain, that I am fundamentally unsafe. It took some exploring to discover what was at the root of my fear. I discovered my mind telling me that I was not supported. I believed the ground underneath my feet was about to fall away and I could do nothing. This is an irrational fear of course. We talked about exposure therapy, along with tools to manage the fear. We talked about focusing attention on my earlobe when the fear started. When I experience a fear of heights I physically feel it in my legs. I was to redirect my attention to my earlobe, which doesn’t feel much of anything. My mission was to travel to that difficult place experience it and see that I was safe. On a previous trip to NYC, I had looked up at the tower at 30 Hudson Yards and “The Edge”, the observation platform that sticks out into the air near the top of its 110 floors, and said out loud. “I could never go up there”. I decided this would be the place to test my fear.

30 Hudson Yards, located on the west side of Manhattan, is only the sixth tallest building in New York City. However, Its outdoor observation deck on the 110th floor, an attraction named The Edge, is the second highest in the world containing a transparent floor with a view of the ground 1,100 feet below. And fortunately for me, it is a mere 30 minutes and two subways (F to the 7) away from the hotel I was staying in. I decided it would be the perfect location to test my acrophobia. 

It was the day of my visit to the Edge. I was walking through the shopping mall below the building with my wife and daughter. They both are well aware of my acrophobia, and I had taken the time to explain that this morning’s trip was therapy for me. An exercise to take on a fear, experience, and manage it. They were both supportive and I was happy to have them with me on this adventure. I managed to find a few stores to poke around in but I was not interested in shopping. I was stalling, full of anticipatory dread. I was imagining being on the top of the building that now stood directly above us and I was feeling nauseous.

We arrived at the entrance to the observation platform, which consisted of several ticket kiosks, confused tourists, and the turnstile entrance. Standing in front of the kiosk, I felt very strongly the urge to just walk away. The nausea rose up to my throat. I thought the whole thing was a ridiculous idea, nonsensical. I should just turn around and leave. In therapy we talked about making sure my anxiety did not rise to unmanageable levels, it was close to it. I never said any of this out loud, I believe the presence of my wife and daughter caused me to press on. I pressed the buttons on the ticket kiosk as quickly as I could and in a moment three tickets fell out of the machine.

The walk to the elevator that goes to the observation deck of The Edge is long. It winds back and forth through informative displays that describe the history of the area, the construction of the building, and presumably several other perfectly interesting topics. I suppose this is helpful on days when there is a large crowd queued up, but today there were very few tourists. I did not stop or slow down to read anything, I sped forward, now fully committed, in the hope of getting it over with as soon as possible. The anticipatory dread was great. On the small elevator, my ears popped, and I stared down at my feet, my stomach completely unsettled, and my head spinning.

Then the ride was over and the doors to the cramped elevator opened. When they did, the first thing I saw was daylight. Not the view of the city, just bright daylight within reach of the door. I felt strangely and instantaneously calm. I was able to walk out into the observation area inside the building, contained fully within several stories of windows looking out for miles to the south, without any hint of the fear I had been experiencing all morning, the fear that rose to its highest point in the elevator. I walked toward the doors that led outside to the platform. It all felt strangely easy, nothing like what I had anticipated.

I was able to walk around and enjoy the views of NYC and New Jersey. I took in the odd sensation of looking down at the roofs of very tall buildings nearby. It was easier than I expected. The only time my fear kicked in was when I ventured very close to the perimeter. The tall glass barrier slopes away from the floor as it rises. This allowed me to look down to the ground if I got close enough. Then I felt the fear that manifested throughout my body. I stayed at the glass long enough to reach out and put my hand on it, looking down at the tiny cars on the street below. The fear never went away, I can feel it now all over again sitting at my desk writing this, but I was able to exist with it. Experience it without running away. Experience it knowing that even though the fear was still present, I was going to get through it.

Having spent sufficient time up on high, we decided to head back down. One fast elevator ride and I was on the street. In therapy preparing for this, I had not been comfortable with the idea that I could “conquer” or “win” against my fear. They are nice ideas but the words felt too strong, too optimistic. All I was hoping for was the ability to co-exist with my fear, live with it, feel it but not let it control me. I was relieved that the experience was not as bad as the anticipation. Therapy had prepared me well for this day. Walking out of the building I was indeed happy and proud, but physically I was exhausted. My head was heavy and felt numb. I needed a nap. I had been in a fight, It was a hard fight, but I did it. I know I can do it again.