Before my first real boyfriend broke up with me, he told me who he wished I could be: someone who would take mushrooms and stay out on the beach with him all night, who would yell when she got mad and wouldn’t give a fuck when he yelled back. Someone who’s not afraid of anything, he said, and my throat tightened with the knowledge that I was about to cry.
I was 19 and afraid of a lot of things, like parallel parking on the psychedelically steep hills of San Francisco, and making unprotected left turns during rush hour. I worried about being too straight and suburban for the hipster city kids I’d met in college, and about not understanding art. I was the kind of girl who crumpled into tears instead of yelling. I was afraid of disappointing my parents, of bad trips, and of losing my first love.
We both wanted me to be fearless. I couldn’t.
I fell apart, rebuilt myself, and didn’t think about that conversation for years. But it occurred to me recently that for someone who has never felt particularly brave, who has to be goaded into riding roller coasters and will do so only with my eyes screwed shut, screaming the entire time, I spend a lot of my free time doing things that terrify most reasonable people. The other day I climbed a ribbon of fabric 20 feet to the top of a Brooklyn warehouse and then dove face-first toward the floor. Once a week I strap myself into a 7-foot-tall metal wheel, roll backwards, and let go. On purpose. For fun.
This started four years ago when a friend invited me to her aerial silks class. The last time I’d taken a dance class, it had involved a hot-pink sequined headband and one of those plastic rings that cinched your T-shirt to the side. But in my late twenties, silks — that thing you see in the Cirque du Soleil — was my gateway drug to the circus arts.
After playing lacrosse in college, I had struggled with going to the gym after graduation. I was never able to match the urgency that I’d felt chasing down a ball or racing my teammates in wind sprints. And yoga made me feel like an atheist in church — I could never really clear my mind, and I always forgot to breathe. But silks made me feel strong, even as I tied myself in knots while the teacher told me to go to my OTHER left. Each week I could do something I hadn’t been able to do before.
We started on the ground, learning to climb the fabric just like you climb a rope in gym class. It took me an hourlong lesson to get through that part, and a couple of months to build up enough strength to begin working on upside-down poses and drops.
Next I tried flying trapeze, which involves much more height than silks from the getgo and feels scarier, despite being a lot less risky for beginners. (You’re in safety lines and there’s a net underneath you, while in silks there’s only a mat.) A few years later, I added German wheel, a human-sized hamster wheel you ride inside and on top of, and lyra, a metal hoop suspended in midair.
In circus, fear can hold you back, but it’s also very real and very useful. Make a mistake when you’re seriously high off the ground — a wrong wrap, a missed catch — and you could wind up paralyzed, or dead. It helps to be brave, but this is not a good activity for people who jump first and ask questions later. I have been in classes with them, and it’s terrifying.
As circus types go, I’m a cautious one. My personal terror meter spikes when I rotate my wrist a half-turn to shift my grip or feel for a landing inside the wheel with my feet. Before I try a trick that scares me, I want to know exactly what could go wrong. I need my coach to tell me that I won’t die. It's something my brain may rationally believe, but my gut still won’t. Even after I’ve done something once, I’m often scared to do it again. It takes a long time to transform my initial “I hate this” grimace into a calm, collected performance face.
“If an acrobat wakes up in the morning and doesn’t hurt,” a Russian circus saying goes, “chances are he’s dead.”
I’ve gotten used to the calluses the silks rub into my instep and the raw patches the hoop carves into the small of my back. My aerialist friends and I compare bruises and post the best ones on Instagram. We’ve built up our tolerance, both to pain and to being afraid. We’re not always scared of the same things, but we all share that oh, shit feeling that swells when you’re doing something that pushes your fear button. And we support each other through it, because when your friend is about to plummet face-first from a great height, that is what you do.
In circus, fear is obvious and easy to dissect. It’s about self-preservation, rooted in the awareness of possible pain. Of course I cringe when I’m about to hang my entire body weight from one elbow or ankle. Of course my heart races when I climb above a certain height, or when I’m trying to remember if I wrapped the fabric behind my back just once, or twice — because it will make a crucial difference on the way down.
It’s a lot harder for me to own the feeling of dread that sometimes flickers when I’m staring at my phone, willing myself to dial that final digit, or holding a drink in a crowded bar, searching for a familiar face. “What do you think you’re doing here?” a little voice whispers as I hover at the edge of a conversation, listening for a good moment to break in. “You shouldn’t,” it hisses before I ask my boss for a raise.
My stomach jumps in these moments for the same reason it does when I’m up in the air. My body is trying to protect itself from danger: humiliation and disappointment. A lot of people are afraid of heights and don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about. But as someone who went to a quirky liberal arts college where everyone marched joyfully to the beat of their own drum, as a journalist who's supposed to be able to talk to anyone, the fact that I worry about what other people think feels like a secret I should hide.
The great thing I’ve learned about fear, though, is that you can train yourself to touch it. I will never be someone who isn’t afraid of anything, who truly doesn’t give a fuck. But when I feel nervous about telling someone what I really think or asking for what I need, I try to picture myself up in the air, head held high, ready to drop. I remember the first time I stood on top of a giant metal wheel, when my coach told me to let go, and I whimpered, “Why would anyone ever do this?!” before lifting both hands over my head.
“Isn’t it scary, the stuff you do?” people ask me.
Absolutely. And I do it anyway.