“Here, it’s all I have,” said the woman, holding out a baby wipe with one hand, and gripping her toddler’s stroller with the other. “Thanks so much,” I stammered, drooling like a St. Bernard, producing enough saliva to fill a beer stein. Having just exited the Krazy Kups ride at Great America, in a final effort to prove I could still manage amusement park rides, I had fallen to my knees on the pavement, trying to deep-breathe away possible vomiting.
A year earlier, I had attempted to conquer a fear of heights by going on the Giant Drop at the same park. For the uninformed, this ride is a square-shaped tower with four open carriages, seating people three across. Participants are harnessed into their seats, and launched on an agonizingly slow ascent to the top of the tower, only to be made to wait several seconds before a brake is abruptly released, sending the carriages hurtling toward the ground at 5,000 miles an hour, for a last-second, cushioned stop inches from the pavement. On this occasion, even with all my mental preparation, I did the developmentally unthinkable, grabbing my step-daughter’s wrist in a sick bid for protection as we ascended the tower. She pleaded with me to release her. I complied, curling into a fetal position.
At the top of the tower, I opened my eyes for a split second, to see the Chicago skyline in the distance. Then we dropped. My legs flew out in front of me. My “Aaaaaaaagh!!!” shriek is still in the air at the top of that tower, to this very day. I tried to swallow my stomach, which had squeezed itself into my throat, giving me the appearance of one of those inflatable punching bag clowns. When we reached the bottom, I tried to lift the harness myself, before it automatically released and I stumbled away from the carriage like a tipsy undergrad. I walked zombie-like, my mouth hanging open and my arms locked in a bent position at the elbow. A visit to the nurse’s station required one person to hold me while the nurse pushed down on my forearms to straighten them — this required several efforts, as they thwacked her in the face on the first few attempts.
There I was … the Giant Drop Dropout. The Carnival Debbie Downer.
What happened? How had I so precipitously lost the ability to tolerate motion? While I was never a physical daredevil as a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed physical activities, sports, and could be wooed into nausea-inducing carnival rides by friends. I tolerated the roller coaster, The Spider, the centrifuge and its disappearing floor. I loved the log flume water ride.
Growing up in Atlanta, I engaged in all kinds of motion-oriented activities. I regularly climbed to the top of the weeping willow tree in our front yard (a cool hiding place). I roller skated at the rink and down our hilly street. I road piggy-back on my friend’s banana seat bike, down a steep two-mile forest path lining the back yards of homes across the street. I rode my bike from the top of our street, careening down at high speed, legs stretched out, straight through the intersection at the bottom of the hill. I would swing high enough to see over the top bar of the swing set, then, sailing forward, jumped off at the top of the arc. I rubbed slides with wax paper to slicken the surface and double the speed of the descent. I jumped from the high dive at the pool — and for a short time, figured out how to dive from it as well. I learned how to water ski on Lake Lanier.
Maybe I’d been fooling myself all this time. There were some early warning signs that I couldn’t consistently manage every motion activity. Teeter-totters, for instance, left me nauseated. I got car sick on occasion. On the way home after a carnival visit in eighth grade, I vomited on my poor mother, who reached the tissues in her purse a second too late, instead catching it in her cupped hands. Years later, during a visit to Great America during my freshman year at college, I sat on a bench after a roller coaster ride. A little boy approached me, asking, “Hey, lady, are you gonna throw up?” I considered warning him to depart the line of fire, but was too weak. He walked away laughing. What a creep.
Was this just my nature? My brain’s fight between its inner ear and eyes? Brain research explains motion sickness as the duel between your inner ear sensing motion and your eyes sensing that things are still. This neurological conflict causes the brain to react as if your body has been poisoned, and induces nausea and vomiting to rid the gunk. Perhaps this response intensifies with age. Sheesh.
At this point, I have discontinued several activities, including water-skiing, tubing, horse-back riding, the high dive, and snow skiing. (Flying falls into its very own category, and I have recently discovered that Benadryl creates enough of a fog to make you either doze or at least grin through the turbulence .)
Still, I think this intolerance may also have developed from the realities apparent to us in adulthood. The physical risks we take in childhood give way to a different understanding as we get older. As an adult, you just know too much. You understand the physical risks much more clearly. I mean, think about it. A mishap on the Giant Drop could turn you into a human accordion, leaving you walking like a penguin. If you’re tubing, the slightest bump from the boat’s wake can sheer your head from your body, sending your head skipping like a river stone and your torso cartwheeling across the water. A poorly-timed jump from the high dive could cause you to splat on the water’s surface, flattening your face like a Pekingese.
Perhaps this is just the path of life. Things change. We change. I have respect and admiration for those who can tolerate heights, speed, and wacky motion activities. And so , a personal shout-out goes to my friend Nicki, a former race-car driver. Homage as well goes to one of my favorite writers, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who has written about her own experience conquering a fear of heights with a hang-gliding trip over Rio de Janeiro several years ago. Y’all are my heroes.
For now I’ll consider trying a short zip-line ride across a pond, or perhaps a brief slither onto the Ledge at the Willis Tower.
I’ve got all year to think about it.