Falling Backwards Off a Cliff: Pushing Past Our Fears

There is nothing intuitive about rappelling down a mountain.


In fact, to this date 40 years later, it is the most counterintuitive thing I have ever done in my life.

In order to do it safely, you have to stand at the very edge of the cliff, turn around so that you are no longer facing the cliff but instead looking towards the nice, safe ground you are about to leave, and lean (or better still, JUMP) as far back over the edge of the cliff as you can.

Oh sure, you’re roped in, but that doesn’t quell the screaming terror in your amygdala. Nope, that emotional center in the brain is sending out a 3-alarm-fire code to every system in your body. You are convinced you are about to fall to your death.

But leaning flat backwards off the cliff is the only way to keep you from slamming your face into the stone. So you have to override all your previously reliable systems that are, in this moment, predicting your imminent demise, and do it anyway.

I was 18 when I did this, and sadly, haven’t done it since—it turned out to be a total rush. But I have carried the lesson with me ever since—that fear is not a particularly reliable emotion and that there are times when it is crucial to push through, and past, the fear.

Twenty-eight years later, I chose to fall backwards off a different kind of cliff.

Joining the Army

At the rather advanced age of 46, and during a time of massive war on two fronts, I joined the US Army Nurse Corps. No one in my family had served since 1946, and I come from an ardently anti-war family. But I’m an expert in PTSD, and I knew from the faces of the first returning planeload of soldiers that the US was in for a mental health crisis the likes of which we had never seen before.

I also knew that the Army, being the lumbering Old Boys Club that it was, would never accept any help from some middle age, middle class female civilian with a masters in psychiatric nursing. In fact, I was the absolute antithesis of whom they would listen to.

So I knew if I was going to follow this deep calling to serve these returning men and women, I could only do it from the inside. I’d have to take the oath. I’d have to wear the uniform. I’d have to make the mental shift from being a pacifistic civilian to a trained soldier. And I’d have to sign over what amounted to an IOU to the Army saying that at any time they wished, I would hand over my life to them in the call of duty without reservation.

This was a huge, life-altering crossroads for me.

Shortly before this decision, I had divorced my husband of 18 years and become a single mom. Ben was just 12 and Sarah was 17, getting ready to go to college. Both of them were becoming more independent, but I also knew that they were also still very much in need of my constant presence for love and security.

So I consulted them. I talked them through the pros and cons. We sat and talked for some time. At the end, and much to their credit, they were emphatically in favor of my joining the Army Reserves, allowing me to still be home as long as I was not deployed.

I was still terrified and had several sleepless nights before my swearing in ceremony. But it helped to recall how it felt to push past my fears all those years earlier and do it anyway. It kept me grounded.

On February 3rd, 2004, with no previous military exposure of any kind, I raised my hand and fell backwards off a different kind of cliff—I recited the Officers’ Oath and became a 1st Lieutenant in the US Army.  I entered into a part of society that was completely foreign to me, and I was scared of what lay ahead.  But as a newly minted officer and as an Army Nurse, I also knew people were looking to me for strength, guidance and comfort.  So I threw my shoulders back, took a deep breath, and dedicated myself completely to whatever needed to be done, regardless of the terror I felt in my chest much of the time.

My years in the Army is a big story for another time—a story filled with amazing, dedicated colleagues, moments of great heartbreak, and a kind of personal strengthening I could not have gotten any other way. Suffice it to say, it was one of the best experiences of my life and I’m very proud to have served, despite all the difficulties it entailed.

Help! I Think I Need Advanced Cardiac Life Support!

Flash forward to just 18 months ago. I am recovering from a total hip replacement, spending a lot of time in quiet reflection as I battle with the pain and exhaustion, and it dawns on me that my current employer has been slowly moving in a direction that is contrary to my own goals.  I've never been a fan of denial--I've seen denial kill people--so I decide I better get my resume in order and take advantage of this down-time to start job hunting.

I quickly discover that most places are looking for nurses with certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)—a certification I have been convinced that I could never obtain. I have a running list of reasons why this is an un-climbable mountain: it’s too technical; it requires more background in medical nursing than I have; I’m not good at reading EKGs, etc.

But there it is, in black and white, on ad after ad. If I wanted to sail away from my current job, I better have an ACLS card as a paddle.

It felt futile at first, and completely overwhelming. But you know what? I pushed past my fear, studied my ass off and passed it on the first round.

As small as this victory was, it totally rocked my world.  I joyously discarded my (obviously erroneous) belief that I was incapable of learning something really complex anymore.  To my utter amazement, I found that with enough hard work, I really could tackle new, technically difficult material.  My fear of technology disappeared, opening up all kinds of new doors for me.

The Next Adventure

So when, out of no where 10 months ago, I felt called to start an online psychoeducation business aimed at helping women heal their sadness, I chose to ignore the old nonsense streaming through my head ("You don’t know anything about running a business, you won’t be able to figure out how to set up a website, things like this never work for you," etc.)

I was still humming from earning my ACLS card, still feeling empowered by that achievement.  Finally, after decades of overcoming every kind of fear imaginable, I embraced the big lesson:  fear doesn’t mean shit. Fear is just a chemical reaction that activates a bunch of random, rarely accurate, thoughts. 

I held tightly to the knowledge that I had been Called to do this, just as I had been Called to join the Nurse Corps.

And when you are Called, how you feel about being Called doesn't really enter into it.  Being Called means it's your purpose and journey.  Ignoring it is pointless--it will keep beckoning you until you agree to its terms. 

I admit, I knew nothing at all about websites, marketing, SEO, lead magnets, pricing, Google analytics, Yoast, scalability, writing blog posts, submitting guest posts, or any of the other 486 things I’ve learned in the last 10 months. But hey--I had earned my ACLS card, right?  

So I dove in. Fearlessly. I soaked it all up, 7 days a week, in between seeing patients.

And somehow, tiny step by tiny step, I’m doing it. The business is coming along. The website looks pretty good now. I’m getting traffic and I’m blogging and I’m connecting with people, starting to make a difference.

I have complete faith that this will succeed, because every time I find myself shaking with fear at the edge of a cliff, I just turn around and fall backwards.

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