Community & Current Events

A year of firsts: Michele Sponagle

Photography by Jeff Coulson Image by: Photography by Jeff Coulson Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

A year of firsts: Michele Sponagle

The door is about to open. In moments, I will find myself standing on a narrow ledge of Toronto's CN Tower—356 metres above ground. For someone who's afraid of heights, this is a nightmare. Why on earth would I do this to myself?

I've been scared of heights ever since I was a kid. I was the type of child who never swung too high on the swings. When I was about seven years old, I had to be rescued by my dad from the top of a slide, a mere three metres off the ground. My dad grabbed me, put me on his lap, then slid down with me. I screamed. Afterward, I was mortified the other kids witnessed my fear. "Why can't I be more like them?" I wondered as I watched kid after kid happily slide down.  

Fast forward to adulthood. I'm now 50 and have managed to avoid heights for much of my life, but I still feel the shame. If I have to change a lightbulb in my tall-ceilinged Victorian house, I sheepishly ask a friend to do it. I can't take one step up a ladder without vertigo hitting. While travelling—which I do often, being a travel writer—I have declined opportunities to do simple things like climb up steep stairs to a cathedral bell tower or jump off a diving board into a hotel pool. Zip-lining, bungee jumping and other heights-related experiences were obviously out of the question. I sat on the sidelines, feeling like that fearful seven-year-old all over again.

Then, about five years ago, I interviewed Phil Keoghan, host of The Amazing Race, in Toronto. We were talking about the crazy challenges contestants did and I told him I couldn't do most of them because of my hang-up. "You know," he said, "most of the challenges aren't so much about physical strength. They're mental. If you tell yourself you can't do something, you are already defeated. It really is a question of mind over matter."

His words stuck with me. I began to push myself in small ways. I changed my own lightbulbs, carefully going up just two steps on the ladder, gripping so tightly I got indents on my palms. In October 2011, I received an invite from Tourism Toronto to check out some new attractions, including the CN Tower's EdgeWalk. I'd be walking a full circle around the main pod on a platform 116 storeys high and just 1.5 metres wide, hands-free. Nothing to grab onto, no railing along the edge. Nothing but open sky. On the designated day, I hoped for windy or rainy weather so the walk would be cancelled. Instead, it was sunny and beautiful. I hoped one of my five colleagues would bail on the trip so that I could, too. That didn't happen.

Everyone was nervous as we suited up in safety gear. My stomach felt like it was full of kittens doing somersaults. I couldn't believe I was even contemplating doing this. After a quick elevator ride, I stood at the door to the platform. There was a gentle breeze and, at eye level, a small plane coming in for a landing at the island airport. Below: the rooftops of the city's tallest skyscrapers. I could feel my cheeks flush and my breath quicken. Our guide led us outside. I grabbed the harness for dear life as I peered out at blue nothingness. Oh my God. Our guide instructed us to walk to the edge. I could feel a scream at the back of my throat. I took deep breaths and moved forward a millimetre at a time.

Peering down, I thought I was going to be sick. Then, I silently repeated a mantra: "You're perfectly safe. This fear is all in your head." I started to relax. I let go of the harness and walked hands-free around the tower, doing backward and forward leans over the edge as instructed. I even smiled (tightly) while doing it!

Now I'm ready to conquer anything—the Cliffwalk at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver should be easy-peasy after EdgeWalk, right? And bungee jumping? It's on the list.

Read more inspiring stories about Canadians embracing a year of firsts.  
This story was originally titled "A Year of Firsts" in the January 2014 issue.
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A year of firsts: Michele Sponagle