From water to flying to heights, how three writers overcame their fears

Overcoming a phobia is the ultimate new year’s resolution. Vickie Maye, Pat Fitzpatrick and Breda Graham tell how they beat their fears of water, heights and flying.

L-R: Vickie Maye, Breda Graham and Pat Fitzpatrick each facing their fears.

WATER: Vickie Maye

There was no one moment I could pin point, no traumatic incident, no near-drowning experience that could explain my debilitating fear of water.

There was a vague memory of someone holding my hand on a beach as a child, walking me out of my depth. I have a flash of blackness, of a desperate struggle for air. My mother has a fleeting memory of something occurring in the water during my childhood, but it could have been a story I fabricated as a young child, somehow made real through the retelling in my later years.

Water always featured in my dreams though, there was a recurring nightmare where I was swept out to sea from a mountain top.

By the time I was in my late teens and early 20s, on my J1 in America, years away in Australia, Asia, I was always the one watching from the edge. One of my biggest regrets? On a yacht on the Whitsundays, watching friends dive off the side into turquoise waters.

So many wasted opportunities. And so much fear.

Showers were directed away from my face — even that was too much for me.

I was determined my children wouldn’t carry the same fear, each one was signed up for lessons, then life saving, the moment they were able. I hid my own terror of the water from them.

My holidays changed from adventures abroad with friends, to family ones. And again, I found myself watching from the edge. Only this time it was my kids I was observing.

It was on a holiday in France last summer that I finally thought, enough is enough. It was time to overcome this fear. I wanted to swim with my children.

One name kept emerging — everyone spoke of one swimming coach: Eilís Burns, she was the one, they said, who could shake this fear out of me.

And so I found myself at Churchfield swimming pool one Wednesday morning in September. Shaking, teeth chattering with the physical manifestation of my distress, it took everything in my being to just step into the pool, to stand in the shoulder height water.

Vickie Maye and swim instructor Eilís Burns at Leisure World, Churchfield. Picture: Larry Cummins

But I was in good hands.

Eilís is a renowned pool coach, based across Leisureworld in Bishopstown, Churchfield and Douglas.

She is behind the success of dozens of Channel swimmers and marathon swimmers.

Last year Eilís was inducted into the Ireland Hall of Fame for marathon swimming for her contribution to the sport. And she is among just 15 women worldwide nominated for the 2018 World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) Woman of the Year Award.

In turns reassuring, and simultaneously tough and no nonsense, it’s her training as a psychotherapist, at the Flatstone Institute in Cork, that would ultimately be the key to me overcoming my phobia.

Standing at the edge — Eilís never enters the water when she’s teaching — she began by easing me into my surroundings. Step by step, my head was eased under the water. Bubbles were blown out my nose. Right at the very end of the half hour lesson, I held on to the silver pole she carried and was pulled along the pool with it. My fear was so overwhelming that was enough for lesson one.

Lesson two was a much bigger leap of faith. That Wednesday morning I would float. “Just fall into the water,” she urged. My protests and ‘buts’ were dismissed with a wave of her hand. “Just trust me and do it.” And I did, and it felt beautiful. I was elated.

I had floated. In shallow water, yes, but I had done it nonetheless.

Two lessons down and I was quietly confident. I thought I had this swimming lark down.

And then came lesson three, and the return of my deep rooted, seething fear.

“You will panic,” Eilís warned me, and yet again she was right.

This is the lesson, Eilís explained later, that people often can’t come back from, the session where people are most likely to give up.

This is where you are pushed to your limit.

And so I found myself, mid way through, clung to the edge of the pool, crying, sobbing. I couldn’t remember the last time I shed a tear. And here I was, virtually wailing. I wanted out.

Eilis wasn’t having any of it.

Over and over again she told me, ordered me, to float, this time in neck high water. I struggled to stand from the float, to find any sense of ease, of control.

I felt weak leaving the pool that third session and for the entire week I endured fitful bouts of sleep. I would wake gasping for air, drowning in water in every dream. I was pale, physically carrying the trauma all week.

Eilís smiled when she saw me reluctantly make my way back to the pool for lesson four. I was shaking, fighting tears again. She wasn’t sure if I’d return, she admitted later.

But I was determined. My stubbornness won out.

It was a kinder Eilís for lesson four. She had made me face the worst of my fears she explained — the recurring dreams showing how deep and all consuming it was.

Still though, she was tough and I needed that to stick with it. There was the lesson when I wasn’t allowed to leave the pool until I did full circles with my arms. I was two hours in the water that morning.

Somehow, with four kids and a full time job, I had to find a way to get to the pool to practice at least four or five times a week. No one had warned me just how much time and commitment it takes to break a phobia.

Floating on my back was another hurdle. The more I explained to Eilís I couldn’t do it, the more she waved her hand dismissively.

Just do it, she repeated sternly over and over. Until I did.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” she would say. “What are you afraid of? I won’t let you drown, I’m here, let’s do this.” I needed to be treated at times like a child Eilís explained. And again, she was right.

“I see how far I can push you - I take you so far and then pull you back once I see your limits,” Eilís explains of her methods.

The push and pull worked.

From there it was a slow road. It still is. Awkward front crawls and breast strokes, and it’s only now I’m working on my breathing.

Lifting my head to inhale at every third stroke, I panic by the time I take the fifth breath in my breast stroke — almost a width of the pool — fearful I’m running out of air. Again, my head is dictating my body. I need to let go, Eilís explains. Instead of thinking of the water suffocating me, think of it as embracing, a place to let go. The key is simply to relax.

It’s easier said than done, but I’m trying.

Where once I found the water a lonely place, submerged and alone with my fears, a place where no one could really help me, today I truly adore the sensation of floating. I’ve finally realised the water is holding me.

Eilís advises logging each tiny achievement, each baby step along the way: ‘Today I put my face in the water; Today I lay down and floated; Today I lay down and floated and kicked my legs; Today I lay down and floated and kicked my legs and moved my arms.’

Forget the end product, she says.

So as 2018 comes to an end, I have faced my deepest fear. There’s still work to do, more lessons to face, but when I take my kids on their next holiday, I’ll finally be swimming alongside them.

Eilís, I’ll be forever grateful.

  • To help Eilís win the 2018 World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) Woman of the Year Award, log on to worldopenwaterswimmingassociation.com/2018-wowsa-awards. The cut-off date and time for online voting is January 1, 2019 at noon, California-time.
  • Whether you’re an adult with a fear of the water, a child learning how to float or an advanced swimmer looking to improve your stroke or 500m time, LeisureWorld has one-to-one, two-to-one and group lessons available for all ages and abilities. LeisureWorld runs its lessons on a constant basis throughout the year, with facilities in Bishopstown, Churchfield and Douglas.
  • leisureworldcork.com

HEIGHTS: Pat Fitzpatrick

Pat Fitzpatrick conquering his fear of heights at Zipit, Farran Forest Park, Co. Cork. Pictures: Denis Minihane

I got stuck up a tree when I was about eight. It was a sycamore tree down by the wall in our garden in Kinsale. It wasn’t exactly the biggest tree in the world and I’d climbed it loads of times before that, and come back down without a whimper. This time, I whimpered, shouting at my mother to come and get me down. Something in my brain didn’t like the six or seven foot drop and I froze. If this was today, my mother would probably have run out and given me a new iPad. But it was 1975, so she left me up there. I took the plunge and jumped eventually.

I’ve avoided heights ever since — why would you want to do something that scares the shite out of you? Never mind, feel the fear and do it anyway . I’m more, feel the fear and run like f**k away. So when the Examiner rang and asked if I’d like to do something to conquer my fears, I thought I’d pull a fast one. We spend a good bit of time out in Farran Woods, and I’d seen kids making their way around the Zipit adventure course, high up in the trees. If they can do it, so can I. There’s no fear here, you’re in a harness anyway, connected to a wire, what could possibly go wrong?

A week later, I breeze into Zipit, get harnessed up and literally shown the ropes by Ana from Slovenia who works there, and climb up to the five metre Orange Course, which the website describes as “perfect for families”.

Fast forward 10 minutes, and I’m stuck up a tree again. I actually heard myself saying the words, “This is where my journey ends”, as if I was being kicked off Strictly or The Apprentice. All I was short of doing was thanking Lord Sugar for the opportunity.

I’d started the course well enough. It was an easy climb up the ladder to the first platform and a gentle walk across a rope-bridge thingy. I had a bit of dry mouth alright, but that’s because you have to remember the sequence of hooking your harness system off one wire and on to the next, and I have a fear of being wrong. I was too busy focusing on my harness to remember the walk between the next two trees, which means it must have been simple enough.

All the focus in the world wasn’t going to change the walk between the next pair of trees — a long stretch of horizontal rope ladder, but this time there was no ropes on either side.

Instead, there is a single rope to cling to, hanging down in front, that goes along with you on a pulley system. I can’t see this being of much use — the minute I put my foot on the first bit of the horizontal rope-ladder bridge, it sways to the side so I can get a clearer view of the forest floor. Thanks for that.

I start to shake a little, which makes the bridge sway even more. I can’t take the first step, my journey is over. Except, and here is the slyness-cum-genius of Zipit, there is no turning back.

Not really anyway. It’s only now I realise that Steve and Ana, the super-nice Zipit people that got me this far, had faded away into the trees. It was just me and the photographer Denis, trying to keep me calm while taking shots of my distress. At this point Mike from Zipit materialised underneath me from nowhere. Mike is very Zen, my guess is he’s their hostage negotiator guy, brought in when someone thinks their journey is over. He tells me to take a deep breath, that nothing bad will happen, just hold the rope up high and don’t look down.

I step off, because I don’t want to disappoint Mike. At this point photographer Denis takes over, it turns out he’s pretty Zen as well, as he talks me across the bridge. From then on, it’s literally downhill. A couple of mildly exhilarating zip-lines later, I’m back on ground level, actually delighted with myself.

I feel like hugging Zipit’s Steve, Ana and Mike for the way they worked me around course.

I thank Denis for going above and beyond, talking me from tree to tree. I take off the harness and it’s back into the car for the drive home to Cork. Five minutes into that journey, something weird happens — I feel an incredible urge to scream my head off. Not from fear or relief, this is jubilation. Something good happened to me up a tree out in Farran Woods. I’m not even sure what it was. Would I do it again? Not on your life.

FLYING: Breda Graham

Breda Graham, who has a fear of flying, is pictured in the Simtech Boeing 737-800 Advanced Trainer Simulator with pilot Karl Supple during the Fly Fearless course which she took part in recently at the Simtech Aviation facility near Dublin Airport. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Welcome to Fly Fearless — here is your first exercise as we explore the concepts of altered realities,’ read the sheet in front of me as I sat in a room full of people with one very significant similarity: a fear of flying.

The first sentence on the sheet read, ‘flying is’ with a blank space for what I would describe my personal experience of flying as.

‘Stressful,’ I wrote, without any hesitation, before continuing with the exercise sheet.

The course director of the Fly Fearless course, Michael Comyn, proceeded to go through our answers.

He explained that the fear of flying is in fact not really a fear, but a form of stress and that the one-day course would focus on stress management strategies.

This course was my attempt to overcome my fear of flying, a fear which not a lot of people know about because I travel a fair amount, but a fear that drives the heart rate on my Fitbit up and keeps me awake the night before a flight.

Course participants had with them in the room certified Crew Resource Management Instructor (CRMI), Michael Comyn, and pilots Karl Supple and Barry Ryan, whose knowledge and insights put into perspective the differences between the rational brain and the emotional brain of those who have a fear of flying.

In an effort to define the fear, participants were asked to describe what makes them fearful of being in the air.

The outcome of the exercise confirmed that most people in the room were irrationally overthinking, particularly during turbulence.

During turbulence, the amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones, reacts.

This is why the first reaction of someone with a fear of flying is to grab the armrest and push their feet firmly down onto the cabin floor.

Instead, we learned to lift our feet off the floor and arms off the armrest and to go with the flow of the turbulence, rather than fight against it.

I was surprised to hear that the average distance the aircraft will drop during turbulence is only eight to 12 inches, despite it feeling a lot more due to the speed the aircraft travels.

Breda Graham, who has a fear of flying, is pictured at the Simtech Aviation facility near Dublin Airport. Photograph: Moya Nolan.

Although the rational brain knows that air can hold a plane up, the primarily visual emotional brain can’t see anything holding the plane up, hence, the fear of falling from the sky.

For someone who had a fear of being 35,000ft in the sky, travelling 500 knots per hour in a tube-like structure — yes that was my line of thinking — here’s an interesting fact.

A cloud weighs about 500 tonnes, the equivalent of 100 elephants.

If air molecules can hold up one cloud weighing 500 tonnes then you can be sure it will hold up an 80-tonne aircraft.

One of the biggest comforts for me was gaining the knowledge of what each sound heard in the cabin means.

I am an overthinker and a worrier, to the highest degree. If I cannot put an explanation to something I am experiencing visually or aurally, I panic.

I need to be able to make sense of a situation so that I am in control.

When flying, I feel as though I have no control and begin to question everything that happens around me — unfamiliar sounds and even facial expressions of cabin crew and fellow passengers.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

It was as though the course leaders had got inside my head, dug out all my worries and put a logical explanation to each one.

I found myself nodding my head in agreement and smiling at the fact that every other head in the room did just that.

We were in this together.

The noises heard during a flight made sense when explained, from the cabin crew’s communication through a two-toned combination of high and low tones, to the ‘boing’ sound of the engine’s power pulling back at 4,000ft after takeoff to reduce noise pollution over built-up areas.

The journey a flight makes, from takeoff to landing, was explained in detail, including the degrees of the angles at which a plane turns.

The most enjoyable part of the course was experiencing the Simtech Boeing 737-800 Advanced Trainer Simulator which gave a real-life insight into a pilot’s view of both inside and outside the cockpit.

The opportunity to sit next to an acting pilot in a real-life setting during different weather conditions such as fog and rain eased my issue with control.

The course also dealt with how to manage anxiety whilst flying and offered tips on how to relax whilst in the air.

We were shown a number of exercises which I was able to put into practice on my most recent flight to Edinburgh.

The flight to Edinburgh which I take regularly is a short 45-minute journey, but up until my recent flight, it was a nail-biting 45-minutes.

Breda's first flight after partaking in the Fly Fearless course proved a success as she landed at Edinburgh Airport stress-free after a comfortable flight.

In the airport terminal whilst waiting to board the plane, I was no longer creating a worst case scenario in my head or worrying about someone taking my window seat, which I always pre-book for the comfort of being able to see out.

Instead, I could hear Michael Comyn ensuring that fear is defined as false evidence appearing real, which is something I will take with me from the course, not just when flying but in all walks of life.

Making my way up the steps to the plane, I was no longer scanning its outer shell for marks or scratches or wondering if the windy conditions would inhibit its ability to fly.

I found myself taking the flight in stages, ticking off each sound as it occurred with the knowledge of what was happening around me.

I visualised myself in the cockpit looking out onto foggy conditions and felt a sense of ease, as opposed to fear.

I could now relate to what was once a strange and unfamiliar environment.

Dare I say it, but I was no longer afraid.


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