Katrina Clarke | August 27, 2016 | Toronto Star
I am 7 years old, strapped into a kiddie roller-coaster, alone. I don’t want to do this, but it’s too late. The ride lurches forward and jerks downward, flipping my stomach and sending me into hysterics.
The ride ends but my crippling fear of roller-coasters is just beginning.
Next, I am 11 years old on a family trip to Walt Disney World. Riding the first roller-coaster of the day brings back a rush of bad memories and uncomfortable sensations. It is my last.
Then, I am 13 years old at Canada’s Wonderland. My friends ride roller-coasters. I watch them enviously, but my knees still shake. I hold their bags.
Now, I am 28 years old. The thought of riding a roller-coaster gives me heart palpitations and sweaty palms.
Roller-coasters terrify me. Something about the height, the loss of control, the floating feeling in my stomach and the possibility of injury makes me want to throw up or run away. Psychologists say this fear can be traced back to childhood trauma, fear of heights or parental fears that rubbed off on me as a kid. I check all three boxes.
But my editors asked me to face a fear, so off I go to Canada’s Wonderland.
I arrive on a Tuesday morning with colleague Jonathan Forani — a roller-coaster enthusiast — by my side. My plan is to ride the small ones until I can face my real terrors, but when I pull in, photographer Randy Risling tells me he’s setting up at “the green one” — Leviathan, Canada’s tallest and fastest roller-coaster.
My gut churns.
In advance of this assignment, I interviewed a physicist, psychologists and even a retired astronaut, in hopes of mitigating my fears.
Chris Hadfield helped calm me the most.
“I think you should be naturally afraid of a roller-coaster — that’s part of the point. Roller-coasters put forces and visual stimuli in front of your body that you are not normally used to dealing with,” he said during an interview on an unrelated topic. “But the roller-coaster is not going to kill you and it’s not even going to hurt you.
“But your fundamental reaction is “Well yeah, it might.” Might is where you really need to dig into it. So how many accidents have they had at Canada’s Wonderland?”
Answer: Well, it’s never had an accident-related death in its 35 years of operation.
Hadfield also told me the drive is statistically the most dangerous part of visiting Canada’s Wonderland. I thought about this while weaving between tractor-trailers on Highway 400.
Allison Ouimet, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the school of psychology at the University of Ottawa, suggested I try exposure therapy: giving myself small doses of exposure to roller-coasters before trying the real thing.
“We think of these as little experiments,” she said. “Can we test out if you’ll actually explode from anxiety?”
So I watch YouTube videos. The first features actor Kevin Hart, who shares my fear of roller-coasters, and Jimmy Fallon, who dragged him on the ride.
“I’m freaking out man. Wait, wait, wait!” Hart screams as the ride takes off. For the duration of the clip, his face is twisted with fear. “Stop!” he screams.
This was a bad first exposure.
The rest of the videos I watch are from the rider’s point of view and filmed at Wonderland. I imagine myself on the rides, feeling calm and ready.
Ouimet gave me more tips: try breathing exercises, recite a mantra, go with a friend, she said.
Hanna McCabe-Bennett, a PhD candidate in Ryerson’s clinical psychology program, suggests I start small and build up to the scary rides. Go at your own pace, she said.
“If someone is forcing you to do something, it’s going to backfire,” she said. “The worst thing you could do is throw them on Behemoth (at Wonderland).”
I think back on McCabe-Bennett’s words as I walk toward Leviathan. At 93 metres high, it’s visible from the highway.
When we meet Randy, he’s setting up a 360 degree GoPro at the front of the roller-coaster. I feel sick. A ride operator asks if I’m going to cry. Another staffer tells me the lineup for this ride gets crazy and we’re lucky to ride it before the park opens.
As if on cue, hundreds of children start running toward the ride.
“Who are these mini-masochists?” I wonder, as they arrive, breathless and glaring at me and Jonathan as we buckle in for our solo experience.
The ride clicks forward. I feel a primal urge to escape. Jonathan looks cheery.
“I’m going to be OK, I’m going to be OK, I’m going to be OK,” I repeat over and over as the coaster climbs.
Someone told me closing your eyes makes it scarier, but mine are involuntarily glued shut. At the peak, I squint at what appears to be the entire GTA. And then, whoosh, I explode. Or at least I feel like I do.
My entire body goes rigid as the G-forces take hold of me and lift my body against the safety bar. I can’t form words. I think I left my brain and body at the top of the ride.
For far too long — but actually just two minutes — I endure this roller-coaster. It gets better as it goes on, but I still can’t loosen my death grip on the safety bar or relax my face.
And then it’s done.
I did not die. I did not explode. In fact, I rode two smaller rides after Leviathan but I turned down Jonathan’s offer to join him on Drop Tower.
It’s reassuring to know that in the future, I could conceal my fears and avoid projecting them onto any hypothetical mini-me, but, as my anti-roller-coaster colleague suggested upon my return to the office, the world is just divided into two groups of people: those who like roller-coasters and those who don’t.
I faced my fear. I’m glad I did. That doesn’t mean I liked it.