I sat on the edge of the building, 30 stories off the ground, eyes closed, sweaty hands clenched on the marble edges and sighed deeply. My breathing rattled my ribcage with each exhale. I opened my eyes as I swung my legs over the edge and was caught by nothing but the cool air and a rope about as big around as my thumb.
I struggled to grip the speckled grey and brown marble slabs that lined the building with my feet, but it was polished so smooth that I could see my reflection in it. My feet kept slipping off the side to meet nothing below. I finally just let them dangle.
I took one final look up at Columbus, the ropes operator I had befriended in the days prior, as he told me one final time how to work the equipment that would get me safely to the ground below. I witnessed the training so many times in the days leading up to this that I didn’t need him to tell me again, but I appreciated the sound of a human voice and the kindness in his dark eyes, so I looked up at him and nodded.
Dear God, what if he’s the last person I ever talk to?
I looked down, the gathering crowd below me like a colony of ants swarming to a piece of forgotten food.
I think there comes a time in everyone’s life when they need to make sure that they still have a pulse, when they feel the need to prove themselves — to themselves more so than any one else.
A year or so ago you couldn’t have paid me enough money to even ride a rollercoaster bigger than the colorful caterpillar one filled with toddlers at the local county fair. Now I was voluntarily tossing my body off the side of a skyscraper.
I can’t tell you exactly when I became this other person. I’m not saying that I had some melodramatic rebirth of self, but life changes you as you go along. And sometimes it takes just one event, and sometimes it’s like a 50-car pileup.
2015 and 2016 brought my 50-car pileup. Loss of friendship. Failed relationships. Challenges to morals. Becoming an adult. Moving. Learning lessons the hard way. Doubt. Physical hurtles. Regrets. Disrupt. A world of change for a girl who hates change.
And somewhere, amongst all that, a switch flipped.
I can’t remember when it happened, if it was in one specific moment where I sat in my parked car, left leg tucked up under me and music blasting, or if I thought of it slowly, deciding over many months as event after event piled up against me.
But at some point, I challenged, or rather promised, myself that I would start saying yes to every opportunity presented to me. Just to prove that I could.
And thus began my year of firsts at 21 years old. A year of saying yes. A year for ensuring I never had regrets, and if I did, it wouldn’t be for lack of courage. A year of proving that I was tougher than the rest. A year of proving that I didn’t need anything or anybody. A year of pretending that emotions weren’t a thing. A year of marking things off a checklist. A year of being unabashedly audacious.
Ever since my internship with Special Olympics NC in the fall of 2015, I continue to volunteer frequently with the organization because I fell in love with the mission, the athletes and my short, blonde, spirited supervisor, Rachel. So when Rachel called me up a few weeks prior to Over the Edge and asked me to be a roof photographer, I said yes without hesitation.
Over the Edge is a fundraiser for Special Olympics. Local celebrities and business owners raise at least $1000 and get to rappel the Wells Fargo building in downtown Raleigh. It’s advertising for their business, and it’s (supposed to be) fun. A few participants throughout the two-day event, though, got to the top of the building and panicked.
I was harnessed to the roof taking pictures that warm Saturday when Rachel’s husband popped his head out the door and nonchalantly offered me the chance to rappel in the place of someone who had chickened out. I laughed. He didn’t.
“Are you serious?!” I choked.
He smiled and nodded as he told me to go gear up.
If it’s possible to have a heart attack from anxiety, I’m shocked that I didn’t have one in that moment.
I put my left hand under the backup belay and on the ascender that I would use to control my fall. I put my right hand on the rope that ran in front of my face and down the right side of my body.
“You’re small, so you’re gonna really feel the weight of the rope. You’re going to be lifting about a fourth of your body weight at the start,” Columbus told me.
I pulled up with my right arm.
Dear God, Columbus, you weren’t kidding.
I had to readjust my grip and try again.
I jolted down about 6 inches and swung, frozen in fear. The mechanism attaching me to the rope locked up to stop my fall.
Nope. No. That definitely wasn’t it.
“Slow and steady,” Columbus said leaning over the edge of the roof. “You’re doing fine.”
Again. But controlled. I inched down. I got into a rhythm.
I looked out to my right as I continued down. I could see for miles, the architecture of downtown faded into trees that then morphed into sky. It would’ve been so serene if I hadn’t been worried about death.
My mouth was so dry I had to force myself to swallow. My throat felt like I was trying to swallow bees, and they were fighting to come back up.
I looked up to see how far I’d come. Columbus was a long way off. There couldn’t be that much left to go.
I looked down. Wrong.
I had to stop a moment to let my arms dangle. Pulling the rope made me feel like I was weightlifting a mile off the ground. My body was a bizarre combination of adrenaline-filled and completely weak, like I might explode and collapse at the same time.
With hands just as shaky as my breath, I steadied myself on the nearest marble windowsill before repositioning my hands to start the descent again.
And the whole way down I asked myself exactly what you shouldn’t when you’re as high up as the birds.
Okay, so if I fell right now, what would my chance of survival be?
The answer was essentially “not good” for about 28 of the 30 stories.
And with hundreds of people dying from failing ropes each year, I silently prayed that I wouldn’t be one of them.
And so, feeling panicked and more than mildly tachycardic, I continued to inch my way steadily down the building.
I cursed the ropes every now and then as they fought against me. Because I promised to say yes, to face every new thing head on, but I never promised to do so quietly.
But with each story, I never questioned why I chose to strap myself to the side of a building. I felt my pulse, beating vigorously in every part of me, without even trying.