6 February 2017

My Story

MY TRUE STORY

“As the balloon soared skyward, I once again felt an electric shock coil through me, but less violently than before. Though the sensation was somewhat shadowed by alarm, there was also something positive, even heartening, about it; something altogether different than what I’d been imagining for these past few months.

All of a sudden, I became aware of a profound change within me. I had the impression that my mind was emptying, purifying itself in the process so that all that was left were impressions of the here and the now. My thoughts began to dissolve and reform themselves with calm clarity. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about death on some level, and about how when faced with it, people are confronted with their own consciousness, as a life’s biographical milestones click past at dizzying speed. What’s interesting, though painful at the same time, is the fact that it doesn’t matter if danger is in fact clear and present or if it’s only the product of a jittery imagination, as the deep-seated fears and lurking anxieties embedded in the furthest reaches of the subconscious surface, unspooling themselves before the mind’s eye in a slideshow of remembered scenes and never to be seen again faces, distinctly etched as if in the bright pop of a flashbulb.

This whirring carousel of images accompanied the start of the very last hour of my forty-five-year voyage through life. Its final phase, which commenced on the third of December, 2014, at nine minutes before noon, would be spent suspended in midair in a wicker basket dangling in the shadow of an enormous forty-meters-tall balloon, now rising silently but steadily toward the stratosphere.

I knew this moment would be critically important for the future I’d envisioned for myself”

 

In 2007, at the age of thirty-eight, in the hopes of resuscitating a dormant childhood dream, I began AFF training. After finishing the course, I challenged myself to keep jumping: next I would jump twelve times, I decided, or double the six jumps the completion of my training had required.

Unsurprisingly, those twelve jumps were just the beginning of the next chapter of my no-longer-earthbound existence, for skydiving sucked me in as it has so many others. From that point on, my life would be triangulated between the logistics of family, work, and the next drop zone. Several hundred jumps later, I began jumping as a camera flyer.

Then, in 2012, I received a proposal to participate in a captivating skydiving project, the culmination of which would be a three-person formation jump from the stratosphere out of a hot-air balloon. Two years of strenuous physical preparation were accompanied by a gremlin horde of nagging psychological doubts, fears, black thoughts, and the most pessimistic of predictions attempting to undermine my confidence and resolve. But at long last, in December 2014, everything went according to plan, and by the time we touched ground we had set two European records: jump from 35,150 feet and 30,721 feet freefall.

A few hours after landing, I had an unforgettable conversation by telephone with Mirosław Hermaszewski, a retired Polish Air Force officer and astronaut, who, in 1978, became the first (and, to date, only) Pole in space, and with whom I’d been in contact throughout our training period. In the course of our conversation, Hermaszewski gave me one bit of practical advice which stuck with me. “When I returned from space,” he told me, “I immediately wrote down what I felt at that moment in time. Do the same thing immediately after returning home today, because tomorrow it will all go away; tomorrow, the picture will look entirely different.”

And that’s precisely what I did. Taking Hermaszewski’s advice to heart, I diligently chronicled the jump across two pages of descriptive detail. Additionally, I sought to contextualize the experience not merely as a numerical accomplishment, but as the culmination of concerted and collective effort on the part of our team. A month later, I wrote another two pages, and then two more, and then a few more—gradually drawing upon earlier formative life experiences as well—and so on until half a year later the pages coalesced into a memoir, The Story of a Thousand Fears. (English version on Amazon.com)

Having published the book, I was quite convinced the entire print run would eventually end up a petri dish for mildew in some damp and forgotten warehouse basement. However, to my considerable surprise, I began to receive the first of some fifteen hundred letters from readers who had appreciated the intimate candor with which I had described struggling with the sorts of universal anxieties they themselves were familiar with, whether or not they had experienced them on the way down from the stratosphere; and which, I acknowledged, I continued to grapple with no matter how many times I had seemingly vanquished them by jumping from high above.

And so, although initially conceived as a factual account and record of jumps, and one which didn’t shy from the use of technical skydiving terminology, my book had also ended up becoming a more generally inspirational one even for readers with no skydiving experience whatsoever. It also began to serve as source material for the speeches I was now giving in my new professional capacity as a motivational coach and speaker (I had formerly been a trauma psychologist), in which I encouraged individuals to overcome their doubts and anxieties not by trying to ignore or suppress them as if they didn’t exist, but by proactively using them as signposts on the road to success and fulfillment.

But this wasn’t the end. A book about past-tense jumps actually became the platform for future skydiving-related endeavors in a way I could never have predicted nearly a decade earlier during my AFF training, or even when I began writing about my skydiving experiences after my conversation with Mirosław Hermaszewski a year earlier.

In 2016, when I was forty-seven years old, and a year or so after the publication of my memoir, I made a new resolution: in 2019, at which point I would be fifty years old, I would attempt fifty jumps in one day. All of a sudden a glaring contradiction leaped out to challenge me: “Wait a minute. You encourage people to inhabit the here and now,” I reminded myself. “You urge them to ‘seize the moment,’ and to hurtle themselves beyond the confines of their comfort zone. And yet here you are scheduling your own seizable moment for a whopping three years down the road. What a hypocrite!”

Right then and there I decided to condense that timeline, and to start training for the following summer, when in my forty-eighth year I would jump forty-eight times. But this time around, it was important to me that the feat have more relevance than its numerical connection to me. To that end, I would dedicate each of the forty-eight jumps to a person suffering physical hardship—such as a cancer patient, or someone with a broken spine—with the goal of soliciting charitable donations for each jump that would go to providing the selected individuals with financial support to help alleviate their challenging situations. Via those forty-eight jumps, I was able to raise $50,000 in donations.

On a personal level, achieving my goal of jumping nearly fifty times in one day was of course of great significance to me, and validation of the eight months of training I had invested in the lead-up to the day. But most enduringly and meaningfully, the forty-eight jumps, underpinned by the generosity of those who had pledged to support the cause, ended up transcending themselves, and ultimately became more about forging a lifelong link to forty-eight individuals—unbreakable links which I knew would outlast the ephemeral jumps themselves.

This past September, I jumped 100 times in one day for the purpose of collecting money for 100 specialized wheelchairs for children in need of them, whose daily lives the wheelchairs could help improve. I carried out the project myself, without enlisting a promotional agency, and I drew upon my own financial resources to realize my vision.

So yes, skydiving has undoubtedly changed my life. But it has also become the vehicle by which I can attempt to positively affect the lives of others, one dedicated jump at a time.