When I was eight I almost threw up after going on the Music Express at Busch Gardens. (The ride that speeds around a circular track while also going up and down in a wave-like motion — no wonder it made me sea-sick.) After that brush with near-vomit, I was done with amusement park rides, and though I’d never gone on a roller coaster, from then on I refused to do so because I was sure it’d make me puke.
And so, all through my youth, amusement parks were stressful. At first, my friends would laugh and yank on my arm, trying to pull me into line for a roller coaster, but when I pitched a fit and absolutely refused, I was deemed boring and lame. I was left hanging out with the chaperone for the rest of the day, waiting around while my friends rode the “fun” rides.
I didn’t go on my first roller coaster until Freshman year of college. My friends and I went to Busch Gardens, and the guy I was sort-of dating at the time (we’ll call him Matt) literally picked me up and carried me into the line for Apollo’s Chariot.
“Nooo!” I screamed. “I can’t go on this! I’m pregnant! I have a heart condition! I’m under 52 inches!” Everyone just laughed.
“It’s fun. You’ll like it,” Matt told me. But I was not having fun. I was freaking out. At the time, Apollo’s Chariot was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in Busch Gardens, and I was sure I was going to puke my guts out.
In those years since the near-vomit experience on the Music Express, I had built up my fear of roller coasters. Never having been on one had made the fear even worse — I could only imagine how horrifying and nauseating it was going to be.
As we neared the guy manning the ride, I increased the volume of my screams. “Nooo! Let me go! I can’t go on this ride! I’m going to die!”
No one batted an eye, and the next thing I knew, I was being deposited into one of the cars and the seat restraint was being secured. This was actually happening. I was going on this ride, and there was no way to turn back now. There was a horrible clicking sound as the cars began to make their ascent. I gripped onto the bar in front of me and took a deep breath, trying to slow the wild beating of my heart.
For a split second, we were perched on the edge of the world, and then we spilled over, and my stomach plummeted. I didn’t scream. I squeezed my eyes closed, clamped my mouth shut, and waited for it to be over. Two minutes later, it was.
“See, wasn’t that fun?” Matt asked as I stepped shakily from the car.
I didn’t know about fun, but it was wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. “Well, I didn’t puke,” was all I could say.
I was reminded of this experience yesterday when Paul and I went to Mall of America. “Ohh! Let’s go on that,” Paul said, pointing to an aquamarine roller coaster called the SpongeBob Squarepants Rock Bottom Plunge.
I took one look at the ride with its horrifying first drop and series of loop-de-loops and was suddenly flushed with my old freak-out feelings.
“No, no, I’m too scared.”
Then it was just like old terrifying times: Paul was laughing and pulling on my arm, trying to yank me towards the line, and I was starting to feel panicked. “No, no I can’t. I can’t ride that.” He kept pulling my arm, and the fear kept rising in my throat. I was nearly in tears before Paul backed off. People who love roller coasters have a hard time understanding those who don’t.
So Paul and I rode a baby roller coaster instead, and I actually enjoyed it. In fact, I almost wished it was faster and scarier. That’s when I realized that since the Apollo’s Chariot experience fifteen years ago, I’ve gone rock climbing and done ropes courses and taken flying trapeze lessons. Why was I so scared of the SpongeBob roller coaster? I knew I wasn’t going to die, and chances were good that I wasn’t going to throw up either. I wouldn’t even get smacked in the face by a bird because we were inside the mall.*
I waited while Paul rode the Rock Bottom Plunge alone, and although most of me was relieved, part of me wished I was in line with him. Because the more I watched the ride, the more I realized it wasn’t that bad, and even if it was, it was over in less than a minute. Besides, sometimes being scared can be fun, and the people leaving the ride had huge, crazed smiles on their faces.
My immediate freak-out reaction had been a conditioned response. Over the years, I had trained myself to be afraid of roller coasters, and maybe it was time for some retraining.
Every so often, it’s good to take a look at your fears and reassess. Are you really scared, or are you just reacting with fear because that’s what you’ve always done? All I know is, if Paul and I go back to Mall of America, I’m going to go on the Rock Bottom Plunge. I will definitely be scared, but I probably won’t puke, and who knows, I might even end up enjoying it.
*Fun Fact: When Busch Gardens held the opening ceremony for Apollo’s Chariot on March 30, 1999, and Italian fashion model was brought in as a promotion. During the ride’s inaugural run, a bird hit him in the face and broke his nose.