I suffer from a sort of phobia that, until recently, I thought was unique to me. I have rarely shared this neurosis with anyone for fear of being thought strange or even a danger to myself. However, on the occasions that I do share my fears and anxieties with others, I often learn that I am far from alone or irrational. I imagine this will prove to be the case on this occasion as well.
The condition is known as High Places Phenomenon (HPP). The French have a term for it – L’Appel du Vide, which translates to the call of the void. In my experience with languages, I regularly find that practitioners of English often simply leave unpleasant realities unnamed as if, by ignoring their existence, they will go away. Anyway, my High Places Phenomenon was recently triggered during a visit to the Grand Canyon. As I stood at its very edge, I fought the nearly-irresistible urge to leap into the abyss. Similarly, whenever I visit my brother Kevin in his 32nd-floor NYC apartment or my brother J in his 20th-floor Downtown Tampa apartment, I consciously struggle with my HPP and avoid stepping out onto their balconies where the voices inside my head immediately begin their Sirens’ song.
Ironically, I don’t even like to fly. I have to prepare myself mentally for days ahead of my flight, and my anxiety level is extremely high the day of, nor am I a thrill seeker like my good friend Del, who regularly challenges me to to try skydiving. A challenge I’ve been able to resist with little temptation to jump from a perfectly-good airplane.
The good news is that a person with High Places Phenomenon does not possess a death wish – Freudian or otherwise – nor is s/he suicidal. Although it is not a highly-studied disorder, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people experience this feeling at one time or another. Jennifer Hames, a faculty member in the Psychology Department at the University of Notre Dame, led the most exhaustive study into the condition for The Journal of Affective Disorders while a grad student at Florida Statue University and coined the phrase High Places Phenomenon. Hames stated in an interview with Breena Kerr, “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live.” She also explained that the urge is best described as a misfiring of brain signals. The person with HPP misinterprets the message to step back from the void as having to resist the desire to jump (https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/04/09/high-places-phenomenon/) and is freaked out by their misunderstanding.
My non-professional belief is that not only are the majority of HPP sufferers not suicidal but they actually possess an intense love of and appreciation for life, which they find threatened by the proximity to high places and the potential for falling and ending their highly-treasured life. Speaking only for myself, I would add that there is also something perversely alluring about the notion of experiencing the thrill of those few seconds of free fall despite possessing clear knowledge of the devastating rendezvous with the earth that awaits. It’s certainly a strange paradox to simultaneously fear to fall yet long to leap.
In the end, I’m glad that few are the times I find myself standing at such heights forced to resist the “call of the void.” There is also some solace in knowing that others struggle with the same counter-intuitive urge. If you have your own experiences with HPP, I’d love to read about them in the “Comments.”
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