As a skier, I had a big problem.
For 20 years, I'd grown increasingly uncomfortable riding chairlifts to the top.When the chair swung out over a deep valley or soared above treetops -- my legs waving in wide-open spaces -- I'd clutch.
Everybody else, it seemed, relaxed easily on their way up the mountain, strangely oblivious to the growing distance between them and Mother Earth. For me, the ride was an act of courage.
At some resorts, it can take 45 minutes to an hour to reach the summit. To make it, I developed self-preservation tactics. I'd seek out talkative seat mates, sing to myself ("Whistle a happy tune and no one will suspect you're afraid . . .") or close my eyes and hold on. Tight. Some fun.
Finally, it got to the point where I began avoiding those lifts I knew reached for the stars. Or I would quit the slopes early in the day when my courage began to wear thin.
For a couple of years I'd known of people who overcame their fear of flying through hypnosis. The idea intrigued me. Maybe it would work for chairlifts. Still, I was reluctant to have someone messing with my mind.
Even though I had the name of a well-recommended clinical psychologist, I didn't follow through until I was assigned to do a story on hypnosis. From my research, I decided hypnosis might work for me.
The psychologist, Dr. Melvin A. Gravitz, agreed. We set up a series of appointments to precede a one-day trip to nearby Ski Liberty, a ski area where I knew the lifts made me uneasy. That would be a test.
Gravitz, who lectures on hypnosis at medical schools nationwide, recently stepped down as president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis; the organization of 4,000 doctors, dentists and psychologists involved in hypnosis. o
During the first of our three, 45-minute sessions in his office, Gravitz and I talked about hypnosis and about my chairlift fear. It was a new one for him, but, as he said, "perhaps a sign of our times." The get-acquainted session is standard procedure.
A week later, he sat me in a comfortable, high-backed chair opposite him. To begin, he had me face forward but lift my eyes straight up as if I was trying to spot something on my forehead. It is the "eyelid-roll method" of induction into hypnosis, a technique many hypnotists favor.
"Your eyelids will begin to flicker and close," he said in the soft monotone he used throughout. They did.
"You're going to relax. Your whole body is going to feel relaxed."
Slowly he began to count back from 25. "You're going deeper and deeper. Now you are completely relaxed."
My eyes were closed, my head slumped on my shoulder, but I could hear every word he said and even hear the rustling of papers in his hand. I felt that at any time I could sit up and open my eyes, but I didn't.
Now began the attack on my problem. While I was in this relaxed state, Gravitz took me mentally up the mountainside. "It's basically a learning experience," he had explained earlier, erasing a bad habit and replacing it with a "positive experience."
"Picture yourself arriving at your favorite ski resort," he said, and I immediately imagined the Aspen, Colo., airport. "Now you're in the ski shop making a last-minute purchase." All the while, he told me to count silently from 10 to 1, assuring me I was becoming more relaxed with each number.
He had me buy a ticket and then approach the lift. I pictured the scariest one I know -- dangling at nearly 12,000 feet between two Rocky Mountain peaks. Aspen should issue you a parachute, it's so high. The last time up a couple of years ago with a near-expert class, I had to ask the ski instructor to ride with me. I all but clung to him.
"The chair is moving now, and you are very comfortable," Gravitz continued.
"You are talking to your companion and enjoying the scenery. You are having a wonderful time."
Finally, after talking me to the summit and off the lift, he said, "The next time, and every time you ride a chairlift you will be relaxed. If you feel you need to be more relaxed, count back from 10 to yourself." This, he later explained, was a form of self-hypnosis.
To bring me out of the hypnotic state, he said, "By the time I count to 10 you will have opened your eyes and you will sit up." On his count of 3, my left eyelid popped open. At 5, I sat up. I felt as if I has had an afternoon's nap.
The final session was a repeat, a sort of booster shot the day before the Ski Liberty trip.
The first time up the lift at Liberty I sensed some of that old fear of heights. I silently counted from 10 to 1, once and then again. My uneasiness disappeared. The next time up the ride was even better.
By day's end, the chairlift gave me no trouble at all. And, instead of quitting early as in the past, I grabbed one last ride to the top.
I wanted it to work, and I think it did.
Am I cured? I don't know. But I do know the day at Liberty turned out to be the most pleasant ski outing I can recall in years.
And I'm eager now to try out that sky-flying Aspen lift.