“As I mentioned before, I work in behavior, and my specialty is managing fear and aggression, so all my professionalism is coming to bear right now.”
I have newly returned from a dream trip I’d been planning for fully ten years, a visit to New Zealand and then a cruise back across the Pacific. Yes, it was awesome.
I wanted to take the fantastic opportunity to do things I cannot do at home. Indiana has plenty of caves (our limestone supplied Washington D.C.’s and most other major cities’ buildings and monuments, and limestone country is cave country), but we have a distinct shortage of glowworms, so I wanted to go down under to see them. And rather than take a boat, I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous. So I booked a spelunking tour.
I knew the tour would involve abseiling (also called rappelling) and swimming/floating through 50-degree water. I didn’t realize that the abseil would be 35 meters through a narrow neck into the cave itself, and thus would be the very first task.
Heights, dark, tight spaces, all the classic fears in one go. Whee!
Fears and Fundamentals
I’d marked “heights” and “tight spaces” as potential issues on my registration form and waiver, and one of our two guides pulled me aside to talk. I specified that these weren’t actual phobias — I like to use terms correctly, especially behavioral/psychological terms, and — but were rather things with which I am uncomfortable to a lesser or greater degree. I will go out on a hotel balcony or a viewing platform, for example, but I won’t lean on the rail to look out, nope.
But I believed I could manage myself through the described scenarios. I work in behavior and I’ve had practice managing my own discomfort and squicks, see. I asked only that I be given advance notice of any challenges, so I could prepare myself, rather than having it sprung on me suddenly “to prevent worry.” Vaughn said we were good with that.
So we headed out to learn basic abseiling.
They had a short, steep hill to learn on, which was great. I listened to instructions and watched the demo, and I translated everything into TAGpoints. Thumb to bottom bar. Hand at four o’clock. Hand to spine. Pointing the toes would be unstable and allow you to spin, so heels to wall. Good.
We were using five bar break racks, so we needed skills in two hands, and there were deep grooves of varying depths in the bars from the lines. What kind of friction could burn a nylon rope through solid metal? Focus on my TAGpoints.
But actually, the process itself is fairly simple. The dominant hand controls the rope angle and thus the friction — four o’clock to descend, hand to spine to stop — and the off hand presses the bottom bar to add or reduce friction. I experimented with faster and slower, and I felt good almost immediately. Easy!
Okay, time to head to the cave.
Management and More Management
First off, I have to comment on one of the most brilliant pieces of environmental management I’ve come across. The entrance to the platform over the cave mouth was framed by two posts and a horizontal bar at shoulder-height, exactly where one couldn’t walk without stooping under it. This ducking movement made it very obvious if a helmet were too loose or unfastened. No nagging, no forgetting, just an inherent and unavoidable safety check. Perfect!
And then, aw, no. The abseil into the cave wasn’t down a slope, like the grassy hill on which we practiced, but totally vertical. Which kind of makes sense, but isn’t what I was picturing. Okay, refresh TAGpoints in mind.
Vaughn gestured me forward and began to double-check my gear. To make conversation and distract me from the gaping Sarlacc pit waiting below, he asked, “So, Laura, what do you do for work?”
“As I mentioned before, I work in behavior, and my specialty is managing fear and aggression, so all my professionalism is coming to bear right now. All the blood has left my extremities, but I’m telling myself that’s just because the wetsuit is damp and I’m chilled. Yeah. But let’s do this.”
(Blood leaving the extremities is a classic fear symptom, the body preparing to reduce damage in case of injury. It’s often accompanied by loss of fine motor control, which is why panic buttons are big and hard to miss, why law enforcement and military are trained to drop a pistol’s slide manually instead of using the convenient but tiny slide release button, and why a stressed dog often takes treats roughly and hurts your fingers.
Rather than getting angry about bruised fingers, which at best is beyond the dog’s control because you chose this scenario, not him, and which at worst will add stress to an already stressful scenario and make your next training session more difficult, just plan ahead. I often deliver treats to the ground, avoiding finger/mouth contact entirely, or use a delivery tool or an alternate treat, such a pressurized cheese-in-a-can which can be licked off the can, no fingers and no teeth.)
Okay, time to go. That first step into empty space is the absolute worst, they said, and ohmygosh, yes it is. Okay.
Vaughn was taking pictures as we descended, and I told him I wanted two. “First, the standard smile-for-the-camera shot, and then the what’s-really-going-on-inside shot.”
He grinned and took two photos.
Okay, hand to four o’clock, go.
The Throat, the squeeze into the cave itself, came fast. It felt tight, but Vaughn had explained it was short, and so it was. I kept pressure on the rack with my left thumb and eased rope through, letting myself down slowly. The Throat opened up, and I was in open space near a wall.
I knew I did not want to spin and stare at a gaping open space vanishing into total darkness, so I made myself stable (heels to wall) and starting inching down. I kept my eyes on the spot of wall illuminated by my headlight and focused on my hand. Four o’clock. Four o’ clock. Heels to wall. Four o’clock.
I did not think about thing which could go wrong. I did not even think about the emergency protocols we had discussed. There wasn’t going to be an emergency as long as I focused on my wall and my TAGpoints, which I was doing, and I was good.
And then I heard a voice behind and below me. “You sound really close,” I said.
I was inches from the floor.
Rory, the other guide, guided me to touchdown. I tried to unfasten my carabiner, but my fingers were stiff and uncoordinated. Loss of fine motor skills, I thought clinically to myself. Perfectly logical. I’d been able to handle the gross motor skills (big movements) just fine, but not small ones.
Rory helped me with the carabiner and then I stepped aside to wait with my husband Jon and a few others who’d come down previously. My knees were shaking and my legs remained weak for about ten minutes.
One of the other tour participants emerged suddenly from the Throat and whizzed downward, tapping the wall only briefly before launching back and down again. I wondered who the James Bond stuntman was, and was informed that was Peter, a vacationing paratrooper. Well, that explained it!
As I explained in my Reactive Human post, I was still conversing and even making jokes with the others, commenting on the cave itself (glowworms and a clearly visible fossil) and the abseil. Most observers would not have noticed my stress, because we are generally encouraged to hide it. That’s fine, but it means if we assume it’s not there and push, you’re going to hit threshold a lot sooner than expected. If someone had feinted pushing me over an edge at that moment, for example, or pressured me to immediately challenge myself again, they would have been at risk of serious aggression! This is why we don’t pressure a learner under stress; we ask them to make their own decisions about what comes next. Much safer!
But there were glowworms visible, and my legs recovered, and when we were all safely inside the cave and ready to progress, I was the first to climb the rocky edge and head down after Rory. We marveled at ancient formations, familiar to me from other caves but always impressive, and made our way to an extended platform.
Rory clipped me into a harness, and told me to step out onto a ledge. I was confused but managed to remember that this tour included a zip line, because I’d had to look up “flying fox” which is what New Zealanders call it, and that must be what this was, and I was just about to ask about braking and other pertinent safety info when Rory said, “Go!” and my body reflexively let go.
I was falling into darkness, wind whipping my face, and I had no idea how to stay safe or stop at the end. I’ve done some zip lining before (which was a whole ‘nother set of behavioral management for heights!), and I know there are wholly different systems for braking, by hand or by body posture. And now I couldn’t even see where I needed to brake before pancaking into a stone wall.
It was beautiful, of course, whizzing through the pitch blackness — Rory had switched off my headlight — with just tiny blue pricks of glowworms around me. Absolutely magical. But also kind of terrifying, because I didn’t know what to do.
And then there was an abrupt jerk as I hit a braking mechanic. Turns out I didn’t have to do a thing to brake, because there was a stop built in to this particular line. Vaughn popped up from the darkness to greet me, and I got out of the zip line and harness.
I’d asked Vaughn not to surprise me, but I hadn’t said anything to Rory. It wasn’t his fault for not knowing, and indeed it’s probably pretty cool to a lot of people to suddenly drop into wind-whipping blackness with glowworm stars. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the view, I would have enjoyed it more if I’d been able to concentrate on the glowworms instead of whether I should be changing my body position to slow down or when I should get my feet from starfish (a previous zip-lining TAGpoint) to braced in front of me to catch myself. Even though I technically didn’t need to know, I needed to know I didn’t need to know. Make sense?
Just because a learner responds to cues doesn’t mean we can assume everything else is okay. I let go when Rory told me to and immediately regretted it. Both Vaughn and Rory told me to let go and I did, but Vaughn checked if I were mentally ready first. Cues are sacred. Use one in an emergency, absolutely, but know that you’re risking future reliability if it feels like a betrayal of trust.
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, which followed the underground river from there. Rory gave us some biological perspective on the glowworm (more accurately a glow-maggot, which somehow doesn’t flow as well to the tourism marketing ear) and their role in cave ecosystems (they capture wayward or newly-hatched insects and devour them alive). We saw more fossils, wriggled through passages, and free-climbed up two waterfalls to exit the cave. It was fantastic.
But the story’s not over yet.
Recall and Reliability
A week later, I found myself in northern New Zealand, on a tour which had been wholly misrepresented (through no fault of the operators), and I learned I was going to be abseiling again, this time above ground and down a waterfall. This was a much larger group, and some of the participants weren’t sure they wanted to jump backwards off a rocky ledge into empty space, which really isn’t an unreasonable attitude if you think about it, but as I said the tour had been misrepresented and they were already here.
Once again we were learning basic abseiling, but this time on the flat instead of on a steep hill. Big difference. While the equipment we were using was different (a figure-8 plate instead of a bar rack), the greater difference was that walking backwards on the flat feels very little like moving downward; there’s no approximation to accustom you to leaning into and trusting the harness. When I tried to let myself fall backward and catch myself with the equipment (hand to spine!), a guide stopped me and told me to walk backward, which didn’t have the same refresher effect at all. Remember how disrupted I was by going from a steep hill to vertical? This was an even bigger leap.
We did practice belaying one another, which was cool, but again the experience is totally different from horizontal to vertical. I was corrected by a guide for bracing the rope against the heel of my hand and my hip, which he said couldn’t work. Yet I knew full well this is the most efficient way for me to hold a line, as it’s what I use for holding big dogs during agitation! and at first I suspected it to be a male/female anatomical difference. (I know a lot of guys who can hold a line with thumbs forward, due to greater upper body strength, while most females benefit from using our lower bodies to keep pressure.) But then one of my party pointed out that while my grip was very effective on a horizontal line, it would be harder to use on a vertical rope, and suddenly everything made sense. Having a more comparable practice scenario would have lessened confusion and made the desired behavior both more likely and more reinforcing.
I was really, really glad I’d had the previous experience to learn. It wasn’t that the guides here were bad instructors, certainly not, it was that the feel was just so different between a flat grassy lawn and a vertical hang where at times one’s feet didn’t even touch the wall. Indeed, some participants had a hard time transferring skills from the horizontal to the vertical. Approximations are important for confident learning!
I found my TAGpoints ready to mind, however, and even shared a few with the others as we waited our turns. We had several consecutive abseils, and by the final, longest one, I was ready to try my own James Bond stuntwoman descent. I stepped over the ledge and dropped, not a few inches, but feet.
I kicked off the wall and dropped another few feet.
I didn’t walk down the wall, I jumped down it.
I did not realize people below were cheering for me; I couldn’t hear them over the waterfall and my own mental iterations. But when I neared the waist-deep pool where I would land, I stopped for a photo.
“That was great!” said one of the spotting belayers.
“Thanks! I’m really proud of me,” I answered. “I’m scared of heights.”
His eyebrows popped. “Really? That’s amazing!”
I don’t know if I looked like Peter the paratrooper, but I felt like Peter the paratrooper. Go, me.
A couple of hikers were at the base of the falls, watching as we gathered our gear. “Did you just rapel down that waterfall?” asked one incredulously.
“Yes,” I said with a huge grin. Yes, I did.
On the way back, I got in a conversation with guide Cam about animal behavior, from an aggressive dog in the area to exotics and protected contact, and a bit about my own abseiling experience and how I was having great fun doing something which pretty much terrified me.
I’m still uncomfortable with heights — I still didn’t go to the railing on our 25th floor hotel balcony last week, just admired the incredible view from a step back — but I learned a new set of skills to work around that fear and to enjoy myself despite it. And that’s what behavior modification is all about.