The Phobic Four: Rocking a rollercoaster
‘It is an anxiety so extreme it feels inescapable’
"I can hear myself screaming a low bellow like a cow getting punched in the head." Una Mullally on the Big Dipper in Barry's of Portrush, Co-Antrim. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin
Being terrified of rollercoasters is hardly a fear that disrupts one’s daily life, but rollercoasters just encompass a larger network of fears; velocity, ascending or descending in any form, heights.
Every time I’ve tried to learn to drive, I stay in first gear because I can’t stand speed. I’ve had panic attacks on ski lifts and in cable cars. I get nervy when I stand up on something, even a chair. The people at Funderland once had to turn off the Waltzers after I ended up in the foetal position. I am utterly convinced I’m going to die in an aircraft crash and have recurring nightmares about it. But rollercoasters? Rollercoasters are pure evil. They encapsulate everything I’m scared of. What I’m getting at here is: I am a wuss.
Armed with a free hour and a whole bunch of cynicism, I head off to Jason O’Callaghan in the D4 Clinic. O’Callaghan is a former Sunday Independent journalist turned hypnotist. And I have to say, you don’t get to type that sentence too often.
He impresses upon me that hypnosis isn’t a load of tosh. He asks me to relax and I sink into a chair while he repeats soothing things. I don’t really remember the rest, but when I pop out of a meditative state, he asks me how long I think I was under. Fifteen minutes, I venture. More like 45. O’Callaghan gives me a CD with the session on it, which I promise to listen to a few times during the week, then promptly forget about.
On the way up to Barry’s Amusements in Portrush, I listen to O’Callaghan’s mantras on my phone. Then my phone dies.
Barry’s is great craic: full of fun arcade games and families enjoying a laugh and me having palpitations. The ride next to the rollercoaster is appropriately called Freak Out.
I repeat some of O’Callaghan’s mantras in my head, but then realise I’m getting them mixed up with bits from that episode of Friends when Joey accidentally listens to a hypnosis tape for women giving up smoking. “You are a strong, confident woman,” I think. Wait, that’s not right.
“At least the lightning has stopped. You’d be a sitting duck up there otherwise.” The photographer is weaving a silver lining around the current situation. I am about to cry.
On the Big Dipper, I repeatedly check if the restraining bar is secure. There is a small child sitting beside me, easy breezy, as if he’s waiting for the 46A.
“Breathe,” I tell myself. We ascend to the top of the rail until I can see the beach far below and houses in the distance. Oh no. And then we drop. I can hear myself screaming, a low bellow, like a cow getting punched in the head. The second go is worse, and this time I’m at the front of the carriage. Again, the bovine screams. Again, the violent terror.
“Please don’t make me do that again.” The photographer wants one more shot. I need to gather myself, ordering a cup of tea with three sachets of sugar. Walking through the amusement arcade out into the rain, where the small rollercoaster looms as large as Everest, my chest tightens. It is an anxiety so extreme it feels inescapable. The heat in my body rises, my mind flickers around for some kind of imaginary exit. My vision becomes strangely focused on some small detail, nausea unfolds in the pit of my stomach, my heart starts fluttering, my palms pulse with sweat, an incredible sense of forboding envelops me.
Get me out of here. Then I think about what O’Callaghan said. Breathe, keep calm, you are in control, you can do this, everything is fine. I pull myself back from the edge. The third time is the worst. On firm ground, shaking in the rain, the photographer gives me a thumbs up, indicating he’s finally got the shot. I want to cry again, this time with relief.
Una Mullally was treated by Jason O’Callaghan of d4clinic.ie