On Leaving Flying

I probably never told you about the time that I said ‘Nope‘ to a world renowned flying trapeze catcher. Well, unless of course you were one of my flying trapeze students or a close friend.

For those who might not know, in flying trapeze, when a flyer is performing a trick with the intention of having that trick be caught by the catcher, it is normally to catcher’s job to say ‘no’ if the timing is bad. This serves as a signal to the flyer to get ready to land in the net instead. Normally, it isn’t the job of the flyer to make decisions about whether the timing is good or somehow ‘off’. 

I was really quiet mortified when it happened. After all, who was I to suggest that this professional catcher’s timing was off? 

I felt even more embarrassed when I returned to the platform and said to the catcher, “Sorry, it’s not you, it’s me.” And he responded with, “I know.” 

Oh, god, could I just go hide in a hole forever now please?

 On the outside I did my best to be confident in my next steps, but I only really had moments before the catcher said, “Send it across again.” That’s flying trapeze talk for do your trick again to the catcher.

So, I lined it up again–more trapeze talk for getting ready–and said, “Listo!”

That day at trapeze practice was not the day I left flying trapeze. I’d say it was a day mid-career, but it’s still a day I remember quite clearly, even though that was probably 2011.

In the beginning, back in the summer of 2000 when I first discovered flying trapeze, it sang to my soul and did for many years. But by the end I struggled to remember that feeling amongst all the others I felt.

Like any discipline, and any circus endeavor, there is very much this love/hate relationship. 

There are highs and there are lows. 

There are days or weeks where everything feels easy and is going your way and then there are the days when you’re on the struggle bus and you burst into tears and cry your face off in a beanbag chair (which I did… and on more than one occasion.) 

That day in 2011, I wouldn’t say it was the start of feelings of doubt creeping in, but it was around that time that things did start to change. 

It felt like I was riding the struggle bus more often than not.

In the final few years before I left flying, I struggled with comparing myself to others. Seeing them continue to make progress while I felt I had slowed down. 

It became this incessant force that ate away at the back of my brain. 

Flying wasn’t fun anymore. 

I wasn’t really progressing. 

Others were getting better, (better than me). 

And although I was really happy for my fellow flyers–those on our staff flying troupe–I felt like I had stagnated and become yesterday’s news.

That, in my brain felt terrible enough, but it was also the fear that I felt.

Fear was always a part of the flying trapeze experience. To a certain extent, that’s a really healthy thing. 

But this fear was different.

This fear wasn’t ‘healthy fear’. This newer fear felt like it was holding me back and keeping me from seeking more challenging skills. This fear, I suddenly began to feel, began as a slow creep into my psyche.

I blamed it on getting older. 

Fear of getting injured. 

Age… that means you don’t bounce back from injury quite as fast as you did in your youth, so it means being extra careful. Perhaps over-careful. 

This fear and this comparing myself to others, not being good enough. This was what felt like the downfall of me as a flying trapeze artist.

I remember talking about it for many sessions with my therapist. I don’t think we ever really resolved it. Mostly because I don’t think I was ready to face it. It took me many years to really come to the bottom of it.

I don’t think I came to really understand what had changed in me until some years later. Just by chance. A moment of reflection. Sparked by two posts on Facebook, both having to do with mental health.

The reflection went like this…..

I was thinking about all that fear I felt towards the end of my career in flying trapeze. And how it had caused me to shrink away from pushing myself too far, towards bigger, more challenging skills, like a double (back tuck) out of safety lines. How I felt it was a major reason I had left flying.

How I hated that. 

How I had let fear win. 

As I reflected, I recognized how at the time while I was still flying I had consciously thought that if this fear was going to be there, then I needed something different to focus on as I continued to practice and prepare for shows with the staff fly troupe.

I decided to focus on just perfecting my skills and making them be flawless. Taking these basic skills and do them perfectly. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I have to really work to tone that part of my brain down. 

But take the skills I had and make them look flawless and effortless was my goal. Good clean lines and shapes that I made while flying; that became my goal. 

I had said to my brain: ‘fine if you aren’t going let me keep pushing for that bigger and bigger tricks, I am going to be damn awesome at the skills I have and love.’

What I remembered was that I had found that practice and shows had became fun again-especially shows. 

No longer was I worried I might do something weird and make my performance look ugly, but how I had focused on being a performer–something I love doing.

I continued remembering how even when things messed up a bit, I handled them with ease. Things had become second nature. Something I remember being happy had finally happened.

This reflection made me think of a specific time where the enjoyment of the performance–even through some adversity–really was testament to that changed thinking.

Like the time I had sprained my ankle right before a fly show and so landing back on the platform (after a swing) had become somewhat precarious with that foot. 

In the show, with my trip back to the board from the catcher… 

[More trapeze talk: after a catch, the flyer (me) swings with the catcher. We work together for me to leave their hands and catch the return bar, which my teammates on the platform have released for me to catch. Once I do, I swing back towards the platform to re-join them.] 

…I was too high on my first swing back to the board. 

This is normally how you like it. You can make a nice clean, even dramatic, return to the platform. But for my sprained ankle, it would have been way too high. 

So I took an extra swing and didn’t feel bad about it. I even added some flare for the audience to enjoy (see photo).

What I realized in that reflection was that I had moved past that fear, doubt and comparing myself to others and had begun to focus on being the best me–the best flyer–I could be and I had found joy again. I found that I could really perform and return to that platform and ham it up for the crowd.

What I realized in that moment of reflection, that in the end–the end of my flying career–wasn’t because I let fear get the best of me, something I had really thought had happened, but that I had left flying for entirely different reason.

My last day of flying was December 31, 2015. It seems so long ago now. I remember it being a long, hard decision to give up the ‘flying’ part of my job. There were other reasons to leave where I was working, but mostly because the direction I wanted to head in my career no longer walked the same path as my job as a flying trapeze instructor. I miss flying sometimes though.

I am happy that I have had the time look back over it all and see yes, fear and comparing myself to others was definitely detrimental to my soul, my health and my flying career, but it’s not what ended flying trapeze for me. And that knowledge feels good.

So whatever happened when I stood on the platform again and said ‘Listo!’ to that famous, professional flying trapeze catcher? Well, I hopped off the platform on my ‘hep’ [trapeze talk for go] and performed my split and was caught and returned to the platform. 

I’m feeling pretty happy with how it all turned out.

Be Well, Theresa