Finding and Losing Control on Rollercoasters

As a child, I was coerced by my mother onto intimidating rides at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. I suppose it was for my own good as I was quite the coward. I feared catastrophe.

Watching my sister play Roller Coaster Tycoon, a computer game that simulated amusement park management, only exacerbated that fear. She would create a roller coaster similar to Cedar Point’s Wicked Twister where the track ends as riders shoot up into the sky. The roller coaster is built to keep the trains from flying off the end of the track, but Katie, my devious sister, would max out the roller coaster’s speed and watch as the train full of virtual guests would fly off the track and explode mid-air. She was quite good at the game so destroying her park score with virtual deaths added to the challenge of the game for her. At least, that is the reasoning I tell myself so I do not have to contemplate the potential darkness in my sister’s soul.

This image of roller coasters exploding in air was all I could see the day that my mother goaded me onto Wicked Twister, the actual daring roller coaster at Cedar Point. I am not exaggerating when I say she had to prod me onto it. I whimpered and whined and she ridiculed my pathetic behavior. She had every right. I was probably eighteen years old at the time. I nearly threw a temper tantrum about riding. The scowling and sneering looks of other park guests kept me from collapsing on the ground. I physically shook and stomped my feet, but somehow Mom got me to climb into that seat.

I sat down, practicing deep breathing. I pulled down the over-the-shoulder restraint to its tightest point and buckled it to my seat. I pressed my head back against the headrest. My body was tense with nervous anticipation. The restraint lifted. It lifted. It rose up, pulling at the woven fabric attached to the buckle. I frantically pulled down the restraint, pressing it tight until it latched. My breathing was rapid and my eyes felt dry. I must have stopped blinking out of fear. I was trying to reassure myself that this ride was safe when an ominous hiss sounded and my restraint lifted once again.

Three times, my restraint refused to protect me. Three times, it rejected my body, pulling away from me. Three times, my restraint released, rising above my head. When my restraint latched for the fourth time, the roller coaster attendants incredulously determined we were properly secured and ready. The ride slowly clicked backwards, and Mom simply said, “I hope it doesn’t go up during the ride.” My eyes grew wide and I clung to the restraint, as if I could physically pin it to my body for safety. I proceeded to shriek, “Oh my God!” incessantly at the top of my lungs. I don’t remember breathing in, only breathing out that frantic prayer. By the time the ride came to a complete stop, I was hoarse. My mom wheezed with laughter.

I still ride roller coasters. I find a sick joy in the sheer terror as a roller coaster slowly trudges uphill while I contemplate all that could go wrong, only to experience the sheer thrill of the wind whipping my face while my stomach summersaults. It is the only time in life that I willingly release control.

I am a control freak. I hide it well, I think. At least I don’t ask my friends if I am and they don’t mention it. So since it has been unsaid in public, I can say that I am a secret control freak. I live in constant tension from keeping life on a short leash. I plan out my days. Even for “spontaneous” trips, I still have a plan; it’s just less structured and allows for more exploring. I always control the destination. I know where I will end up. I am willing to be somewhat flexible on the timing or the route, but the destination is always firm. The unknown terrifies me. I hate not knowing what to expect. I need to know my destination.

When I ride roller coasters, I know the destination. Even in these little moments of giving up control, I choose controlled environments. There is an illusion of being out of control in roller coasters. Thanks to an ornery cousin who would list examples of horrific ways roller coasters can go wrong as we waited in line to ride one, I feel like I give up control on a roller coaster. While I have not returned to the Wicked Twister – a death trap, I’m certain –, I have lost count of the times I have ridden my favorite coaster, Cedar Point’s Millennium Force. It has all of the thrill without any possibility of shooting off the edge of the track and exploding into nothingness.

The Millennium Force is a steel roller coaster that boasts a 300 ft drop at an 80-degree angle, reaching up to 93 mph. This is the roller coaster that thrills me the most. Since it was one of the most popular rides at Cedar Point when I was a teenager, the line was long and tedious. As we inched closer to the front of the line, the butterflies in my stomach intensified. By the time I was sitting down, I would be panicking. Why are these lap bars so small? How is that supposed to hold me in? I’m huge. There is no way on earth that this tiny triangle of plastic can protect me.  Every single time I rode the Millennium Force, these thoughts stampeded through my mind. I’d practice breathing as we chugged up the 310 ft hill. What if we get stuck? Inhale. How will we get down? Exhale. I’m clumsy. I’ll trip just trying to get out of my seat. Inhale. I’ll die. Swallow and forget to breathe out. 

Then, the train would cascade over the hilltop every time and we’d barrel down to the earth, leaving my worries behind. It was a predictable journey, but I felt fearless each time I conquered this ride. This ride has safely provided me with that thrill every time – save one.

One fateful day, my college classmates and I had decided to spend the day at Cedar Point. With two of my friends, I got in line for the Millennium Force. As always, I felt that tickle in my gut as we crept forward, closer to the ride. When we reached the front of the line, my friends climbed into the row behind me, and I clambered into a seat next to a stranger, an adolescent boy. I pulled that tiny yellow lap bar down and began that familiar panic. Did the bar shrink? How does this protect anyone? Breathe. Then the ride was off. We ascended 15 mph up the hill and I felt the nervous anticipation. Suddenly, a hiss beneath me sounded a warning, and we stopped. Just stopped. Three-quarters of the way up that mountainous hill, the ride halted. I forced a smile. It’s okay. This happens. Stay calm. Be calm for your friends. I turned to ask if they were okay. As I smiled encouragingly at them, I noticed the sheer drop below. My mind began shouting behind my calm facade. How do we get down? What if they can’t get us started? What if the train slips backwards, causing us to crash into the train at the loading station below and explode into a fiery blaze? But I masked my terror to refrain from my worrying the other passengers.

I was internally praising myself for staying so calm when my neighbor looked at me with his brow lowered in concern. “Miss, are you okay? Breathe. You need to breathe.”

In my attempt to appear calm, I had stopped breathing. The blood had drained from my face, leaving a pasty white mask of fear. My neighbor and the couple in front of me began instructing me to inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale.

I need control like a child needs a security blanket. I wrap myself in it to protect from the uncertainties of life. That day, the ride resumed after an excruciating fifteen minutes of uncertain waiting. We returned to the ground safely. I heard something had fallen onto the track. The roller coaster operators were always in control of the situation, halting our ride to safely remove the object. Regardless, I had no control in that moment, and it petrified me.

I have always kept tight control over my life. In that control, I have developed an aversion to the unknown. I can’t control what I don’t understand and what I can’t see. Education was a field with which I was familiar. The world outside of school was an unknown. Without any exploration, I chose the career path I knew. I could see the destination: I would be a beloved schoolmarm. So I worked in daycare facilities, a tutoring center, and finally in public high schools. I taught high school English for six years: five in northern Virginia and one in Kentucky. Teaching became my entire life. I let it consume me. It defined me.

My career came to a screeching halt in late March. I learned that my teaching contract in Kentucky was not going to be renewed. I was confused, devastated, lost. Teaching was who I was. I was once again stuck at the top of that roller coaster forgetting to breathe.

As my mind raced to figure out how I could prove everyone wrong, restore my pride, and become an even more committed teacher, I realized that I had to make a drastic change. I had to stop allowing my career to come first. I needed to become more than a career. I needed to stop controlling my life at the expense of exciting opportunities. Besides, it was foolish to continue to teach out of pride, to prove to others how capable I was. That wasn’t the right choice. I need to do what is best for me, not for my ego. What is best for me is to stop trying to dictate my entire life, leaving no room for adventure, romance, the unknown.

Now, I’ve truly relinquished control. I am pursuing a career change without knowing where that will lead. For the first time in my life, I have no future mapped out, no destination. I don’t know what I will be doing next week, let alone next year. At 29 years old, I moved back in with my parents. I am starting over and I have no control.

And you know what? I feel free for the first time. When I breathe now, I inhale potential, excitement, and the unknown. I am fully free. I know that this new ride is going to be indescribably exhilarating. For once, it’s a ride without any track, without a carefully planned path, without a predetermined destination. It’s a ride with unlimited possibilities.