Six months ago, I stood with quaking knees on the sideline of an empty Croke Park pitch. I had just bit the bullet and agreed to abseil from the back of the screen in the corner, the last person to do so that weekend. I was not the better for the experience.
It had taken me the full day to talk myself into doing it. I had stood at the halfway line for most of the day, greeting those who had abseiled, and every single one of them had asked me, with shining eyes like a child at Christmas: ‘Can I do it again?’.
I was there in my capacity as an ISPCC volunteer, just helping to run the fundraiser that day, but we were given the opportunity to experience the 140-ish foot abseil if we wanted to. Almost everyone else had, and I knew that even if I didn’t enjoy it, I would regret not doing it more. So, up I went with the last group of fundraisers.
We went up the stairs at the halfway line, and walked around the skywalk, a walkway around the roof structure of the stadium, with stunning 360 views around Dublin. I was already dry-mouthed and a bit shaky at this point, but I could still be momentarily distracted by the views. Once at the corner-point of the stadium, we detoured off the main walkway and onto a side-route. This was a dead-end walkway, and once we got to the end, we had to climb down a ladder onto the back of the screen. My advice to you at this point, if you’re ever having this experience yourself into the future? Don’t look down. I did, to find my footing on the ladder – turning 180 at the top of a ladder that high up is unnerving, never mind what comes next – and the glimpse I caught of the distance between me and the nearest seat on the steps way, way below me made my stomach do that weird flip that it does when you go over a bump in the road too fast in a car.
Safely down the ladder, although in a very anxious state, we were greeted by two men, whose job it was to get us onto the ropes and over the edge. They were the nicest guys, and I am thankful to this day that they didn’t judge me for what came next. I’m not a big believer in God, but boy did I say his name a lot in the next 5 or so minutes.
I was attached to the ropes, and very swiftly informed the guys that I would not be needing both as I would not be maneuvering myself down, but that they could just lower me. I didn’t trust my sweaty, shaky hands to do the job. They were fine with that, so the next job was to get me over the edge.
To be fair, the back of the screen in Croke Park was not designed with potential abseilers in mind. You have to climb over a pole about waist height while trying to duck so your head doesn’t bash off the diagonal one above you. You then have to sort of walk yourself down the rest of the structure, although this is really only feasible for those blessed with height – us smaller mortals endure this sort of ungainly swinging/lowering action which often results in temporarily swinging back in towards the screen, and also bruised shins/knees/egos.
But I hadn’t even got that far yet. So far, the guy working with me had convinced me to swing one leg over the initial pole. I was sat, all roped up, straddling this pole with my heartbeat like a rave in my ears. ‘Great work, now just swing the other leg over’ says the guy. ‘Nope, I’m good here’ I say. I’m dead convinced that I can move neither over and down, nor back the way I came. There’s always a part of me that stays in some way calm when I am panicked, and it was now calmly telling me, and I was repeating it out loud, that I was just going to stay right where I was. Forever? If need be.
I was in full panic-attack now, but this wasn’t a point where I could back out. In fairness, the guys that had been stood on the back of that screen, helping dozens of people abseil over the two days of that weekend were probably cold, hungry and tired. They knew I was the last person of the day, and I wasn’t make life easy for any of us in that moment. To their credit, they were excellent, never losing patience, seeming as though they fully understood and accepted the sheer terror I was experiencing. Eventually they got me over that ledge, and I landed safely in the stands below, although, as I said, not the better for the experience.
I was shook, to be honest, and while I was glad I had done it, I swore, never again.
And I meant it, too. Until this weekend. The ISPCC were doing the same fundraiser and I was helping out on the day again. I thought maybe, maybe I could do it, and try to not freak out this time – there was clearly something I had missed about it – everyone else had enjoyed it so much. And in truth, once I was safely clear of the screen, and ironically, away from the sturdy structure that could have provided me an element of safety had anything gone wrong – once I was merely dangling by the rope – I had been able to experience a moment of enjoyment
But, at lunchtime, the guys announced that there would be a lull in fundraisers coming through and if we wanted to go, we should go now. I suddenly lost my appetite for the sandwich I was halfway through eating. I had spent the morning this time up in the stands, taking photos of everyone as they came down. I felt slightly panicked watching them, so I knew this second attempt would not be as fearless as I had hoped. I chickened out of going up with the others, I said I’d go later in the day. I knew I had to get my head right.
And you know, as I sat there the rest of the afternoon, I thought about why I was there at all – why would I give up my afternoon, and several others at regular points through my already busy life, to help out at events where I don’t ever get paid. In fact, why do I give up every Saturday evening of my life to volunteer for the ISPCC?
That’s an easy answer. Think back to when you were a teenager, lads. I was lucky, I did well at school, I had friends, I had boyfriends, my family was a secure unit, I didn’t want for things. But I still had regular adolescent problems. I remember feeling like the whole world was against me. I remember feeling like nobody would understand. And everyone has that angst – but then I try to imagine if I hadn’t been so lucky. What if someone had been abusing me, or what if I lived in a conservative-minded family and I was gay? What if I was bullied in school? If I struggled so much with my regular teenage problems, how the hell would I have coped with something like that? Who would I have talked to? Where would I have even started?
The kids that contact me every Saturday are brave like you wouldn’t believe. They talk about the most personal, awful things, the things that mean they can’t sleep at night, the things that mean they feel wholly alone in the world. But despite feeling petrified, and not knowing what to do – they talk to us. That’s the bravest thing in the world, so if they could do that, you’re damn right I could keep my composure and drop on a rope 140 into the Croke Park stands. Here’s a screenshot from the video of me doing just that:
The 80 odd other people who abseiled on Saturday raised a staggering amount of money. They did that, and had a possible once-in-a-lifetime experience, so that those kids, once they worked up the courage, could be sure of reaching someone on the end of that phone when they rang Childline. So that I can continue to be in that room every Saturday talking to whoever might need us in that moment, for whatever reason. I abseiled in tribute to the bravery of those kids, and the kindness of those who allow us in the ISPCC to continue to be there for those brave kids, who should never have to experience anything awful, but if they do, who deserve at the very least, to have someone to support them in their time of need.
This is a picture of me after completing the abseil this weekend: