By James Somper
A man has finally overcome his 40 year phobia of STAIRS after claiming his fear was so intense he missed holidays, skipped school classes and even prolonged losing his virginity.
Richard O. Smith, 52, first became terrified of heights as a child but was not diagnosed with bathmophobia – the specific fear of stairs, until he was in his forties.
But the writer, from Boston, Lincolnshire, has finally come to terms with his unusual phobia after years of feeling ashamed of his fear, which limited his life, for decades.
Now able to live a normal life, married Richard spent years avoiding any events where he knew he would have to scale heights and even hid the condition from his wife.
Richard, who now lives in Oxford, said: “My phobia of unfamiliar stairs dictated my day-to-day for quite a large portion of my life. It was very restrictive.
“I kept it secret from people because I was too embarrassed about it, there was an overriding sense of shame.
“I was aware that it wasn’t beneficial to me but I was ashamed of it and reluctant to get help.”
Richard said that his fear began as a child after he fell down the stairs at home when he was three-years-old.
But it wasn’t until a school trip to a local castle aged eight that he realised just how bad his condition was.
Richard said: “I had absolutely loved castles, but on this trip I kept trying to walk up the stairs but I just couldn’t bring myself to go up.
“I realised I was physically unable to go up the stairs, I couldn’t move my feet and became very agitated. I realised then that I was terrified of stairs.
“Eventually, a teacher pulled me aside to ask what was wrong and I became very upset and emotional.”
At school, Richard was taunted by other children and frequently ducked out of any lesson that would involve heights.
He even turned down the opportunity of losing his virginity as a teenager after a girl tried to lure him up a tower but he was unable to climb the ladder.
And on the day he finally struck up a conversation with the girl he fancied, his heart sank as she climbed the stairs of the school bus.
Richard said: “I couldn’t stand on a stool or step ladder or climbing frames.
“I remember getting out of doing PE when it was going to be gym based on the gym walls. It was very difficult and humiliating for me.
“I was always avoiding things like swimming and jumping, I never did any of that.
“I had safety strategies. If we went to the seaside I wouldn’t go and see the view from the clifftops.
“Once when I was 15, a girl told me to follow her up to the top of a water tower. But I couldn’t make it up the tower’s ladder, so nothing happened.
“One day the girl I fancied sat downstairs on the bus. I tried to speak to her but she just got up and looked at me.
“She surveyed me in silent undisguised contempt. She said nothing and walked upstairs to the top of the bus.
“I’d still go out with her if she asked, though. Obviously.”
Although embarking on a successful career as a writer and comedian, Richard said he was unable to face up to his condition and didn’t even tell his wife Catherine.
He was able to summon up the courage to propose to her on a church roof while on holiday in Holland, but didn’t reveal the full extent of his phobia until she noticed.
He said: “I didn’t explain it to Catherine.
“When I proposed, I wanted to summon the courage to do it but a passer-by said I looked absolutely terrified.
“Eventually Catherine worked it out by seeing how much of a mess as I was whenever she asked if we could go up high places while on holiday.”
It was only in 2014 that Richard decided to tackle his phobia head on, by undergoing therapy from experts across the globe after began writing a book on James Sadler, the first English balloonist.
He was then diagnosed with acrophobia, an extreme fear of heights, and bathmophobia, fear of stairs or slopes.
Now, he is able to do climb stairs and stand at balcony’s is able to tackle heights with ease.
Richard said: “I didn’t start having therapy until my mid 40s because I just thought I couldn’t do it anymore.
“I got a commission for work to go up in hot air balloon so I thought I really had to overcome the fear.
“I’d been to see a clinical psychologist at Oxford University, and found that being educated about my phobia helped a lot.
“It was interesting to see how my brain was tricking me.
“A professor from Holland took me up to a tower in Oxford and made me lean over the hand rail. That did the trick.
“I was able to start going up stairs remarkably quickly.
“When I finally got up in the hot air balloon, it was very cathartic.
“For the first ten minutes I thought it was a dream and didn’t wasnt to peer over the basket.
“I went up a church tower for the first time since I proposed to my wife this year and saw the view. I spent a huge part of my life missing out on views.”
Now, Richard has strong advice for anyone with a similar phobia.
He said: “Intervention tends to work, efficiently and relatively quickly. So admit it, reject the shame, suspend your safety strategies and seek some help!”