I have always been claustrophobic, for as far back as I can remember. When I was a child I was not able to reason through it as an adult can, so it was particularly painful back then. Something as simple as being in a room with a closed door was terrifying. We moved around a lot, and the first thing I did whenever I got my room at a new house was to plan out my escape route in the event that I got stuck in the room. Planning how I would get out– through the window, from the window to the roof to my parent’s balcony, from there down the drainpipe to the ground– was a ritual that allowed me to feel safe in my own room.
We lived in Europe growing up. One year, when I was 11 years old, my class took a trip to visit the old underground mines in a nearby mountain where, hundreds of years ago, miners had constructed a maze of tunnels beneath the earth. We had to take an elevator down to the start of the tunnels, and it felt like we were going miles underground. My fear was squeezing me tight before we even got off the elevator. When we arrived, our teachers explained that much of the tunnel we were going to go through was too small for an adult to fit through. The miners of so long ago had much smaller bodies than today’s adults. We were told to follow the tunnel through to the end where the teachers would be waiting for us. In America I don’t think this kind of field trip could ever happen, but in this particular country** it was no big deal. I had no choice but to follow my classmates into the tunnel. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, but I don’t think I have ever been as scared before or since that trip through the mines. The tunnels were so tight that in places we had to crawl and could not stand upright. I cried silently and prayed over and over to myself, promising God anything, anything, to make it end. Somehow it finally did. I don’t remember much after that. Mostly I remember the crushing fear and anxiety of being forced to face my claustrophobia in the worst way.
I think that a lot of people don’t understand what it really means to face crippling anxiety. Someone asked me recently what it feels like for my young Autistic son. I see them perplexed by his anxiety to things that seem harmless to them. I couldn’t think of a good answer at the time; I’m not even sure what I said. But on my way home I remembered the mines. I think it must be like that. My son is the bravest person I know. He has to enter those tunnels every single day. He is not able to tell me yet exactly what it feels like for him, but I think of it like this now, because I know what it is like to be afraid of something other people don’t understand.
**I’ve chosen not to name the country where I grew up to protect my privacy.