You know how sometimes it takes a while for you to grok a concept, and then, once it falls into place, you feel a little silly for not having gotten there sooner? And then you worry that maybe you were the last person on the planet who 'got' it? And then... you kinda hope that nobody else ever finds out it took you this long to get there?
Yeah. That's me and claustrophobia.
Let me 'splain.
Ever since I was a kid, I've loved cozy spaces. The kind of spaces that maybe only a kid would find and fit into. I was the oldest, but slept in the bottom bunk because it felt more enclosed. I loved our big, built-in laundry hamper; it was the best place for me to hide away from everyone. I'm a lot bigger now, but I've never lost my love of the cozy. The first house I purchased was 950 square feet, and I wish I could live there again (my current 1500 square foot house feels too opulent).
At the same time as I was discovering my love of the cozy, I was discovering my stepfather's penchant for cruelty. One of the things he liked to do - when feeling especially Machiavellian - was to physically pin me down. Not sexually. Not really. But in a way that made breathing difficult. And he most liked to do that in a pool or a body of water, where he could drag me under the surface, to keep me there until I was well and fully panicked.
It's the kind of thing that can fuck you up in strange and unexpected ways. Unfortunately, these ways are often subtle, or seem subtle to me, and are easily dismissed. It's how I got to my early 40's without realizing that I can both love cozy spaces and be 100 % claustrophobic. My 'aha' moment came in the form of an MRI.
For the last three years I've been dealing with extreme dizziness, vertigo, and GI upset, sometimes in conjunction with a terrible headache. Turns out, a helluva lot of things look like that, and you can't go to that many doctors with those kinds of symptoms without someone wanting to take a look at the inside of your head.
Now, I'd had an MRI before (of my foot), and was not even slightly worried. I was even going to the big girl MRI, so I was going to have lots of room. I arrived early, because I'm not a heathen and because my wife is an MRI tech - different clinic - and said I had to. I filled out all of the forms, answered all of the questions, showed them that I didn't bring any jewelry with me, and was generally quite charming.
Then some bitch went and put me in a fucking death tube.
OK, that's not true. A competent and kind professional set me up on the MRI bed, explained to me what was going to happen, and gave me what my wife jokingly calls the 'oh GOD, oh GOD' ball - a squeeze ball that they put in your hand to signal them if you feel uncomfortable or claustrophobic (ETA - my wife would like for you to know that she has *never* called it that). Silly claustros. That done, she hit a button, and my bed started moving up, and then into the tube.
At this point, I'm not even nervous. Like, at all. I'm genuinely curious about the whole process, kinda excited to dabble in my wife's world, and looking forward to the coziness of the tube. I get about a foot and a half into the machine, and realize that my nose is only about an inch (probably three) from the machine wall, and suddenly I'm real worried about being able to breathe. Like, oh GOD, oh GOD I CAN'T FUCKING BREATHE. Put another way, I have a panic attack so instant and so strong that I'm squeezing that damned ball before the MRI tech (I keep typing MIR tech, which, frankly, would have been way cooler) has even left the bay.
Realizing that she might not see the notification until she's gotten back to her desk, which would have taken a whole extra 30 seconds, I called out to her. I sounded calm, but I knew that I didn't have the extra 30 seconds in me. In 30 seconds I would have broken the mechanism that was pulling me into the tube, and I would have fucking army-crawled out of there if I had to. I didn't. fucking. have. 30 seconds.
"Ma'am. I need to stop. Please get me out of here. Right now."
In less than five seconds she'd turned around, hit the button, and had my head out of the machine. She was sympathetic, she didn't make me feel bad, and she endured my excessive, embarrassed apologies without losing her patience with me. I got dressed, though my hands were shaking so badly that I could hardly button my pants. Quietly, without looking anyone in the eye, I made my way to my car, then got to the first light, and then completely lost it. Full-on snot crying. I texted expletives at my wife, and am pretty sure I called her a masochist and *may* have questioned her lineage (I've since apologized).
I'd been telling myself that I'd never felt this way before, but as the light turned green, I remembered going to a sweat lodge with a friend of mine, and having a very similar reaction. The tent flap closed, and in a calm voice, I let them know in no uncertain terms that I would be getting the hell out of there. I crawled on my hands and knees, and when my face hit fresh air, I cried as hard as I'd ever cried before. Snot cried. For a good hour.
The thing is, I didn't clock the sweat lodge incident as claustrophobia. I thought that it was the heat that made it hard to breathe, but the reaction was the same as the one I'd had in the climate-controlled MRI machine: a full-on, immediate panic attack. And in both cases, space and a lack of autonomy were the real issues. Side note: I also didn't clock my reaction as a panic attack... until I read up on panic attacks.
In both cases, I realized that the overwhelming sensation was one of being trapped, and of being unable to breathe. And when I allowed myself the word "trapped", all sorts of things began to fall into place. Like the fact that some when some fucking asshole decided that holding down a little girl was a good time, it would have repercussions. Like the fact that the little car that they use to transport you to the top of the St. Louis Arch is a resounding NOPE in my book. Like that fact that I don't mind a lot of traffic if it is moving, but am agitated and frightened when the cars are still. Like the fact that when my doctor asked if I'd ever had panic attacks, the answer was actually yes.
I find it interesting that I was only able to admit to claustrophobia when I actually claustro'd on the damned MRI table. I'd somehow hidden that information from my own brain, which I was having scanned to discover if I had any hidden issues. It was all very meta.
By the way, I did go back and get the MRI with sedation, which worked like a charm. My brain is fine, and after dozens of doctors' visits and thousands of dollars in medical bills, it was Dr. Google who pointed me in the direction of silent migraines (which a doctor confirmed). Turns out, I have zero allergies, zero food intolerances, and when I started treat all of my symptoms like migraines, the symptoms went away.
Kinda like when I started treating my trapped / panicked triggers like claustrophobia, it helped me to stop accidentally re-traumatizing myself and to identify a space that is truly cozy - safe, even. You've heard me say it before: I'm slow, but I get there.