I’ve been claustrophobic for a long time. In fact, “claustrophobic” was probably the biggest word I knew at age five.
There’s an origin story around my claustrophobia that involves a landmark traumatic event that happened around that time.
I was playing in the toy storage closet at a family friend’s birthday party. It was the kind of closet that's under the stairs, and it was a novelty to us pint-sized folk who felt at home in a room full of toys that was scaled to our height.
My playmate left, closing the door behind him, which was fine until I noticed that I was trapped inside four white walls with no doorknob. What I didn’t know was that to exit from inside you had to slide your hands under the door to push up and out. I panicked before I could figure that out.
I began screaming and pounding on the door and within minutes someone opened the door and I fled to my parents, terrified but relieved. My chest tightens today like it did then when I think back on being trapped in what suddenly felt more like coffin than a fun zone full of toys.
Fast-forward a decade, and my claustrophobia centers heavily on elevators, though it's not limited to them.
You know when you get to your floor and the elevator doors stall for a split second before parting? It’s a moment I should be accustomed to, but every time it happens I am overcome with panic and fright.
Stepping inside a giant metal death trap sets off immediate physical symptoms of anxiety. My rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath lead to narrowing vision and dizziness, as my palms get sweaty.
Pacing while in route helped in my younger years, but as I got older, stillness and deep breathing became the best way to cope.
I went to therapy for my phobia once, and the therapist asked what I felt and thought when I was in an elevator. I explained the physical aspect and told her I worried that I’d get stuck and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it and I’d lose my mind while I sat there helplessly until discovered minutes, hours or days later.
She attributed my fear of feeling trapped to control issues. Since she didn’t offer a solution, I never went back.
Instead of addressing the issue, I went above and beyond to avoid elevators. I became the kind of girl who would take nine flights of stairs with luggage and disgruntled but supportive friends in tote.
For those inevitable times I was faced with an elevator, I created strict rules to help me cope with not only the anxiety they provoked, but the social norms around them. Unfortunately it’s not socially acceptable to have an elevator-induced meltdown in front of anyone besides your mom, dad and a few understanding friends. These were my rules:
1. Take stairs. I know I said “inevitable times I was faced with an elevator,” but I always looked for an out before being forced into a box o’ hell. I would suggest them to anyone willing with casual justification.
“Oh they have stairs, should we get in a quick workout??” or “Hey the stairs are to our parking spot, shall we take a quick jog?”
2. Seek must-have information. Once inside the dreaded torture cage, I’d discreetly eyeball the communication system and technical paperwork.
3. Never enter without a cell phone. I don’t remember what I did before cell phones, but once they became the norm I never entered an elevator without mine. Even though a lot of elevators don’t have cell service, something about it just makes me feel better. Thankfully, cell phones work in most elevators these days.
4. Bring snacks. I try to have a snack and some water on me at all times, but especially when entering an elevator. In the event that it breaks down, at least I won't starve to death.
5. Pee first. And finish any other important bodily business before entering. Imagine having to pee while being stuck in an elevator!
6. Think kind thoughts. Instead of letting the elevator know that I was scared, I’d thank it for its service (in my head). I didn’t want to jinx it!
7. NO elevators alone. This rule worked really well for me until I moved to Los Angeles.
Everything changed when I moved to LA and had to start taking SIX elevators a day, minimum. To and from my apartment, to and from parking at work, to and from the actual office. More if I went to lunch or ran errands.
The stairs were either inaccessible, inconvenient or creepy. I managed my anxiety in elevators through deep breathing and by following my rules. I also befriended lobby security guards because I loved not only having a go-to emergency contact on-site, but having someone to greet me after the momentous occasion of surviving yet another elevator ride.
On August 18th, 2014 at 7:58 a.m., the elevator that was taking me to my office stopped.... as did my heart. At least it felt like it!
I was with two other women I had never met before, and the bad news was we were stuck, but the good news was I had cupcakes. We kept each other calm and never addressed that fact that we were all terrified, at risk of creating a mass panic.
We called security, each of our respective offices and texted our closest friends and co-workers for help. Security called in and said help was on the way... in 30 minutes.
While we waited for the elevator maintenance crew, we talked about our jobs and lives and morning routines, and we each selected a cupcake to eat later in celebration of getting out.
We ended up being stuck for FORTY-FIVE minutes. It was a true moment of solidarity through fear, and I valued the chance to bond with two other strong women who helped each other through instead of resorting to panic.
Once they finally fixed our elevator and got us out, we rode together in a new elevator in celebration, parting ways cheerfully as if we had just finished our first marathon together.
It was the kind of office building where you recognized the same 10 people in the lobby each day, yet I never saw those ladies again. At risk of sounding absolutely crazy, sometimes I wonder if they were guardian angels.
I was the final one to get out, so I nervously rode up to my floor alone. As soon as I exited the elevator, the panic I’d suppressed finally hit me and I excused myself to call my parents and bawl. It was the most cathartic cry of my life, 20 years of anticipation finally realized.
Honestly, getting stuck in an elevator wasn’t as bad as the fear of getting stuck on an elevator. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I didn’t lose my mind or run out of air, and no one forgot about me and left me to be trapped for days.
I still take my phone into elevators with me, but now I don’t get anxious. (OK fine, full transparency: If the elevator stalls, my heart starts beating pretty fast, but doesn’t everyone’s?!)
I know that if I get stuck, help will be on the way and there are trained professionals to fix these giant moving boxes if and when they break. In the meantime, I’m no longer the five-year-old trapped in a closet, crying and banging on the door.