I’ve gone through different periods in my life where the fear and claustrophobia of being in a cave overwhelmed me. It wasn’t just fear around caves, per se, but having to crawl through a small, tight cave opening. From one room to another location. Through a tunnel. On my belly.
must … get … out
I remember one time when I was camping. I was in my tent and almost asleep when suddenly this image of me crawling through an opening in a cave and into an unknown place popped into my mind. It gave me the heebie-jeebies so bad I unzipped my sleeping bag in a frenzy, unzipped my 2-person tent, scrambled outside and peeled off my sweater with almost superhuman speed.
In that moment, I needed more than anything to be standing upright, unconstricted. To not be laying down inside a small, enclosed space. To be outside in the open air. To be anywhere except in what felt like a cave.
Now, I didn’t have any particular claustrophobia around elevators and crowds. I can handle a crowd (for a while), though a super-dense group of people has me, in time, looking for the exit routes. I did attend the Women’s March in D.C. in January 2017; that was a very crowded event, but it was a moving crowd and not tight; I was fine.
See, it’s really not classic claustrophobia of being in a crowded space or surrounded by people that was my fear. It was crawling, on my belly, through an opening … where my survival depended on it. That was the image, feeling, vibe, thought, fear, worry, concern, panic that haunted me.
Even watching a movie where a character had to swim through a tunnel to safety would have me so edgy that more than once I flew out of my comfy seat and started pacing the room just to shake off some of my fear.
To top this off, I had a compounded fear on top of my fear. I thought: Oh no! I’m going to have to face my fear! Life will bring some situation to me so I’ll have to face it–this fear–head on. OMG! One of these days I’m going to have to swim through a hole, or spelunk in a cave and crawl through some tight spot and then crawl on my belly … to survive, to live!
This compounded fear freaked me out even more. Not that I thought of this scenario all the time, or even with any frequency, but when the thought came on, it came on!
And then one day, I realized something. I realized I had already faced this fear. I had already overcome this challenge. I had already been victorious in this, my gripping fear about crawling–on my belly–from one place, through a tunnel, and into another and unknown space. I did this on August 28, 1963, in the afternoon, on the day I was born.
Suddenly, the anxiety, panic and seemingly-inexplicable fear now made sense. I had context. I could understand why this panic gripped me so.
See, my birth was a crisis birth in that I passed my meconium (an infant’s first stool) in the birth canal. I had to crawl through this meconium, which endangered both my mother and me, though mostly me. If a baby crawling through the birth canal aspirates the meconium into her lungs that can affect the oxygen supply to the baby’s brain, among many other potentially tragic results.
Not that I had a conscious memory of this experience, per se. My mother told me, later in life, about my birth and the health crisis I faced during my birth as I was crawling, on my belly, from one place, through a tunnel and to a different place… as if my life depended on it. And in that moment, it most certainly did.
I now understood that I had already faced this fear, and I succeeded in perhaps the greatest challenge any human being faces–the challenge of getting out of the uterus, through the birth canal and out into this other world alive.
I understood why this fear had been so gripping for me. And I understood that this thing that seemed impossible for me to do was not only possible, but that I’d aced it. Like a boss.
And the fear melted.
still gotta take some breaths
I can now watch a movie where a character has to spelunk or crawl through a hole in a cave without utterly creeping out. It’s not my favorite scene of the flick, but it also doesn’t cause me to jump out of my chair and for my heart to race the way it used to.
I can even think about this subject, write a story about it and share my experience (as I am here) without giving myself the heebie-jeebies (well, not too much and with much quicker recovery now).
For me, this journey–and this understanding–is a big accomplishment. A very big accomplishment.
Originally published on Emlife Magazine – May 14, 2017