The Dirty Thirty: Elevators & Other Daily Activities That Scare MeErin Foster

claus·tro·pho·bi·a [klaw-struh-foh-bee-uh]
noun
an abnormal fear of being in enclosed or narrow places.

I’ve tried to write about my claustrophobia before and for some reason it’s always been really difficult. I lose my ability to be cheeky and fun because writing about it genuinely makes me uncomfortable. Way more uncomfortable than writing about some romantic rejection or pride swallowing embarrassment.

I don’t exactly appreciate the definition of claustrophobia, immediately starting off by saying that it is an abnormal fear. Nothing makes more sense to me than the fear of being trapped in a small space and I consider myself to be a pretty logical person. I can’t remember a single moment of my life when I wasn’t debilitatingly claustrophobic. I have a very hard time taking an elevator. When I go into a bathroom that doesn’t have a window, I won’t lock the door. And if the door has a particular type of lock that seems fussy or faulty, I won’t lock the door even if there is a window. When I use an airplane bathroom, I won’t close the door. I ask someone to stand outside the bathroom on guard. When I go into a stairwell to avoid an elevator, I check each door several times to make sure that I don’t get stuck in the stairwell that is saving me from getting stuck in an elevator. The whole claustrophobic thing is A LOT.

I’ve never lived with my dad. Gimme a minute, this is going somewhere important. I lived with him until I was three and from what I understand, you don’t remember those years. Blah blah blah, we have a great relationship today and this story isn’t going to a sad place. This information simply serves a purpose in my claustrophobic journey. So, when I was little, there was definitely an energy of wanting to get his attention. We would go on these family vacations and between my sisters and step-brothers there were five of us. Whenever we would need to take an elevator somewhere, my dad would head off on his own to find the stairs. He hadn’t taken an elevator in about twenty years. There was some bad experience in New York with my mom before I was born and he refused to step in one ever again. So, for my whole life he was avoiding elevators. And when I was old enough to be clever, I realized that if I started taking the stairs with him, not only would I get a little alone time in there, but I would also probably stand out as more thoughtful and overall just better than all of my siblings. So, that’s what I did. And thus began my instinct to avoid elevators.

Even if a phobia starts out with an ulterior motive like mine, it can still turn into a real ass phobia, which is exactly what mine did. Soon enough, I couldn’t feel the difference between my dad’s fear and my own. Once it was brought to my attention that elevators can TRAP you and that my grown up, super smart, sane, six foot tall, rich ass dad was terrified of them, they were dead to me. And phobias snowball. That’s the worst part about them. You don’t just stay afraid of this one particular thing, you develop an overall objection to feeling nervous or uncomfortable and anything that makes you feel that way is something you start to avoid. Someone who is afraid of germs might start by washing their hands a lot and not touching the doorknob in the bathroom. But soon they start to realize that there are germs on a lot of things. The faucet in the bathroom, the money in your pocket, the pen at the bank, the silverware at a restaurant, the computer you’re typing on. And your world just gets smaller and smaller, everything feeling like a threat. So by the time I was in my twenties, I had gone full blown crazy. I would not go into an elevator under any circumstances. I went to NYC and a friend offered for me to stay for free in his penthouse on the 18th floor. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I took it. And guess what I did? I walked 18 flights of stairs three times a day while I was there. (I have amazing legs.)

Photo on 2012-03-07 at 17.04

My claustrophobia started to really define me. It became a big part of who I was. It was like a party trick. I would show up at a restaurant out of breath, holding my heels in hand, and everyone wanted to know where this bizarre trait came from. Guys would jump at the chance to be the one who helped me find the stairwell, to tell me that they found it endearing and adorable and unique. I started to like having something that set me apart. It made me feel special. I didn’t know if I wanted to get rid of it. Or more accurately put, I didn’t know who I was without it. It felt like my virginity in high school. I held onto mine longer than most of my friends and I loved proclaiming my virginity. It caught people by surprise and drew their attention. I used to say very embarrassing things like, “this is uncharted territory!” Oh god, kill me. Anyway, when I finally lost it, I felt so ordinary. I felt like I gave up the thing that made me interesting. I needed to have a thing, a conversation starter, surprising trivia. So, that’s what my claustrophobia became, without me realizing it. And once I did realize it, it was too late. The thought of being inside an elevator was like being buried alive. It was so intense that if I had a meeting scheduled, I would look up the building that it was in and find pictures of it online to see what the elevator situation was. If I couldn’t get enough information I would drive there and check it out. If it appeared that it was going to be complicated, I would reschedule for a coffee somewhere I felt comfortable and make up an excuse.

As I got older and approached thirty, I started feeling a need to act more like an adult. To not let these fears take over my life. I imagined having kids and making them take the stairs with me and instilling that panic in them. And I hated that thought. I saw an episode of Oprah with the hypnotherapist Brian Weiss, who was helping people with crippling phobias by taking them through a trauma in a past life and resolving the issue. They would wake up and suddenly be like, “Oh my god, I’m not afraid of sharp corners anymore!” I wanted that quick fix. I wanted to wake up and strut into an elevator. I made it my mission to get in with this guy and I made it happen. It took a few months, but the appointment was set and my dad was doing it with me.

Brian was giving a lecture at a hotel in Los Angeles and agreed to meet with us in a hotel room there after he spoke. We got to the room and he told us a little about what he does and I was like, “I don’t care, lets do this!” He said he would need to hypnotize us separately and we decided that I would go first. Now, a doctor had tried to hypnotize me once before and it did NOT work. She was like, “relax… relax.. go deeper into the white… okay, now you are three years old, what is happening, where are you?” And all I could think was, “Should I make something up? I’m sitting in this room with you and I have to pee.” So, I told her it wasn’t working and from there on out was not a believer.

I was very skeptical going in. I’m creative, but I don’t necessarily have a great imagination. I used to be in acting classes where they would have us lay on the floor and would tell us to picture a serene place and my mind was always like,” A sandy beach! No, an overcast day on a porch with a cup of coffee! No, my bed! No, the mountains! No! Wait, I don’t know!” So, I knew I wouldn’t have an easy time with this if I was gonna have to make something up and I didn’t want to disrespect this hypno-Oprah-Loving-Legend. He told me to get comfortable and close my eyes. Then he took me through a series of relaxation meditations with him. He told me I could open my eyes at any moment, but even after he said that and even though I knew I could open them, I just felt like I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell how deep I was, but I was completely aware of where I was and who I was and what was happening so I assumed it wasn’t working. Then he told me to picture a blank white room where I felt safe and comfortable and at ease, so I pictured it. Then he said to picture a door. I did. Then he told me to open the door and walk through it, which was going to be me walking into my deep subconscious. In my mind I went to this door and I opened it and I stepped through, but I didn’t see anything. I told him I didn’t see anything. And then he told me to look at my feet and tell me what I saw. I looked at my feet, and to my complete surprise I saw large black men’s boots. What! I was a man!!!!

Now, I can promise you that if it was up to me to make up my past life, I would definitely have gone with some hot prostitute or wealthy land owner. Brian told me to now look at my hands. When I looked down at them, they were huge and calloused. Then he told me to pull my hands up to my face and observe it. I felt a large nose. Great. I’m not even a hot guy. I had dark hair and felt like my name started with a “G”, like “Gerard”. I was French. Don’t ask me how I knew that, it’s what I heard myself saying when he asked me. Then he told me to pull back and see where I am. I was standing in the middle of a busy courtyard with cobble stone streets, and I was holding a bunch of papers that were struggling to stay in my arms and people were rushing past me and bumping into me and I couldn’t move. He asked me how I felt and I said, “Very stressed. I owe people money. And I can’t pay it. And I don’t want to go home to my wife and admit it”. My life was so intense! Brian told me to go home. Me, as the Frenchman. So, I did. I went home, if you could call it a home. It was a small shack wedged between two buildings and my wife was there by a fire holding our baby and she knew I was in trouble and she was sweet to me. Then Brian asked me to see how I die. And immediately I knew that I was beaten to death outside my home that night over my debts. And that was the end of my life as Gerard. The whole thing left me sad and anxious. Also, it occurred to me that this had nothing to do with claustrophobia. Brian told me that he couldn’t steer me to a specific trauma, he could only help me see a past life, but I was the one who chose which one I saw. So, this was not going to help me get into an elevator. My dad had a different experience than me, but I wont go into it because it’s his and it’s personal, so stop being nosy.

I realized that there was no quick fix to my problem, which seems to be the case with most problems. You have to solve them the old fashion way; Drinking. JK, hard work! I ended up finding a Cognitive Behavior Therapist who specialized in overcoming phobias. From the time I first met him it took me about five months to get inside an elevator. But there were a lot of steps in between. First we looked at the elevator and talked about it. Then a few weeks later he had me stand in the elevator while he held the doors open. I started to cry. We were going to have to move very slowly. Eventually we let the doors close and the first time it happened I sunk to the floor, sweating, bright red, covering my face. Soon after that I wouldn’t sink to the floor. Soon after that I could hold a conversation while I was in there. By the end of our sessions, after about a year, I was able to get in that elevator by myself and head up to the third floor. I couldn’t believe I actually overcame a fear I had been perfecting for almost thirty years. I genuinely believed in my soul that I could not overcome it. And once I did, I started acting differently in my life. Now that I tackled something that seemed impossible, I started feeling like I could do other things that seemed impossible. Stand on a stage and get people to laugh. Write a script. Get hired on an actual job where I get paid to write. And keep taking elevators.

Deciding something is impossible is arbitrary. It’s just an excuse you’re using so that you don’t have to go after something that you’re afraid to want. And there is no better reward than finishing something you never even thought you could start.

Featured image by Marzanna Syncerz – Fotolia.com

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  1. I remember standing with you at the elevator while u went in and out… on your daily exercises!! I am happy to hear you conquered your fears and it is beautiful to see how you have flowered since then! Proud of you!

  2. I’m claustrophobic but not to the point that I can’t take an elevator. I mean…don’t pack me in there like a sardine because I’ll probably have an intense anxiety attack but if it’s just me and maybe 2 other people…I can manage. Uncomfortably but I can manage. When I was younger my brother thought he could “cure” me so he used to put pillows over my face. Naturally, I would FREAK out. I’d start yelling, crying, flailing my arms and legs all while he’s telling me “You’re fine. You’re fine.” I was anything but fine.

    Airplanes are awful. Standing in line at amusement parks can be awful. On family vacations my family would have to make a space around me to make sure that I wouldn’t lose my cool. It helped a little but I’d still get pale and have clammy palms. Claustrophobia combined with anxiety makes me a hot mess in public settings but it’s who I am and I’m dealing.

  3. Thanks so much for the article–I too have legs of steel from years of climbing stories of stairs.

    When I was a teenager I took the most amazing cognitive behavior therapy course which helped me overcome my fear of flying, small spaces, and for a little while elevators…but when outside life situations hurl unexpected scary problems, avoiding elevators for me, becomes a way to limit anxiety and control a least one daily variable.

    so i work on overcoming claustrophobia day by day, and one day, i hope my calves are flabby, just to prove that i’m riding elevators all the way to the top.

  4. “…a fear I had been perfecting for almost thirty years.” One of my favorite parts and an extremely honest way to explain it. Thank you!