Caving (or spelunking, as it is known if you’re a 12-year-old who loves using normal words that sound filthy) is by far the biggest fear on my fear list. I’m claustrophobic like nobody’s business. If claustrophobia were an Olympic event, I would have more medals than the illegitimate child of Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps who was genetically engineered by the government in an evil attempt to win gold medals. If claustrophobia were an adorable cartoon villain from the 80s, I would be the Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak. If you could manufacture fear of confined spaces in your garage using ammonia, paint thinner, and lithium batteries, I would be the one out buying gallons of NyQuil and ruining cold and flu season for everyone else. A-yah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah tah-tah-tah-tah! Cha!
(Side bar: Would claustrophobia be a summer or winter competition? I’m thinking winter.)
And it doesn’t help that, when I tell people I’m going to go caving, seeking the support and comfort of my peers, the very first thing every. Single. Person. Says is, “Wow, I wouldn’t do that. Caves freak me out.”
I decided that desensitization was the best route to take on this. My first step was to find some good happy books on caving, as I felt that would be an excellent visualization technique. But I decided to ask my local friendly librarian for help, since I was a little too panicked to even consider digging up my own reading list (I said “digging up” there because even just thinking about it I’m involuntarily envisioning being buried alive in the belly of the earth, finding a new definition of pain and suffering as I am slowly digested over a thousand years.).
Did you know you can contact your local library with a request for book recommendations and they will create a personalized and thoughtfully and professionally crafted reading list just for you? I’ve been an avid library user my entire life, love the library, and am in fact currently a librarian, and only learned this last week. I really hope this doesn’t come up in my next performance review.
I tried to be as specific as possible about what I needed and why, going so far as to explain the project, but my request still seemed a bit baffling:
Local Friendly Librarian Who is Much Better at Her Job than Me: So you want a story about caves that’s a true story, but where nothing bad or scary happens to the people in the story?
Me: That’s right.
LFLWIMBAHJTM: You do realize that interesting stories, like the ones that most often get published, traditionally have some sort of conflict for the protagonist to resolve, or obstacle for him or her to overcome.
Me: I realize that.
LFLWIMBAHJTM: Right. Well, I could probably do medium scary. Would you accept medium scary?
Me: I could do either mildly scary with some disturbing violent action sequences, or moderately scary with frightening action and peril, as long as it also has strong sexual content and language.
LFLWIMBAHJTM: I’ll get back to you.
I shouldn’t have worried. The books recommended to me were fantastic. One was a Nevada Barr book called Blind Descent that is especially good for the desensitization process. The main character, Anna Pigeon, is a person even more claustrophobic than me, which is how you know it’s fiction, but who has to go rescue a friend of hers who gets injured while caving deep inside Carlsbad Caverns. Rather than just let her friend die, which is the obviously correct course of action, Anna stupidly goes in after. The book seems to be mostly action-packed passages like this:
Anna looked deep into the narrow passageway and smelt the foul breath of the cave assault each of her nose hairs individually. She could feel the hollow of the earth, death itself, the black grasping fist of despair and vertigo, creeping out of the mouth of the cave and slithering up her pant leg like an impressively ambulatory cave octopus, who is also evil, and whose sole predatory goal was to make her even more pants-shittingly afraid of crawling in that hole than she already was. Anna decided to go mad.
Seriously, though, it’s a great book, or at least I assume it is, because it’s so vividly written that I can’t get through more than a paragraph before I start crying like a little girl and have to put the book down and then crawl into bed with my teddy. I have yet to get past page six, nor have I slept with the lights off since I started it.
I also consulted a book entitled Quick Fixes for Everyday Fears by Michael Clarkson. I was originally drawn to it by its promise of instant gratification, but really got into the book once I realized I could absorb the fixes without much deep thought or personal reflection on my part. Mr. Clarkson lists 93 common fears. I have 68 of them, not counting the ones from the full page of bonus phobias at the end, so for those of you who are concerned that I’m going to run out of fear before I run out of year, trust me: I’ve got it covered.
Each of the fears covered in the book gets two pages with a little introduction, a paragraph on its background, some strategies for coping with the fear, and a mantra to tell yourself to calm the fear.
For claustrophobia, he mentions that “claustrophobics often have social phobias”—interesting—and that “some experts believe this fear can be traced back to fear of Stone Age humans’ fear of being suffocated in a cave.” I don’t see how being Stone Age can make suffocating in a cave any more terrifying than it actually is; suffocating in a cave is pretty much the number one reason I don’t want to go in one.
But he goes to say that “this fear is common in patients who undergo an MRI scan in a narrow chamber.” Context doesn’t make it any clearer as to whether he means people who have MRIs tend to develop claustrophobia, or if having an MRI makes the condition more noticeable in people who have otherwise been able to keep it on the DL.
I can definitely say I had mine before I ever had an MRI. I had to have one last year when I had an industrial accident and the industrial accident medical specialist (or, “doctor”) thought I had a pinched nerve in my back. I put it off for weeks until they finally threatened to cut off my physical therapy, so I had to explain to the specialist what the problem was. She said it wasn’t such a bad experience. I considered asking to have her medical license revoked, but instead asked for a sedative, which she thought was overkill.
As it turns out, I happened to know it was not overkill, as several years prior I had volunteered for a medical study in which I had to get several MRIs and then do some cognitive exercises while they watched what my brain was doing. Mostly my brain was doing nothing, as it was completely shut down, like a snared rabbit dying of terror, due to my inability to manage the phobia, even for science. And although I completed the study and got my check, I’m also confident my excessively high level of fear of the MRI machine (I actually almost threw up a couple of times) ruined several reams of data and wasted an entire spot in the study. So I know what I’m talking about, is what I’m saying.
But she was unmoved. I had to get looked at, so she offered what’s called an “open” MRI, in which you are not loaded into a torpedo tube just the right diameter to suffocate in when trying to take a deep breath, but instead gently lie down in the middle of a wide meadow full of wildflowers on a sunny summer day wearing just a hospital gown and a small backlit halo made of tinsel that delicately encircles your brow like you’re a baby angel.
That’s what I gathered from her description, anyway. Imagine my surprise when I show up for the MRI, undrugged and already sweating, and come face to face with a thing that looks like a hospital-sized version of Vgur. The only thing open about it is that you stick out from the waist down, which is pretty much identical to a regular MRI, plus the sides are technically open but are very wide, so you can’t actually reach outside the machine, even if you stretch your hands all the way out to try and grab hold of your soul, which is actively fleeing your mortal coil.
And you have to lie down in a gown with your feet pointing at the technician staring at you through the window, and then get slid into the machine on a tray like…ok, making a Holocaust oven joke here is in too poor taste even for me. I won’t do that. I’ll simply say I had strong feelings about the experience. But knowing I had to spend an hour in the machine, and knowing that the only thing keeping my personal area from being on full display for the technician is my questionable inner thigh strength, I asked if I could have a blanket to cover up with before going in.
He said of course and brought me one right away. And he was pretty jovial about it:
Technician: Sorry, I didn’t even think about the blanket. Normally it’s just older folks who come in here, and they don’t care. You’d think the older women would be super shy and modest, but they’re actually pretty excited to show me. [old lady voice] “Hey, fella, take a look at this!” Like I want to see that. [pause] I still look, though.
Me: Could I have another blanket, please?
It took three tries to get me all the way into the machine. And the tech was really good; he talked to me through the whole thing and kept me as calm as was possible, and gave me long breaks in between scans. He brought me water, let me take bathroom breaks, and had me walk around when I was jittery and put my head between my legs when I was faint. He talked me through the origin of my claustrophobia and made me laugh so I would stop crying. He really did the best anyone could possibly do with a total head case.
But by the end of the hour my nerves were stretched about as far as they would go. And when I thought we were all done but turns out he had to redo a scan, I freaked the fuck out. But I sucked it up and (eventually) went in again, and the only thing that kept me in there was knowing I’d have to do it all over again if I left. When it was nearly over for real I was at the absolute limit of my ability, though. And when, after several eternities, he finally announced I was actually done and told me in a soothing manner he was about to start sliding out the tray so I could get out, I had, well, had enough. I suppose I should actually say he started to tell me in a soothing manner that he was taking me out, because actually as far as he got was, “Ok, we’re all–”
And then this happened: Involuntarily, and without any conscious thought or planning on my part, I shot straight down the tray on my back while it was still fully inside the machine, rocketed right out the front, undoubtedly showing my nethers like an old lady for at least a nanosecond while I defied gravity and made a couple of ricochets off the ceiling and walls before eventually huddling in the corner, glaring, growling, and spitting like a trapped feral cat.
He came into the room with a glass of water, squatted down next to me, and said very quietly, “Next time tell your doctor you need a sedative. You’re claustrophobic.”
But getting back to Mr. Clarkson, who does also recommend desensitization as a strategy, although his therapy is a little more aggressive than mine:
Slowly desensitize yourself by going into confined spaces. Start with ones that are not too small, such as large closets, then gradually seek out smaller ones, such as crawl spaces. Have someone there with you.
Have someone there with me? How entirely unhumiliating. I’ll have to ask around among my friends and see if I know anyone who would be willing to lock me in a large closet or gradually a crawl space for several hours and not let me out no matter what, because that’s the only way I’m ever doing that. Maybe this person and I could then go out for ice cream and clonazepam after this extremely weird bonding experience.
The anxiety-reducing mantra he recommends for claustrophobia is “Snug in a womb.” I probably don’t have to point out to any of you that this just happens to rhyme with “Dug in a tomb.”
So clearly desensitization is going to take some extra work. But I also realized I needed to have an anxiety back-up plan for when I finally am able to go into a cave, said plan being drugs. Caves are deep and made of very big rocks, and you can’t tell them to stop being caves if you get scared when you’re inside one, so I want to bring along my own happy little escape route. I went to my regular doctor to ask for a scrip, but I was kind of nervous because it’s one thing to do crazy things because you’re trying to prove something to yourself, and quite another to ask a state-licensed doctor of medicine and gatekeeper of pharmaceuticals be an accomplice in your massive self-delusion.
Also maybe notable at this point is that I originally picked my doctor several years ago more or less at random out of the insurance plan book, based on knowing absolutely nothing about her other than she has the same name as one of the original four founders of Hogwarts. In my mind she’s a distant descendant hiding in the Muggle world, and if I just had a wand of my own, I could tap the sphygmomanometer and get through to the secret room where they keep all the really good potions and also Alan Rickman.
But the actual drug conversation, when we got to it, went just fine:
Doctor Griffindor: So what brings you here today?
Me: Um, this might seem kind of weird, but I’m doing this project where I’m doing a bunch of scary things this whole year, and I want to go caving, but I’m really really claustrophobic, so I was wondering if, you know, you might be willing to give me a prescription, well not a prescription prescription, but just sort of an emergency kind of a, you know…not to say I need it in everyday life or anything, uh…
Doctor Ravenclaw: Oh, you want some anti-anxiety meds in case you lose your mind down there?
Me: Uh. Yeah.
Doctor Hufflepuff: Sure, no problem. I’ll give you a dozen. I sure wouldn’t do that, myself—caves really freak me out. But that sounds like an interesting project. Are you going to go skydiving?
Me: You bet your Ativan I am.
So I’ve got the books. I’ve got a mantra. And I’ve got drugs. I’m finally ready. My plan is that I’m going to try going to a big cave first, preferably one with a skylight and a snack bar, before attempting anything serious. Kartchner Caverns pretty well fits that bill, so that’s where I’m headed. Wish me luck. And bring me some more drugs if you have any, will you?
Update: part two: Kartchner Caverns of death. Part three is on its way.