Adapting to Phobias: A Claustrophobic Gets Stuck in an Elevator


Stuck in an Elevator

Do you need to conquer your phobias or is it enough to adapt to them? I believe that it is enough to adapt, provided you develop the tools you need to function reasonably well in society.

I am a claustrophobic, which means I have irrational fear of confined spaces. For me, the worst confined space is a crowded elevator. My first claustrophobic episode occurred when I was a young girl. My mother, two sisters and I entered a crowded elevator on the way up to the top of the Statue of Liberty. I started to panic, feeling like the walls were closing in on me. I was riddled with anxiety.

As an adult, I take elevators, but I avoid crowded ones whenever possible—the exception being if I am running late and decide I’d rather endure panic than be late. If I have the choice, I take an escalator rather than an elevator. It may be surprising to hear that I live in a building with a small elevator that resembles a mahogany coffin. Before I moved into my apartment, I needed to practice going up the elevator one floor at a time, one day at a time, until I could ride to the top of the building. I love where I live, so it was worth it for me to get comfortable with the elevator.

Getting stuck in an elevator is one of my biggest fears. A few years ago, this fear became a reality. I was in my building riding up to my apartment with my two dogs, when the elevator stopped. I felt like I was about to have my first panic attack. For me, this episode was about life and death. I felt like if I let myself have a full-blown panic attack, I would die. I didn’t want to die, so I went into survival mode. I lay down on the floor of the elevator, took deep breaths and closed my eyes, transporting myself somewhere else. I had no experience with meditation, but I got myself into a meditative state.

My cell phone was working, but my battery was low. My security blanket when I ride elevators is my water bottle—I carry it with me in case I get stuck, but this time I had forgotten my water bottle. I was stuck in the elevator waiting for the mechanic to come, without my water bottle, and the mechanic was stuck in traffic. I did not know that I could have called 911 to have the fire department rescue me, as this was my first time stuck in an elevator. After I was stuck for an hour and fifteen minutes and the mechanic was still forty-five minutes away, the superintendent of the building called 911. It took five minutes from the time of the call to the time I was rescued. Needless to say, I love the fire department.

I felt so good about myself after my release, like I was a survivor. I felt like I had survived an avalanche. I was so proud that I had conquered my claustrophobia. I even thought that I was cured, but the episode turned out to be a display of strength, not a cure. Today, as I have always done, I take escalators instead of elevators. I avoid crowded elevators whenever possible, and when I find myself in a crowded elevator, I panic and pray that we do not get stuck. Usually, I can breathe through my anxiety, but sometimes it doesn’t subside until I get out of the elevator.

I have adapted to my phobia, not conquered it. Adapting works just fine for me. Although I avoid situations that I consider high risk, such as extremely crowded elevators, I live reasonably normally, which includes taking elevators, because I know that I have the tools that I need to survive should I find myself stuck again. I can take deep breaths and close my eyes. I can sip water, should I remember to bring my water bottle with me. Most importantly, I know that I can call the fire department. May there always be cell phone service, and may I never forget my cell phone when I am in an elevator.