A few years ago, I had a speaking engagement on Long Island, NY and was staying in a small hotel in Great Neck. On my way to lunch, the elevator got stuck between the second and third floors. Now, just so you know, I’m slightly claustrophobic. And by “slightly”, I mean “tremendously.” But the elevator was big enough to hold six people and I was the only one onboard. So, there was plenty of room for me, myself, and my thoughts (for any of you literary enthusiasts, this is called foreshadowing).
The first thing I did when the elevator stopped was to pull the emergency knob. It fell off into my hand and no alarm sounded. So, I looked for the emergency phone. There was nothing but an empty hole in the wall where the phone used to be. At that point, my heart picked up its pace and my breathing accelerated. An alert popped up on my Apple Watch asking me if I wanted to record my exercise session. I told Siri to mind her own business and continued weighing my options. Small drops of sweat started to run down my back and it occurred to me that I had not dressed properly for an elevator confinement exercise.
And that’s when my mind got involved. I heard this voice in my head suggesting that my final days on the planet might just be in this Long Island elevator. I have nothing against Long Island. In fact, my wife is from there. But as an Appalachian, this was not where I saw things ending. I had always envisioned taking my last breath as I gazed out at the brilliance of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did not expect to be squinting under a flickering fluorescent bulb as the word “Otis” gradually faded from my sight.
That specific mental image caused my entire body to react. My stomach knotted, my chest tightened, and I felt like my core temperature was nearing the boiling point of magnesium (look it up). This only encouraged my mind to misbehave even more. My brain instructed my heart and lungs to engage the flight-or-frickin-flight mode and prepare me for a precarious “Die Hard” escape involving a panel in the ceiling, steel cables, and a death-defying leap to the only open door in the entire elevator shaft.
As I’m typing this, I realize the absurdity of my overreaction. I had been in the elevator less than a minute and was already freaking out. I also imagine that you know how my journey ended. Of course, I used my cell phone to call the front desk and inform them that I was stuck in their elevator. At first, the clerk thought I was pranking her. She assumed that a call from an outside line could not possibly be coming from inside their elevator. She even said, “Well, if you’re in our elevator, why didn’t you use the emergency phone.” Ugh.
About ten minutes after the elevator stopped, a maintenance technician released me to my own recognizance and sent me on my way. As I headed outside, the sky looked brighter, the air smelled sweeter, and when I got to the restaurant, the food never tasted so good. There have been few times in my life when I felt so relieved—and drank so much beer.
Fast forward to a few years later when I signed up for a firefighter academy. I knew the training would require physical effort which might be hard for someone of my age and physique (I’m a lover, not a fighter) but I underestimated the psychological impact it would have on me.
Early in the academy, we were participating in a mock search and rescue operation where we were placed in a large room completely blindfolded. To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of blindfold we’ve all used to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey—the kind that covers most or your eyes but allows you to see under it. I’m talking a solid black, full face, total darkness, I-can’t-see-a-thing blindfold. And under the blindfolds, we were wearing masks attached to air tanks that amplified our breathing so that our inhales and exhales were practically the only sounds we could hear.
As I crawled along the floor, following my partner who, by the way, was way too excited about this particular exercise, I could feel that familiar sensation I had experienced in the elevator. Immediately, my mind put this thought in my head: You’re probably going to run out of air and become the first trainee to be rushed to the hospital—not so much for asphyxiation but for claustrophobic “fixiation”.
I should point out that all of this was happening while our instructor and a few other staff members were standing right next to me. In reality, the worst thing that could have happened was that I might need a little help getting my mask and blindfold off if my tank actually ran out of air.
Well, not being able to ignore my annoying mind, I told the instructor I had to stop. I stood up, doffed the blindfold, removed my mask, and took a few breaths. The relief was instant and when I saw there were no real threats in the room, I felt embarrassed that I had mentally wussed out. However, the instructor looked at me and said, “Would you like to continue?”
Reluctantly, I put my gear back on and began crawling in darkness again. And you know what? I finished the exercise without any more “fixiation” problems whatsoever (cue thunderous applause from readers everywhere).
As my firefighter training proceeded, I had to participate in many more drills like this. Each time got easier and I never had another anxiety problem. And why was that? Well, first, I recognized that I had successfully survived the previous drills. And second, I knew that the someone (my partner or the instructor) was always there to help me if I got into trouble.
As I thought back on these fearful experiences, it occurred to me that while the situations were real, the fear was generated by thoughts. It’s as if my mind generated the worst case scenarios regardless of the reality of the actual event. I realized that many of our day-to-day fears are also generated like this. And if we can find a way to remove the metaphorical blindfold, in order to see the reality of the situation, our challenges might not be so scary.