My experience with claustrophobia – Part 1

My recent post content has drifted from the original topic of early retirement. I found that drafting my blog The best day of my life – Being diagnosed with depression and anxiety was very cathartic. For personal reasons, I have been reluctant to share my past  mental health issues, so it was somewhat of a relief to share some of my struggles.

I’m therefore keen to share some of my mental health experiences. I get to unload some weight from my chest and if there is someone that can relate, all the better. I consider that the mental health issues may provide some context to the normal content I blog and my life goals.

Today I want to share my experience with claustrophobia. Out of all of compromises and adjustments I have made through my life due to my mental health issues, my experience with claustrophobia was the one that really made me question my ability to function in society.

I like to keep my posts concise so they don’t get overly wordy but in this instance I think the detail is important to paint the full picture of how my mind was functioning at the time. I will split over a few posts so I can really focus on each aspect of my experience with claustrophobia.

Some history. Since my early teens, I have been uncomfortable in smaller spaces. The proviso is that the small space must be occupied by other people. This has applied to locations such as bus, train and air travel, office meetings and seminars or restuarants. I think the issue stems from my constant concern of attracting unwanted attention to myself.

Despite being uncomfortable, I have always managed to cope in the above situations. I would position myself to the back of the room in a meeting so I could make a quick getaway if needed. I would ask for exit aisles on planes so I could at stretch out slightly (I am 190cm, so air travel can be cramped). If no exit aisles, I would ask for a seat close to a toilet. The contradiction of course is that an airplane toilet is super cramped and I only use if desperate, however, it somehow gives me comfort to have it close by. On trains, I would normally board one of the end carriages as they are usually less busy and there may be a chance of a free seat.

Regardless of the situation, I would have a strategy in mind for an easy exit or a less crowded space. I found this need to be irritating but not debilitating as such.

Anyway, things continued like this. It was inconvenient but totally manageable. One day in my mid-40’s when I was waiting at the airport with my partner at the time. I’m normally a little quiet prior to a flight but I realised this day that I was a more agitated than normal. The plane had been delayed by 2 hours, so I had extra time to wait and think (never a good thing for someone with mental health problems). I was mulling over the cramped confines and what would I do if I got sick on the plane and everyone saw me. At no time did I contemplate the potential of a plane crash as clearly, death is far less terrible than being sick on a plane. Yes, I do sometimes wonder how ludicrous my thought process is sometimes..

Time came to board the plane. In one way I was glad that the waiting was over but on the other hand, I was dreading the thought of getting on the plane. As I had feared, the plane was full to capacity. The inside of the plane seemed exceedingly small and cramped. I had started to sweat profusely at this point even though I was only wearing a t-shirt and it was not hot weather. My heart was beating like a drum and I was breathing fast and shallow. I was eyeing the open cabin door and wondering if I should make a break for it before it closed. Of course, that would attract attention to me, so I stayed in my seat.

I told my partner I was going to close my eyes and rest. In honesty, I was closing my eyes to avoid the confines around me. I heard the cabin door closed and now I was stuck. My heart rate stepped up a few more beats and I started taking some deep breaths as I was starting to feel light-headed from breathing so shallow.

Possibly out of mental exhaustion, I fell asleep quickly while the plane was still taxiing. It was a relatively short flight of just over an hour, so when I awoke we had already started our descent. I felt fairly calm, so I kept my eyes closed until we had landed. I had survived the trip but the experience certainly frightened me. I had obviously had a panic attack as I had them before, however, it was more severe than I had ever experienced.

As I didn’t have another plane flight planned anytime soon, my concerns of the experience faded and life went on. My hope was that this was a one-off type panic attack and it wouldn’t occur again.

A couple of weeks later, I was commuting to work as usual on the train. It was peak hour and the train was standing room only. My usual practice was to watch a TV program on my tablet to pass the time. This day though, I was struggling to concentrate. I was feeling uncomfortable in my seat and queasy. The trip is only 20 minutes and I had only started to feel off the last few minutes, so I made it to my stop and thought I may have just eaten my breakfast too quickly. Once I was off the train I felt fine and continued on with my work day.

I noticed that over the next few days, the feeling of discomfort on the train was getting worse. The queasy feeling was there from nearly the start of the trip and the crowd on the train was very obvious. I became overly concerned about finding a seat so I didn’t have to stand for fear I may pass out during the trip. I found myself rushing in the morning so I could catch the earlier train, which usually had fewer passengers.

One morning, I arrived at the station to find the platforms were full of passengers. My heart started to race as a packed station was not normal at that time of the day. An announcement came over the PA that an ‘incident’ had occurred down the line and that trains had been delayed. I started to panic but tried to reassure myself that it was only a small trip and I would be OK. About 10 minutes later, a train arrived. It was packed to capacity. I think maybe half a dozen people in total got on as they were packed in like sardines. My heart continued to race and I could feel the cold sweats starting. The next train was marginally better but I could not force myself to get on and stood aside for others. Again, I let the next train go for the same reason. I realised then that it was unlikely that things would change in the next hour as it was becoming heavy peak time. I had to commit to getting on the next train.

Despite my mind and body telling me not to, I boarded the next train. I was standing in a crowd. I stared at the ground, with my heart pumping out of my chest and a sheen of sweat on my body. I held my breath at every station hoping that no one else got on the train to increase my discomfort. Of course they did.

A wave of relief came over me when I reached the last stop. With it though, a took an overwhelming concern about how I had reacted. I was living in Sydney at the time and peak hour trains were often very crowded. I was already arriving at work an hour before anyone else just to get a less crowded train, so getting to work any earlier was not really practical.

All that day at work, my mind was wandering to the trip home. I was starting to develop a headache and was not feeling overall that well. I started to consider what options I had available to get home. I checked the train timetable online. The longest period between stops was 12 minutes. That’s not long, right? Well, to me it seemed an eternity. There was no way in my mind I could last 12 minutes without going into a full panic attack. I found an alternative connection that would take an additional 30 minutes to get home but had a longest period between stops of 6 minutes. Even 6 minutes seemed an age but hopefully I could manage that. At the time this all seemed totally logical but it is clear now I was really having a massive mental struggle.

The time came to leave work. I snuck out early for the connection train. I arrived at the platform and saw no more than 50 people but again, in the mindset I had, it seemed like 500. I watched the carriages carefully as the train pulled into the station to ensure it jumped onto a carriage with seats available. I got onto the train and jumped into a seat. I heard the carriage doors close behind me like the gates at a jail.

I stared ahead at the (almost empty) carriage. The walls literally seemed to be vibrating and closing it. My heart was already pacing but stepped it up a notch. I was sweating like I had run a mile. I was feeling light-headed and I had to get off the train immediately. The next stop was only 90 seconds away but it felt an hour. I jumped off the train as soon as I could and stood on the platform shaking.

I stood as train after train came past. I watched in the hope that a totally empty train would come past but obviously, this was not going to happen. I couldn’t think. How would I get home? It was 17kms home and I was starting to consider how long it would take me to walk. I walked outside the station and saw a cab. My mind was so polluted with mess that I hadn’t even thought of a cab.

As I was so worked up, even the cab ride was difficult. I was in the confines of the car. I warned the driver that I was feeling unwell and may ask him to pull over at any time and kept the window open for the whole trip.

I got home exhausted and distressed. I was really rattled and struggled to come up with a solution. I couldn’t afford a taxi each way to work. I had a motorbike and could ride to work but I had to leave very early to ensure I secured a space. And if it rained, the motorbike was not a great option. I checked the weather and it looked clear the next couple of days. This gave me some relief that I could at least ride to work but the long-term solution was beyond me.

Despite my mental health issues, I have always considered myself as someone who can work out a problem logically. This time, my head was jumbled with thoughts and I had no idea of what to do. I will add that I was on a waiting list to be a train driver. I was very enthusiastic about pursuing this as a career path, so being unable to step foot on a train was surely a major obstacle. The probable loss of my career path just added to my worries and I found myself in a deep hole of despair.

To be continued….My experience with claustrophobia – Part 2

 

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