Last week, Pat and I hiked through a mile-long tunnel that used to part of a railroad but was converted to a hiking trail about year or two ago. I thought I had overcome my claustraphobia.
Let me just tell you this.
When I was in middle school, my parents wanted to explore a massive cave complex under the mountains in Austria. Now, this wasn’t just…”Hey. There’s a cave. Let’s go inside and see what we can’t see.”
This cave system had an organized, paved walk; electric lights; a manicured series of steps and stairs. It was something well put together. I don’t remember much. Except the point that I was climbing up the steps to a landing. And just as I came up to toward the top, someone took a picture with a flash. And I couldn’t see.
Sure. Not that big of a deal. My retinas were temporarily burned. Everything was in that weird uber-brilliant, iridescent reverse silhouette for a few seconds. Blink a bunch of times. Rub the eyes. Everything’s better. Right?
Nope. I could see, sort of. And I genuinely don’t remember anything. Except the panic. The sense that the mountain was just sort of shrinking and that I was trapped. I had to escape. Not want. Need. Like my life depended on it.
I don’t remember descending the steps. Remember nothing about navigating out of the caves. But I remember the brighter, yellowy lights against the blacktopped sidewalk that lead me out of the cavern. I remember my steps speeding up. My parents almost amused at my burst of speed given I usually walked at the speed of sullen slowness.
My mom noticed the anxiety. The fear. Maybe my arms were rigid? My hands fisted? Doesn’t matter. I can’t remember if she said something to me. To my father. But she was the one who used the word “claustrophobic.”
I hate elevators. I hate it when people notice that I’m uncomfortable in an elevator because then they try to making things better, try to take my mind off the fact that I’m stuck in an elevator which just means that everyone turns around and looks at me and tries to make me feel better which just makes the elevator feel like it’s shrinking and the oxygen is being depleted faster. No. Thank you. Please go away and leave me alone. I’m deep within my mind and am fine as long as you are not looking at me or taking away my breathing space.
When our children were much younger, Pat and I took the kids through Luray Caverns. Maybe because we were on a guided tour and I was listening to the tour ahead of us, but I don’t remember fear. I honestly don’t know.
But I know that last week, when we entered the tunnel, the old fear slammed into me. Darkness. That tight conical feel. Not being able to see the ground and the ground feeling uneven and like it was slipping out from underneath me. The shuddering panic, the sense that I couldn’t stare at the light ahead to see, no pun intended, the light at the end of the tunnel. I could only focus on the dim light I shone six feet in front of me that offered no sense of where I needed to step.
I couldn’t see. I could only try to feel the breathing darkness around me and not bend. Not break.
I tried to be strong. I tried to feel the strength of Luray Caverns. But I just couldn’t raise my head. Couldn’t do anything more than concentrate on my breathing. And in the darkness, I reached next to me and slipped my fingers into my husband’s hand.
His fingers closed around mine. Warmth. Soft skin. Firm muscles taut around the fine bones of his hand.
My fear burst through me and I snagged his hand. Clasped it firmly and my knuckles braided against and into his. And when the fear shivered through me again, I unfolded my hand from his and slipped my fingers into his so that our hands were plaited together.
I waited for the reminder that I had been fine in the past. But I only heard the placatory rhythm of his footsteps beside mine. A steady, shifting beat.
When a small group of people started to pass us, to be polite and ensure there was enough space for everyone, my husband unfolded his hand from mine and slid behind me.
Just blinding terror. Like that moment when a flashbulb burned my eyes and I stood on a laddered set of steps in a cavern and felt the mountain constrict upon me.
“Don’t leave me!” I begged him.
And his right hand reached down to take mine. While his left hand rested lightly on the nape of my neck, where my shoulders are yoked.
“I’m right here,” he said. His voice was soft. Reassuring. Like the light pressure of his hand resting on the bony knob at my neck. Grounding me. Holding me steady as we passed the family whom I couldn’t see because I couldn’t bear to look up from the dim cone of light six feet in front of my feet.
But it was enough. Enough for the panic to bleed away and for me to look beyond the reassuring six feet to see the end of the tunnel.
Or the way the striations in the granite glistened when the light coruscated off the cold rock walls.
Or the way water gushed from a crack in the wall, pouring to the floor.
As we continued to walk, I slowly released his hand. Unbraided my fingers from his. Slipped my hand away from him. Every now and then, maybe touch his arm. Hooked my finger to his shirt’s seam.
But I did walk on my own. By myself (well, sort of. He was right beside me). Within the darkness on an uneven path that I still couldn’t see.
At the other end of the tunnel, a woman sang Ave Maria. And her voice slipped along the tunnel’s walls and skimmed the compact, sand colored path to where I walked.
Even now, I can feel my heart beat slow. Ease.
I would that I could say I found my courage. That I walked the mile back through the darkness without fear.
I didn’t. I once more held my husband’s hand for part of the walk. I counted my breathing and focused on the ground, on the snailshell light always six feet ahead.
But then, again, maybe I hadn’t lost my courage after all. I just needed to see it in a different way.