Sunday, June 8, 2014

Don't Fence Me In

“Empty?! You took all the cookies!"
"They were crying to get out of the jar... Cookies get claustrophobia too, you know!”
― Charles M. Schulz

Hello, my name is Neal and I am claustrophobic. Seriously claustrophobic. I always knew that I had a strong tendency toward claustrophobia. Some of my earliest childhood memories were of my mother bathing me and washing my hair. She believed that the best way to rinse the soap out my hair was to lay me back in the tub, sort of a baptizing type of maneuver. She would dunk me, face up with just my nose above water and proceed to rub and massage all of the soap off of my little head. What should have been a pleasant experience actually freaked me out. Eventually she learned that the best way to rinse my hair was to let me get under the faucet and take care of it myself.

I didn’t think too much about it until I started playing football and discovered that I did not like piles of people, especially if I was on the bottom. I remember refs warning me about kicking my way out of pileups. The only other warning sign for me was the fear of car trunks. Back in the day, we had drive-in theaters and everyone in the car had to buy a ticket. That is everyone except the kids in the trunk. So we would stuff people in the trunk to save money. I tried it one time and they couldn’t even close the trunk before I was clawing my way out. Just could not do it. No way.

As I grew older I sort of forgot about my claustrophobia. Nothing seemed to bother me much. I could ride on crowded elevators, squeeze in to the window seat on an airplane or sit for long periods of time in a dentist chair with all sorts of tools and equipment locked and braced in my mouth and suffer no panic attacks. Then one day I was traveling on business and got stuck on a little commuter plane. It was one of those old metro liners that was like a flying tube with one seat rows going down both sides. We ended up sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off and it was a very warm and muggy day. Pretty soon it started to get hot and stuffy in that “flying tube”. And passengers started to squirm and bitch about the heat and the lack of air. Then it hit me. It took everything I had to keep from getting up from my seat and breaking out of that plane. I literally felt like I was going to die. Fortunately, a few minutes later the plane started to move and the air came on. I survived that episode but it was only a precursor of more to come.

I was in my 30’s when the suffocating “flying tube” panic attack hit me. After that I began to have problems with closed in or crowded spaces. It became imperative that I have an aisle seat on airplanes. If I got on a elevator, I stood near the door no matter how many people got on. “Step on by, I ain’t movin’. “ Dental work became a nightmare. I wasn’t worried about pain or discomfort. It was about being reclined back in the chair with the dentist and his assistant leaning over me, all sorts of hardware and tubes and hands stuck in my mouth and no way to escape. Then I began to have attacks at night. Especially in hotel rooms that were too small or had poor air circulation.

But I managed and found ways to get through the “attacks”. Until I had my first MRI. I had tolerated a bad shoulder for years. It was an old sports injury that got worse over time and I had reinjured it working out. I finally went to a shoulder specialist and he sent me for an MRI. OMG, I had no idea that I would be stuffed into this tiny tube for half hour being forced to listen to loud banging, grinding and gnawing. I lasted about…oh maybe 30 seconds. Get me out of here. So I found that I could only have an MRI if I was sedated. We rescheduled it so I would have someone to drive me home. I white-knuckled through with 10 mg of valium on board, but said I would never do that again.

Successful shoulder surgery followed, but my claustrophobia got worse. I could not even watch a movie or television show about someone being trapped or in a confined space. Then a couple of years later, I fell off of a roof (never had a fear of heights) and tore up my good shoulder. Back to the MRI machine, only this time, they had to give me an IV and about 20 mg of valium. It was still an awful experience. Frankly worse for me than the shoulder surgery and rehab.

The years went by and my claustrophobia got worse. Those MRI’s just haunted me. I swore I’d never take another one. Just shoot me. I wasn’t going back in that thing. Then about a year ago I re-injured my shoulder. It hasn’t gotten much better, so I finally went to the doctor. Trained professional that he is he determined that I had a bad shoulder, probably another rotator cuff or labrum injury. Gee whiz, exactly what I thought. He thinks we might be able to avoid surgery or if we do have surgery he can just ‘scope’ it. (The first two were open and I have long scars on each shoulder as reminders.) But doctors will do nothing without first getting an MRI. My greatest fear realized once more.

So last Friday, I had another MRI. It had been almost eight years since my last one. This is a new doctor and I had to tell him about my claustrophobia. He said let’s see if you can make it with 15 mg of valium, 10 an hour before the MRI and 5 more thirty minutes before. I agreed to give it a shot, but told him that it might not work. We might just have to knock me out. I swore I’d never take another one unless I was unconscious.

Well, as it turns out I survived it. It wasn’t fun and I could not have done it without the “little helpers”. But I did not suffer and I don’t think it will give me nightmares. I’m still trying to figure out what has changed inside of me. I’m older and that does make a difference for sure. But I think the biggest difference is that I don’t drink much anymore. I used to be a daily drinker. Not all day and not crazy amounts, but more than I should have. I’ve now cut way, way back. I’ll go for weeks at a time without so much as a beer. I had noticed that I slept better and seemed to be less irritable than back when I drank. After getting through the MRI, I decided to do a little research on alcohol and “phobias”. Turns out that there is a good bit of evidence that alcohol can make them worse.

I’m not a teetotaler and probably never will be. No one enjoys a good beer buzz or a couple of cocktails more than me. But one needs to be careful. Over time, what we put in our bodies does have an effect on our minds. Especially if we are already inclined toward certain types of damaging emotional responses and behaviors. I will always be claustrophobic, impatient and easily angered. We all have our demons. And the more doors and windows we leave open, the more they will visit us.

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