How not to snuggle a claustrophobe

Elevators, airplanes, playing “hide and go seek” in the refrigerator…they are all terrifying. The combination of small metal container, limited supply of oxygen and  me creates the exact anxious reaction you would expect from a claustrophobe. Increased heart rate, clammy sweating, and the inability to take in air. The only things my lungs are good for when I feel trapped is screaming. 

Despite my extreme reaction this type of claustrophobia is not a big problem in my life. I can avoid those places. I can (mostly) avoid caves, I can even avoid parking garages with their too low ceilings, echoes and darkness that are the closest things we have to catacombs in our modern city.

Snuggling a claustrophobeWhat I can’t avoid is the loving arms, faces and fur of my family.

Some people (most people?) love snuggling. All around I see couples and kids and cats wrestling, playing and snoozing together.  When I look at that kind of closeness I stop being able to take complete breathes. I want to break them apart as if they are hurting each other…because if it were me I would be in a state of panic.

It started after the birth of my first child. I was not the only one at mama yoga lamenting the loss of my body. While other women joked about chapped nipples (HA!) and belly scars (HA HA!) they snuggled their babies close and sniffed their heads. My baby’s head smelled like the vomited breast milk that soaked us both. So I lay him on the yoga mat…over there. Only then was I able to take deep cleansing breathes. Within 17 months there were two small boys, my husband, 4 cats and 2 dogs living in our house. There was not a spare inch without a living thing that wanted to be close to me. I fed and pet and kissed and LOVED them all. I came to the sickening realization that mothering was physically smothering me. It felt like I was being loved to death.

We began each night with some combination of beasties in the bed. As they drifted off I would relocate them and claim a portion of the bed. When I finally fell asleep I woke myself lashing out at the sheets and covers, kicking them off with a racing heart. The instant my skin hit air I would feel relief and then, as if to fill the vacuum left by my unwrapping, my husband would roll across the bed and take me into his arms and hold me tightly. So, So tightly. His legs would intertwine with mine, he would lay his scratchy cheek on my soft one and whisper into my ear. “I love you.” Then go back to snoring, a dead weight.

I thought it was temporary. I thought once the boys grew and began to know where their own bodies stopped and mine began I would have literal and figurative space. I thought it was a phase unique to early motherhood.

My son is about to turn 11 and I still dread bed. I wriggle through family movie time where I am three someones’ pillow. I count the seconds when my sweet little boy “tucks me in” smoothing the  blanket over me like the top of a pie. He pats and I pant. He keeps me “so, so, warm and cozy” and I feel as if I have already been put in the oven to bake. 

bedtime with a claustrophobeEvery night I read to them, an arm around each boy, requiring one of them to turn the pages. They watch the clock willing time to slow. I watch the clock wondering when 9pm will release me from the sweaty, hot, prison of my children’s making. Then they are off and it is time for my husband and to be alone. I love sex…it is the afterglow that I loathe. He collapses onto me, feeling closer than ever, our bodies blending and I begin to wriggle. The squirming I do is nothing compared to the screaming inside. GET. OFF. GET. OFF. One piece of me cracks “he already did” while the rests cracks up…and not in laughter. If he stays close for one minute longer I might burst into flames.

This extreme reaction has led me to a bit of insight. Overheating is a huge part of the problem. The feeling of being trapped makes it even worse. If we snuggle in a cool open space I can cuddle for ever. After 12 years we have a bit of a system.

  • I get the edge of the bed so I can roll off in an emergency
  • He has learned never to gather my two legs in one of mine. That is the quickest path to panic.
  • We ditch all or most of the covers. His body heat is enough to keep us both warm.
  • If it is skin to skin the time needs to be limited. PJs make everything better. For me.

The boys have learned this too. Finally they take turns being next to me when reading. I get the outside edge and all of a sudden the clock seems to move at its regular rate.

A claustrophobe catNow my main problem is the cat who sleeps on my face. She doesn’t seem to be picking up on my tips.

It is almost like a punchline. But it is actually a problem. Hi, My name is Anna, and I am a claustrophobe. Don’t cuddle me. 

Published by

Anna Palmer

Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.

33 thoughts on “How not to snuggle a claustrophobe”

  1. This is so well written (as always). I love how you are able to use humor to describe both the mundane and personally scary parts of your life. These pictures are priceless, I am sure it was great fun for the men in your life to pose for these photos — you, maybe not so much. Thank you for sharing your journey — like your boys, I am learning valuable life lessons.

  2. Ohhhh GOSH! Well at least you know WHY you don’t like being snuggled, and what you can do to make it bearable.

    Have to tell ya – I first misread your title as “How not to SMUGGLE a claustrophobe”, and I thought to myself that it would be very, very difficult to try to do that…

  3. I suffer from mild claustophobia too – occasionally I find cuddling smothering – my 22 yr old daughter is very touchy feely and I find myself squirming as she attempts to cuddle me I don’t like being hot – and having no air – not too bad on aeroplanes as they have air control – but caves, aquariums, tube/metro trains, and large modern buildings that are overheated with no air conditioning or open windows – I avoid caves & aquariums – and try very hard to keep calm in the rest of the places. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    1. That is exactly it. It’s air / heat / escape route. Underground trains are very difficult for me but j don’t want to seem like a princess so I often just suck it up. But I am exhausted after the ride from
      The panic so then I snap at everyone around me.

  4. Well, the next time I tell you that I’m sending hugs, just think of my hugs as two six graders doing the slow Frankenstein dance in the school cafeteria. (And I loved those pictures!)

  5. I so understand the intertwined legs and the absolute urgency to untangle. Not to mention the weight, however slight, on one part of my body, twists another part into a pain that will no doubt last all day…week…month… Sigh. (or, SCREAM!)

    1. I forgot about the residual pain when I wrote this. You are right. An arm under my head might torque it at an angle that sends me to the chiropractor. Things are better when I am in control of my own body. Even though that control is often precarious.

  6. I like my own space too – not quite to the degree that you do, but I do like my side of the bed to be mine and mine alone!

  7. I have a less severe case, but I enough that I get this. I love to cuddle, snuggle, squeeze and be squeezed…but don’t EVER trap my feet in the covers during the process or, God forbid, sit on my feet. OBVIOUSLY, one cannot breathe if one’s feet are cut off from air–are you purposely trying to suffocate me or what??? I panic, flail about and will toss bodies of loved ones out the window with impunity, trying to get my feet to the open air, so they can fill my lungs with life-giving oxygen! I think I must have had my feet bound in a previous life and the panic carried over.

  8. I am very like this. I am claustrophobic & also avoid all the elevators, crowds, etc. I’m also a true introvert – under stress I need space, people make me feel more stressed. Long periods of time with too many people in my space (like people staying at the house) make me stressed. I have never been a tactile person. I am actually much better with the children. Sometimes if they are relentlessly pulling and prodding at me, it’s too much, but their constant closeness and cuddles is different to how I have always been with everyone else. But, as a result, I have become worse with needing a lot of personal space with everyone else, including my partner. The girls exhaust my capacity for physical closeness. I like cuddling them, but want everyone else to keep away the rest of the time! I don’t like to lie in bed or sit on the sofa with someone holding me – I like to sit in my own space. Like you, if I’m too hot it’s much worse.

    1. Oh how I relate to all of this. And house guests…they are like overheating…they make it all harder. When your kids get older they begin to understand how best to cuddle you. Most of the time.

  9. I could have written this piece. When the kids were babies, I wanted to crawl out of my skin with all the touching — sweaty, sticky hands. Even now, when my daughter comes into our bed because she’s had a nightmare, I usually have to leave. She will often commit the cardinal sin (my husband has started to know better) of flinging one of her legs over my legs. Equally awful? People breathing on me. My husband will lay close to me and all I can feel is his breath. ACK

    Have you ever seen that horror movie that takes place in a cave? I was horrified…not because of the monsters in the movie…because they were crawling into a small cave!

    1. I haven’t seen that movie but I might not be able to survive it. The leg over leg is intolerable. I haven’t noticed the breathing much but I probably will now 😉

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