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.
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.
Every 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.
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.