By Mort Laitner
My face froze as I walked down the Jet Blue aisle. My eyes focused on my assigned seat, last row window. Like a cornered cat, I crept in panic, inching myself towards my seat. Fear flowed through my veins, terror paralyzed my gut, and my head throbbed in anticipation of a panic attack. I feared being closed in with no escape. I glanced at my watch, three hellish claustrophobic hours locked in a mental anguish prison. While strapped into a nonreclining seat, I commenced repeating my mantra, “I will survive this plane ride. I will survive this plane ride. I will survive this plane ride.” Three hours of physical torture, exhaustive breathing, heart palpitations and cold sweats was more than I could take. Before I fastened my seatbelt, I reached to adjust my air vent, twisting the knob to full blast. Cool air engulfed my face, giving me a cherished second of relief.
I listened and watched as the flight attendant performed the pre-flight briefing. In her monotone voice she stated, “Please keep your seatbelt fastened at all times in case of unexpected turbulence.” I clicked the seatbelt and heard the dreaded snapping noise, which frightened me as if I was strapped in a Posey vest straitjacket.
The sold-out New York to Miami flight offered no hope of escape to another seat. My only mini-respites would be walks up and down the aisle or short pit stops in the restroom. As the plane filled, I prayed, “G-d, Please have some passenger change their mind and get off this plane. Please keep the seat next to me empty and if you must fill it please let it be a skinny passenger.”
As a heavy set female plopped into the seat next to me, she moaned a loud “ahhhh” sigh of relief. Aircraft prayers often go unanswered I thought while remembering Poe’s, The Cask of Amontillado. Like Fortunato, the bricks were closing in around me.
Minutes seemed like hours as I waited for the plane to leave the tarmac, approach the runway and take off. My face poured sweat as if I sat in a Turkish steam bath.
My rotund neighbor glancing at my obvious discomfort asked, “Do you need help? Are you okay?”
As my stomach flipped, I stammered, “I’m claustrophobic and this back window seat is driving me nuts. But I think I’ll be able to make it to Miami. You know what I need is a magic pill, a beta-blocker, a drug which would block certain substances in my nervous system. I’ve heard they are actually doing clinical trials on the drug right now in Amsterdam. It won’t come soon enough for me. Well thanks for inquiring.”
To my surprise the lady piped in, “I just read an article on claustrophobia and you’re not alone. Five percent of the world’s population suffers with the disorder and only a small percentage of them get any type of treatment.”
A flight attendant passed. I got her attention, “Miss, I’d like to order two screwdrivers please.”
Turning my head away from the flight attendant to the window, I closed my eyes trying to fantasize Montana’s wide open blue skies. This mental trick only gave momentary relief.
Closing my eyes for a second time I prayed, “Please G-d, let these spirits put my mind to rest or better yet allow me to sleep.” I had already forgotten that I was still situated in an unanswered prayer zone. I now started to ask myself the four questions:
Why is it I am different?
Why is it that my self-confidence cannot be found?
Why is it that I cannot possess strength to overcome my enemy?
Why is it that I cannot find courage to face this imaginary fear?
Reading the Times, playing BrickBreaker and watching the movie did have an ameliorative effect. I managed to survive the flight, all the while promising myself to always get a preflight assigned aisle seat in the front of the plane.
Months passed and my phobia like a tumor continued to grow. I could no longer sit in the back seat of cars with out suffering significant discomfort. I politely begged, “I’m sorry to ask, but could your wife sit in the back seat? I’m claustrophobic.”
My embarrassment lessened as my friends voluntarily slid into the back without me having to ask.
I sought no professional help, hoping that with time my problem would be cured. One evening at dinner, I discussed my anxiety disorder with a semi-retired professor of psychology. He said, “Mort, I’ve treated many patients with claustrophobia. In a few short sessions I rid them of their fear. This problem is all in your head. You should come in for a consultation and diagnosis.”
“Thanks Doc, I’ll think about it,” I replied.
I was not ready to take the psychologist up on his offer, but he planted a seed in my head which in time would blossom. This phobia was curable.
A year passed and time failed to heal me. My phobia clung to me like a neurotic, lonely spouse.
That year I flew to Israel to attend a cousin’s beachside wedding. I sat in the front of the plane and suffered slight discomfort. After the wedding, a guest who had planned a trip to Masada invited my wife and me to tag along. Masada is an ancient mountain fortress located on the JudeanDesert overlooking the Dead Sea. In 73 AD, after a long siege the nine hundred and sixty Sicarii, an extremist splinter group of Zealots, committed mass suicide rather than surrendering to the Roman Legion.
I wanted to go, even though I knew I’d be stuck in the back seat of a compact Japanese rental for six hours. I could and would not muster the courage to ask my host’s wife to sit in the back. I mustered the courage to get in the car remembering the psychologist’s words of hope.
Rolling down the Toyota’s window, I felt the blast of hot fresh air wash over me and wash away my tensions. I silently repeated my new mantra: This is all in your head. This is all in your head. This is all in your head— over and over again. I made it to Masada with a limited degree of anxiety. On the return trip in the compact’s back seat I relaxed for the first time in years: no sweats, no palpitations, no heavy breathing.
I contemplated what I learned about this ancient Sicarii tribe, their courage, their fears and their love of freedom. I was a claustrophobic slave. I allowed this disorder to plague my body, brain and soul. At the summit of Masada, I had the courage to answer my four questions and free myself from claustrophobic bondage.