United Airlines Flight 405 from LaGuardia Airport to Denver had just landed, and unknown to every passenger but one, there was a problem.
As passengers rose from their seats and crowded the aisle in anticipation of the opening of the cabin door, the captain announced that there would be a brief delay in taxiing to the gate. There were the usual sighs and grumbles, but toward the back of the plane, the invisible problem suddenly grew urgent.
As I half-stood at my seat, the crowded scene felt like a communal MRI machine. A hot wave of electricity passed through from my head to my knees and I felt a powerful urge to scream. The creeping sense of panic at enclosed spaces that I had managed for years with a variety of clever tricks and maneuvers — during car and elevator rides, staircase ascensions, subway and plane trips, in tunnels and crowded buses — had just declared itself in total charge of me.
Seeking control, I looked down to my feet and shut out images of an airless dark box closing in around me with my escape route blocked by dozens of other people. When the cabin door finally opened and the unsuspecting passengers exited, profound relief gave way to the realization that my irrational claustrophobia had to be dealt with.
After a few weeks of research on the internet, I made an appointment with a cognitive behavioral therapist at Hofstra University’s Anxiety and Depression Clinic. The therapist recommended de-sensitization therapy. She explained that terror at the sight of cats, spiders, heights, knives, or any number of other fears, could be addressed by gradually increasing exposure to the feared stimulus and examining the irrational thinking behind my particular anxiety.
A special “claustrophobia closet,” which looks like a small, dark shipping container, was part of my treatment.
I first practiced by sitting inside with the door nearly shut for about a minute, then worked up to having my therapist lock me inside (gulp) with a large metal chain. I was reassured that she was always nearby, ready to spring me if I could not tolerate it. My hands tingled and my heart raced, but no meltdown ensued.
And there was homework! Practice, she explained, was essential. So at her direction, I stuffed myself into closets at home that already were filled with coats and junk of all kinds. I shut the lights and invited my bemused husband to lean against the door from the outside.
On previous plane trips, I always boarded the plane last. Now, I entered confined jetways with other passengers and reassured myself that I had done so before without a negative consequence. I even got into the backseat of a two-door car, a previously unthinkable act, but I admit I could not stay long.
However, improvement was evident, and one day I felt ready to enlist my husband in a very unusual kind of graduation ceremony — climbing into the trunk of my car and having him shut the lid. (He enjoyed this immensely!)
Inside that dark trunk, with my husband waiting for any signal of distress, I realized I was safe, and I could breathe just fine. I relaxed and managed to stay put for several minutes. And I was strangely OK!
While I may never be a volunteer for deep cave exploration, I now know I can manage the normal indignities of a cramped flight or crowded subway ride. As it turned out, I was not “stuck,” either in an airless container or in my own irrational fear. And during my next plane trip, I was impressed with how spacious, airy and pleasant a plane cabin is when compared with the trunk of my Honda.
Reader Daniela Rothman lives in Sands Point.