Snakes, ladders and tiny little spaces

What are you scared of? My top three fears are snakes, heights and being trapped for more than 5 seconds inside a very small space. Today I have survived being enclosed in a tiny cable car, hanging on a thin wire hundreds of meters above the ground. It wasn’t comfortable, especially the jolt every 50 meters as the capsule passed over a stanchion. But it was okay, and I wasn’t bricking it.

But trap me in a lavatory cubicle or send me at the top of a ladder outside my house, and my stomach churns, my heart accelerates madly and my legs turn to rubber. So fear is not that logical is it ?

Oh dear what can the matter be?

Allow me to say more about my lavatory cubicle phobia. I despise public urinals – being dirty, smelly and embarrassing (thats the urinals, not me). So I invariably head for the cubicle – a small space with a locked door. As I gingerly look inside, I run a mental list of safety checks:-

  • Can I crawl underneath or over the top of the partition?
  • Is there a window big enough to escape from (and am I on the ground floor?
  • Is there a suspended ceilings, with tiles which I could dislodge and then crawl through the roof space like an escaping convict?
  • Does the door have a surface-mounted bolt or one of those dreaded swivel locks which turns an internal mechanism – just so the guys outside can see it is occupied (as if a locked door isn’t evidence enough)

Earlier this year, I visited some new rest rooms in Copenhagen on the way back from lunch. They were in a remote part of the building and I had left my phone in my bag in the office.

They turned out to be unisex – therefore with no urinals, and fully enclosed solid walled cubicles, with a swivel locks. When I tried to get out, the lock would not swivel, and the door would not open. I was trapped, in a tiny room, with solid walls with no phone and nobody within shouting distance.

“Oh dear what can the matter be, David Bottomley’s stuck in the lavatory, he’s been there from Monday to Saturday, nobody knew he was there.”

If only if it has been that amusing. I had an exponential surge of fear and a dam burst of adrenaline. Without pausing or thinking, I violently karate kicked the lock with a surge of supernatural energy fuelled by desperation.

I can recall now the immense wave of relief as the door crashed open. The feeling was euphoric. Physical release, space and fresh air. And a massive feeling of freedom and victory. Finally freed after after endless interminable nanoseconds of unjust imprisonment. It was all I could do not to rip off my shirt and shout at the sky. Shawshank redemption had nothing in this.

Surviving Alcatraz

On the subject prisons, this summer we visited Alcatraz in California. On the tour round, I ventured into one of the empty cells to take a picture – not much bigger than, well, a toilet cubicle. Having broken out of my Danish cell, and overcome my demons, this wouldn’t be scare me at all, would it? Well, you’re darned right it did, even more so having been scarred by the reality. I was out before the shutter closed on my camera.

Fear experienced serves only to open wounds and bigger scars. Now, not only do I check the walls, the ceiling and the type of lock, I check whether the door opens inwards or outwards, how strong it is and how well the lock and hinges are constructed.

And now, I always take my phone in with me, so that I can phone someone for help at least, whilst they can talk me down. If all else fails I can at least partially distract myself until help arrives. I get strange looks when I walk down the aisle of the plane with my phone, but they are the smallest of all cubicles with only one other way out. Press flush and hope.

The escalator of fear

Of course, the fear is totally unfounded. In the worse case it could take a few hours to get me out. It’s not exactly the same as the Chilean minors or the Thai cave-boys. I would also be warm and have access to water and, of course, a lavatory. In the worse case I might die of boredom. But fear distorts all of that, magnifies it and convinces us that we could not survive.

As for snakes – well I fear them in real life and I fear them in my nightmares. Not something that impacts my daily life, except it may explain why – as a widely travelled man – I have never been to Africa, apart from one day in Morocco.

On one, level, most fears have a basis in survival logic. If I had no fear of heights I might have already plummeted to my death whilst tightroping between two buildings. Fear of being trapped seems reasonable enough too, if it dissuades me from putting my body into place I can’t get it out of. As for snakes, as well as being particularly slippery, jumpy and unpleasant, they can be quite dangerous I hear. There, that proves it, I am a perfectly balanced human being.

And we all may well be most of the time, but fear will ambush us when we least expect it, disrupt us and unbalance our minds in an unguarded moment. Such is fear. Fear drives us to worry, which magnifies into anxiety and escalates into panic. It drives us to endless avoidance strategies, irrational OCD-like behaviours and at its worse it ties us up in knots drags us to an sea of stress or a tsunami of panic.

The fears which inhibit us

And what about all those emotional fears we all share? The fear of failure. The fear of embarrassment. The fear of not being liked. The fear of loss. The fear of rejection.

These psychological and interpersonal fears are far more damaging and inhibiting than the fear of being trapped in a lavatory.

So we do not try, in case we fail. We don’t express ourselves, for fear of embarrassment. We don’t speak the truth, for fear of not being liked. We play safe, for fear of losing what we have. We go along with the majority, for fear of rejection.

In our most fearful moments, we wrap ourselves up so tightly, that nobody can possibly judge us, hurt us or even get near to us. In this place, the enclosed cubicle with an inside lock is a welcome refuge and safety, rather a prison. We are escaping from the world, rather than into it.

Fighting the fear fires

Countless books have been written on the subject of fear and anxiety. Some tell us to face up to our fears – befriend a snake and gradually get to know it. Dispel the myths and de-sensitise ourselves. Mindfulness advises us to recognise our anxieties, observing them and then breathe slowly as they pass like dark clouds across the horizon. Our fears do not define us.

Others tell us to talk to ourselves, to allow our calm rational logical minds airspace to persuade our emotional, volatile minds not to be so silly. Or as some would tell us “get a grip, pull yourself together and stop being a baby”. We just need to put everything into perspective. What’s the worse that can happen?

Some of those methods and techniques have worked for me at different times. But some fears are so deeply ingrained it’s hard to dig them out, like giant knotweed in our garden of being. Our fears simmer like underground lava, ready to erupt volcanically with no notice.

Whoever said “the only thing to fear is fear itself” hasn’t read the Beginners Guide to Venomous Snakes, sent a private email to the whole department or gone to a meeting with their jumper inside out.

And so we try to extinguish our fears and throw fire blankets of reason on the slow burning anxieties of our irrational mind.

Meanwhile, if I’m a long time back from a natural break, please allow for the fact that as well as washing my hands, I’ll have carried out a full structural engineering survey of the facilities. If I’m more that 10 minutes, please, PLEASE, come and rescue me.

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