2017, I and my six-year-old daughter, Kaavya entered the elevator, all dressed up, excited to go to the upper floor of the mall. As the doors of the elevator closed, we both got into chitchatting. It was just the two of us. We were busy planning which shops are we going to visit? What are we going to eat. Kaavya said, "Mom, I’m going to eat an ice cream".
The elevator came to a halt. My daughter stood there, wondering what had happened, and I? Without blinking I started banging the doors. I was scared, sweating, shivering and shaking. The banging continued harder, sometimes with closed fists and then open palms. And yes, I was yelling at the top of my lungs. “Can someone get us out of here, can you please open the door?“ I was going to suffocate to death. I knew it.
My little one was watching me aghast. The smiling face, twinkling eyes had changed to a straight face, staring at me helplessly. Kaavya was worried, and yet was putting up a brave face. She held my hand and said, "Mom, it’s okay. We’ll be fine. We’ll be out soon."
It didn’t really matter. It was as if I had no sense of what was happening around me. I could hear nothing, say nothing, do nothing. Nothing mattered in that moment, except that I needed to get out of the elevator.
In a while, the doors opened, and there stood the guards who helped us get out. While I felt relieved, as I was going to live, I blasted the guards. Kaavya stood next to me shifting her gaze from me to the spectators, and then back to me.
That was one of my numerous unpredictable interactions with claustrophobia. Claustrophobia - an anxiety disorder in which an extreme or irrational fear of confined places can lead to a panic attack.
I would not sit on the window seat of an aircraft. Even if I were on the aisle seat and the air hostess would stop by with the food trolley, I would go restless. I won’t enter crowded elevators. I went to Shirdi, it was crowded, I returned without darshan. I would not sit in the middle of the backseat of the car, I would sit next to window and pop my head out. If while dressing up some cloth got stuck in my face, I’d be doomed.
Something that started as a mild fear when I was a little girl, maybe five or six years old, grew so severe with time that no day would pass when I didn’t have a near-death experience. I would cry and howl like a helpless baby, right in the middle of everyone, a baby who could not even explain what was happening. I would dread confronting what each day had in store for me. And let me tell you, life was pretty creative at throwing most innovative ones at me.
Finally, I had to do something. I went to a psychiatrist who prescribed some pills. He asked me to pop in the pills 15 minutes prior to encountering such a situation. Quite tricky. I never took the pills. I don’t know why.
Cut to 2018. I had completed 32 years of my life with claustrophobia. My fights and resistance had gotten stronger each day.
November 2018, my first all-girls trip to Goa. This trip marked a lot of firsts but the biggest one was scuba-diving. When my friend proposed, I thought it’ll be some simple, good, fun thing. And so I agreed. We reached the place and boarded the boat which took us to the diving spot.
On the boat, when the instructor finished giving us the instructions and asked who is going first, I jumped and raised my hand. Then came the scuba wet suit that was too fitted. Somehow, I managed. Then, they made me wear the mask
which covered half my face including nose, Oh My God! Next in line was the regulator and tank for me to breathe inside water. Now the mouth was also covered, and I needed to learn to breathe through regulator and not use my nose. I realized I had made a huge mistake by acting over smart and volunteering to go first.
Far too many triggers! It was all done. Before I knew, I was pushed in the choppy waters. The sea was rough. My coach who was already there waiting for me started guiding me. But I could not bring myself to listen to him. The same feeling was arising, only multiplied by 100. It was a massive attack that I was experiencing. I was yelling, ”Get me out of here. I don't want to do this.” My coach tried explaining but I wouldn't stop yelling and jumping around.
And then he asked me to put my head in water. And I did. I had no choice. Underneath, the water was absolutely still.
That was my moment of AWARENESS. I slowed down. And therefore, I had more time to get present. When I pulled my head back up, I was calmer, though the rough waters continued their game. I was calmer because I had stopped resisting what was. That gave way to ACCEPTANCE. I could sense exactly how I was feeling and how claustrophobia had started to tighten its grip upon me. And I was okay with it. I was okay with it!!!??? Yes! That was the game changer. That’s where came in my third A - ALTERNATIVE CHOICE. In that moment I could see the choices very clear. Either I get out, and there were my fellow divers who had decided not to go ahead so I had company. Or there was this other choice and that was to dive, despite the fear. I chose the second one.
As we descended in the waters, I was aware of the fear. I was saying to myself that it is okay and placed my attention on the experience and my trust in my coach. Fear kept overpowering me and I kept being okay and shifting my focus. And I kept going deeper and deeper.
I was awestruck by what I saw around me. Orange, blue, purple, white, from smallest to big ones, beautiful patterns and different shapes. There were fishes all around, in bunches and alone too and we were playing. The natural coral reefs were beautiful. Water no more felt alien, the sound of my breathing through regulator was music. I and my coach were talking in our sign language, and I was posing for pictures. Sheer joy.
When we came out, my coach declared me as one of the most comfortable divers who was having fun underwater. Wow. I did have fun. I had fun experiencing my capability to manage myself and enjoy the moment, something I had not known how to do.
Awareness, Acceptance and Alternative choice - that’s what it is for me every time claustrophobia hits me.
I now ask for window seats on flights, visited Vaishno Devi and Kashi Vishwanath temples which were super crowded, enter the crowded elevators and sit right at the back of the cars, all packed.
My journey of identifying my deep-rooted belief (that is what claustrophobia was), confronting it, and then creating something new for myself, oh, I’m enjoying life now.
Today, I am facilitating the journey for so many leaders out there who are stuck in their deep-rooted limiting beliefs, unable to express their highest potential and not knowing what they’re missing out on.
You know what? It is liberating to go out there and experience a breakdown because that’s the only time you can create a breakthrough. Breakthroughs don't happen by running away from your beliefs. But by looking into their eyes with love.
SURVIVE OR THRIVE, you choose.