CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Tales from the Rez


          Claustrophobia is generally defined as the abnormal fear of being in narrow or enclosed spaces. Like airplanes, elevators, MRI machines, tunnels, movie theaters, windowless rooms, caves, and so on. According to various medical articles I’ve read, about 5% of the US population suffers from claustrophobia. Claustrophobia can swiftly trigger panic attacks. I should know, I’m a claustrophobic. 


          So what do I figure caused this phobia of mine to pop up and plague me later in life? Pretty sure it was the near drowning ordeal I experienced in my younger years. But before I begin the sharing, let me inform you that I’ll be using the initial D to refer to my childhood friend, the friend who nearly caused my drowning. No grudges, she’s still my friend.


          D’s family was the poorest of the poor and that’s saying a lot considering we were all so poor those days. They were not tribal members. They weren’t Native Americans, just poor like the rest of us. They lived in abandoned barracks or structures that were on the verge of falling apart. Structures no longer used by tribal members but remained situated on their farms. Everyone knew the family. They own no car but would catch a ride or walk to their destination, and they attended our church and schools. D’s family was part of our community at a time when her race was not being accepted in various parts of the country. 


          By the time I was five, I could swim very well. Irrigation ditches — from the Main Canal to big canals, to little ditches — crisscrossed the reservation so drowning was always a danger. By the age of ten or eleven, I was a proficient swimmer. D was the same age as me. She didn’t know how to swim but wanted very badly to learn. It was the best and most fun way to keep cool during the brutal summers. So after church one summer Sunday, D came home with us, and we all headed up to the big canal that was running full. That would be my little sisters, the twins, who are a year older than me, and my confident self. I had promised to teach D how to swim. At that time, the canals had dirt banks (except for the Main Canal which was cemented) and where the water ran swift, the banks eroded away, providing a shallow part that allowed weak or non-swimmers to sit and stay cool in the water while the hot sun turned us all into toast. No sunscreen back then, and what the heck did we know of the damaging UV rays from the sun? After a long period of procrastinating, D plucked up enough courage to walk slowly into the deeper area just to get a feel of the bottom. She tightly gripped my hand for reassurance and support. A little way down her feet slipped and she went down and under. It wasn’t that deep but once she went under she went straight into full panic mode, taking us into deeper waters. I could still touch the bottom but like all possible drowning victims, D started climbing all over me, pushing my head under over and over. I’d pop up for air only to be jammed back down. I tried fighting her off but she was heavier and her terror made her much stronger than I during those moments. My body was simply an object to climb on so that she could keep her head above water and survive. I was rapidly losing the battle. My vision grew darker, my thoughts began to go, as I struggled to reach the surface and air. I remember that frightening experience and the helpless feeling to this day. Even writing about it racks up the anxiety. I may have to take one of my pills just to settle down. Anyway, my sister yanked D to safety and my brother pulled me up and out.


     I truly wanted to sock the heck out of my friend but all I could do at the time was stay flopped on the ditch bank, coughing and gasping for air. After I recovered, I yelled at D, and stomped home. I refused to play with her for the rest of the day.


     I never really forgot the incident. It just became another childhood memory, until I grew older and something triggered the phobia. They say claustrophobia is considered a symptom of  an anxiety disorder. This is a fact for me, as my family and friends can verify. I’m a classic claustrophobic! No spelunking for me…ever!