Wednesday, February 27, 2013

twelve f*cking minutes

Twelve minutes in the grand scheme of things is not a very long time. 

When your team is 1-0 down to Blackburn in the 80th minute of the FA Cup it can go by in the blink of an eye. On a fixed bike in a gym, where I ventured for the first time last week time passes rather slower, (especially when your heart-rate has reached 320bpm, blood is roaring in your ears, and you are wishing for the sweet release of death). But by most measures twelve minutes is a perfectly manageable slice of the day.

Except when you’re stuck in a lift. And wildly claustrophobic.

It happened today at the office. We’d just come out of a conference call in one of the fourth floor meeting rooms, and were still discussing the ins and outs of the conversation as the lift doors closed, we began our descent and then with a strange clank and a lurch we arrested, midway between two floors.

I’d often imagined how I’d react in this situation - I’d heard anecdotes of friends who had the same experience, and had been fascinated by the story of the New York office worker Nicholas White who had hopped into a lift on a friday night in 1999 and emerged forty-one hours later a truly changed man. And not for the better. [White’s incarceration was captured on CCTV and you can view a time-lapse of his lost weekend]

But on the whole I tried not to listen to these tales, immediately feeling the heart rate go up, and the muscles tense.

I didn’t always have this problem. I did my fair share of spelunking as a youth, squeezing through the infamous ‘Worm Wriggle’ at one cavern system or other on school trips. I used to ride the tube in London without a second thought, and elevators weren’t any great shakes. But something came unwired in my head around 2006, and suddenly the thought of an underground train stopping in a dark tunnel between stations became the stuff of my nightmares. I have a fairly good idea of why this happened, but at some point in my life I fear I shall be paying a New York analyst thousands of dollars an hour to rediscover the source of my anxieties, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

When the situation started to unfold the first thing that happened was my heart started beating harder and a familiar sensation of anxiety started rising from my gut. Panic set in. The brain starts firing questions: what happened? how long are we going to be here? does anyone know we’re here? what’s the process they have to go through to fix this? Do they have to call someone in? How long is that going to take? The questions are always intricate and specific. They’re always about the process. 

At this quickfire brain-speed a minute can seem like a very long time, and twelve: an eternity. The question you try and avoid asking yourself is the most dark. It flits around the outskirts of your thought process trying to creep past the mental barriers and emerge into the light: What’s going to happen to me if this goes on much longer? The physical sensations are so intense that you start to wonder if you might eventually break.

Thankfully I haven’t found out. Yet.

It’s so frustrating to have something like this in your life that you can’t control. The relative argument holds true - it’s a comparatively small problem to have, and god forbid I should have something more serious to deal with, but it is both fascinating and horrifying to have a weakness, something so irrational and so much beyond your control, and that no amount of logical thought can conquer. Thinking both helps and makes the situation worse.

We’re adaptable creatures however, and three-and-a-half floors above Rathbone Street this afternoon, I held it together. It helped the others in the lift were friends. Strangers would have been worse. And there are ways I have found to cope with the anxiety. I try and always have a good book on me - being in the middle of a great story is wonderful for distracting the mind from malicious thinkings, and the better the book, the more powerful the diversion. In this situation, film scripts can be of wildly varying efficacy, for reasons I don’t need to explain. I once commuted to work with Season 3 of The Sopranos on my mp3 player. It was practical magic.

But there’s one thing I’ve found helps more than anything else. It comes from something I read in my various investigations into the way the human mind functions. The article, which has now become lost to me in the vortex, reported on a study (conducted by scientists and psychologists at some venerable institution or other) which concluded that recreating the physical sensation of something can cause the brain to manufacture that psychological feeling. Or to put it more simply: Smiling can make you happy. This was apparently something of a surprise to said psychologists who had previously believed that feelings always provoked the physical response, and the brain did not follow the body. Of course I tried it and goddamn if it didn’t work a charm.

So now, when the anxiety starts to creep in, I try and smile, and I find it’s a lot harder to be stressed when you are smiling. I care not for the other passengers in my tunnel-bound train carriage wondering who the grinning idiot sitting across from them may be - is he about to start asking them for money, proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ, or does he have something incendiary strapped under that shirt (which is bizarrely not one of my tube-based phobias). And as I sit there smiling away, thoughts come to mind of the good things in my life, the people I care about and the things I am proud of, and the fears start to lose their power over me.

I don’t exactly know why I wanted to share this. Perhaps because sometimes it can help to know that other people out there go through the same things as you, maybe someone would read this with a glimmer of recognition and feel comforted in some way. Perhaps I thought it might help me to put it out into the world. What I do know is that today I was confronted by one of my most potent fears, if only for twelve minutes, and when we were finally let out of that lift, I emerged with a smile on my face.

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