Fear of Submerged Spaces

Assignment: Write a description of a place where you would feel trapped.

I’m not claustrophobic. Not really. The dictionary definition of claustrophobia is “an abnormal dread of being in closed or narrow spaces.” Medical definitions usually stipulate a condition that the fear stems from a perception that there is no way out, so it isn’t just a fear of small spaces, but a fear of being unable to escape. It would be logical for any individual to experience such feelings in certain situations, such as solitary confinement or being locked in a room without a key, but people with an anxiety disorder characterized by claustrophobia may experience such sensations in places like elevators, airplanes, or windowless rooms. Very often the feeling leads to a panic attack. Claustrophobia can thus be a very debilitating condition.

By the above definition, I do not have claustrophobia. What I have is a perfectly rational aversion to being confined.

I have no problem with elevators, even small ones. I’ve been in closed closets without incident. I am not concerned by tents, small cabins on boats, airplanes, or even crawlspaces filled with spiderwebs, dead mice, loose insulation, and leg cramps. But I have always been averse to certain types of spaces, particularly those that make me feel confined. Like submarines, for example.

One summer, my mother and sister and I visited the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Admission to the museum included a live tour of the USS Nautilus, which was, according to the museum’s web site, “the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, first ship to go to the North Pole, and first submarine to journey ‘20,000 Leagues under the sea.’“ By any measure, this is a submarine worthy of exploration.

The USS Nautilus is an attack-class submarine, 320 feet long, with a 28 foot beam.  This seems pretty big if you imagine a 28-foot wide football field. But fill that space up with machinery, bunks, a galley, dining facilities, lavatories, instrumentation, control systems, ballast, fuel and water tanks, and a crew of 105, and the squeeze is on.

On the day of our visit, the boat was tied up a dozen feet from a jetty, in shallow water, connected to shore by a sturdy gangplank and thick mooring lines. There was no possibility that it would suddenly take off, or sink, or implode. Plenty of museum personnel were on hand to make sure visitors entered and exited safely and encountered no danger while aboard.

My mother and sister were eager to take the tour, and joined the line at the end of the gangplank.  To their surprise, I demurred. My mother, with her bad knees, bad hip, and bad heart, went on that boat and took the tour, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to go down there. This was the first time in my life that I had turned down an opportunity to board a boat.

Perhaps it was the movies that did me in. I have never liked movies that take place on submarines. The ubiquitous red lighting, the curved walls, the pinging and clanging, the oval doorways that must be ducked under and stepped over, bunks that are barely as wide as a man’s shoulders – it all adds up to an overwhelming sensation of confinement. And I imagine it smells pretty bad, too.

All in all, I’d rather be somewhere with elbow room, fresh air, rain, windows, sunrises and sunsets. But I’m not claustrophobic.

Gail Hunn ©2013