Phobia I Faced My Phobia of Elevators By Facing My Past
Whenever I got into an elevator with other people, I wondered if they could save me if I were dying in there. Like my mother or my father, I needed them—but they could let me down.
For years, I refused to get into an elevator alone. I wouldn’t close a plane’s bathroom door, either—even if it meant someone peeking through the slat.
Elevators are my quiet, constant enemy. When I have to take them—which is often, as I live in New York City—a silent battle begins: Will I die? Who will get me out? What if I pass out? What if the call button doesn’t work?
I read once about a man who’d been locked in an elevator for forty-one hours, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. A few years later, I attended a company party in that same building. As we rode up to one of the highest floors, someone joked that we’d suffer the same fate. I pushed the fear down my throat, but once we got off, I shakily asked for the bathroom and wept, coming apart, in a stall.
I wept because I was ashamed. My body’s fight or flight mechanism was on overdrive, and it meant I couldn’t truly be present with friends. In grad school. At a doctor’s appointment. In a literary agent’s office. Anywhere that required an elevator.
But it’s never been just about the physical space. It’s about the space I inhabit in my mind. I’ve never thought of the elevators themselves as scary. I have only ever feared myself —that I would die of powerlessness, that I’d worry myself into oblivion, have a heart attack, or collapse and hit my head. That the fear I’d let grow into a cavern within me would consume me raw.
It started on one of those blinding summer afternoons, the kind of summer day during which shadows are heavy and the air woozy-dances in the heat. I was eleven or twelve, stick-thin and black-haired, holding within my chest a huge, rotting stone of silent anxiety. As a child, I didn’t have a language for worry, mostly because I never felt I could truly speak it aloud—or else I would make things worse for my broken family—but I felt it in my body.
I was at a friend’s house not far from my own, where I lived in near-poverty with my mother and younger brother in a small, one-bedroom apartment. My friend’s parents were out, so it was just us and some neighborhood kids, running around her yard, drinking sugary lemonade, chatting nonsense out in the sun.
My heart feels like a rock , I thought a lot around that time. On that day, my heart felt like a boulder. I was thinking about my mother. Actually, I was consumed by those thoughts—how she’d acted oddly the night before, how she didn’t come home for hours, not when she said she would. And when she did, she seemed languid, lost, moving like molasses through the apartment.
I knew that my mother—and my father, who had left years before—had drug problems, but I didn’t really know what it all meant. I just knew that a long time ago, when I was little, they were both normal. And that one day, they both slowly evaporated into a cloud of smoke.
Years of watching my parents change did something to me. I started changing, too. I started to let the darkness in. And it took a specific shape: I became a walking phobia. My body had learned fluent fear. Fear that what was left of my mother would disintegrate, fear that we would be evicted—a word I had to look up after I found a threatening notice on our door—fear, perhaps, of becoming them. Powerless.
That day—that luminous summer day—my friends wanted to play hide-and-seek. Everyone closed their eyes and began giggle-counting from the upstairs bedroom. Ten, nine, eight . . .
It was my turn to hide, so I tip-toed down the stairs and eyed the living room. The bathroom, no. The kitchen, no. The cabinets, too small. And then, I spotted a thin, crooked-doored pantry that was out of eye line, beside the back door to the garden. I slipped in, shut the door—the knob was crystal and cool—and waited for everyone to start the search. There was a small window, but it was feet above my head and it only let the smallest amount of light in. It was hot, nearly too hot, but I remained, holding my breath.
Then the cacophonous footsteps cascaded and everyone came barreling through the house. Lisa Pizza! they called out. But I remained quiet. Perhaps this is where I did myself in. I could hear them slam open the screened front door, still searching for me.
Eventually, I turned the knob to get out, my sweaty palm on its cool glass. It didn’t open. Then I fell into a hole that I’ve yet to climb out of.
There was a searing flash of panic so all-consuming, I felt my blood rushing through my veins. It was the equivalent of an explosion. I couldn’t breathe, my hands got weak, and my body gave out beneath me. I remember the want to be let out turning to need , and that eternal moment was infinite powerlessness. I would die in that pantry, unseen, unheard, the girl everyone forgot about. Sobbing, I eventually blacked out. The specifics of the memory have disappeared, but the intense fear stayed. Stays.
I was let out eventually. But all I remember was the need to run home. When I got there, my mother was standing in the kitchen, right at the window with the light pouring in; she seemed happy. I burrowed into her arms and wept, breathing her in: Opium perfume, cigarettes, that metallic outside smell on her cool skin. She comforted me, told me everything would be okay, that I was out, that I was fine now. But I didn’t believe her.
The specifics of the memory have disappeared, but the intense fear stayed. Stays.
The next few years brought the destruction I’d been fearing, or intuiting: The eviction. The complete fall into drug use. We ended up in three homeless shelters, moving cities, changing schools, having to keep all that shame and suffering a secret. My brother and I ended up in separate foster homes. And then I was just a body poisoned by trauma.
I was re-wired to fear everything: loss, powerlessness, chaos, change. That day in the cupboard may have been the first time I realized I was trapped, but the feeling stayed. I was constantly scared, constantly tipping over some invisible edge, and the fear was at its worst whenever I found myself in a small space, as if all of my life’s darknesses were shut into that small space with me.
I saw an art therapist at a local hospital when I was twelve or thirteen, after we went into a homeless shelter. To get to her office, we rode up in one of those massive elevators, big enough to hold a stretcher and a dozen people. The walls were dirty and metal, and the thing hobbled up the floors, its mechanical groans huffing and puffing. It was warm and slow, and I felt the hot tears well up as my legs shook. I felt my body become feathery, as if I were collapsing.
My mind grasped but I couldn’t find anything to trust; not reality, not the elevator’s mechanics, not the concerned eyes of the art therapist watching me. Even though I was in a hospital—perhaps the best place to be if I had a panic attack or lost my mind—I couldn’t trust that I’d be alright. That I’d survive. Because everything around me was breakable. It felt like everything could end at any moment, and I’d be trapped, literally and metaphorically.
When I got into the therapist’s office, I looked ghost-pale, she said. She brought me a small paper cup with ice cold water. I think of her now, how she likely saw straight through me.
Years passed, but it never got better. Whenever I got into an elevator with other people, I wondered if they could save me if I were dying in there. Like my mother or my father, I needed them—but they could let me down. Let me be taken away into the abyss.
Getting into one alone was infinitely worse, though. I’d disassociate, shaking, sure I’d die if I got stuck. So I decided to never take an elevator alone again sometime during my junior year of college. My mind told me that I needed the others to make sure I wouldn’t die. As a child, I knew I had no control. My mother had to be the one to decide she would choose herself. She would have to fight her shadow; the shadow would win. Our social worker would get to decide where my body would end up, which foster home I’d go into. My foster parents decided where I went to school; they chose my clothes. Brought me to a dentist. Showed me their version of loving a strange girl. I started believing that I needed to depend on people. That I was at the whim of others. That if I were trapped, I could not rely on myself or my own mind or heart.
While I still had access to school insurance, I tried articulating all of this to a therapist. She told me that in order to “get over it,” I’d have to confront the situation head-on. Exposure therapy. The only way , she said, is to get into the elevator, breathe deeply, and destigmatize it. After all, the more we avoid our phobia, the deeper the anxiety around it becomes.
My therapist reminded me that the stats proved elevators are safe, that I could make the choice to accept what the information was telling me. Elevators rarely led to catastrophe. People seldom get stuck, elevators almost never plummet from their heights, and only a few people have ever died inside one.
Of course, a fear of elevators can be tempered for some by understanding the machine’s many brilliant and redundant systems but, for the rider who feels she needs control, standing in that tiny box for however many floors is torturous. The small space becomes a physical symbol of having no choice but to trust the mechanics, a god, the fire department. In an elevator with other people, they can save me from myself. But in an elevator alone, I’m a dead girl.
But it’s not about the elevator , I’d say to my therapist. The elevator makes me feel invisible, I tried explaining. It erases me. And all she said was, But you know intellectually know that’s not true.
If ever we could simply decide we are too smart for our trauma, then it wouldn’t be trauma at all. And when the body has been rewired for survival, there’s nothing left but a pathway that leads back to itself. Fear begets fear.
In one woman’s story of her own phobia (which happened to take the form of cotton balls), Paul Siegel, an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College said, “All a person really needs to develop a phobia is to have had a lived experience of associating danger with an object or a situation. They don’t even need to remember the experience—the fear response is automatically triggered and automatically activated in the amygdala, the area of the brain where fear memories are stored.”
If ever we could simply decide we are too smart for our trauma, then it wouldn’t be trauma at all.
When I’m standing there with my heart beating like a wild animal’s, I have to ask myself why. I have to remember time and again that my childhood is still part of me, that I haven’t quite carved out a new life, far away from it. I still feel that powerlessness. I still feel the buzz of losing everything. Today, the elevator is like a mental button. When I step inside, it’s pressed, and it’s as if a slideshow to my childhood terror plays out within me.
But I don’t want to be the girl who was rewired, and who can point her finger at the past. That doesn’t work for me anymore. Rebuilding is an option, even if I shouldn’t have been forced to rebuild. I can create the next chapter, where the past is just the past —and not something I must answer to.
Recently, I decided to fold my ghosts up and put them away. I’d been living in an apartment on the twenty-ninth floor of a building, and it was a hellscape. I’d wait to ride up and down with others, and sometimes—if I was very anxious—I’d walk down the stairs. In my head, I replayed the image of myself getting in the elevator, pressing a button, and stepping out.
I decided to try . Because I was sick of waiting, of doubting myself, of thinking I was a panic attack waiting to happen. Of thinking I needed others. I began a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy , which helped a bit. In using cognitive behavioral techniques, I am able to separate my thoughts and feelings. I can notice, interrupt, and correct my feelings, can stop them from being automatic. That’s because CBT focuses on challenging (and rerouting) disturbing mental distortions and habits, improving emotional stability, and provide coping mechanisms and strategies.
There are days when my anxieties are reduced. Perhaps because I’ve been journaling more or exercising more or meditating more. On those days, if I feel strong enough to try, to say, maybe I can do this today, alone.
And so, my partner will stand on one floor and I will ride one floor up or down to him. Just one floor. And, he says, if I get stuck, he’s there. He will find me. He will force the police to come. He will stay with me right on the other side, listening in, counting down the breaths so that I can stay alive. Reminding me that I am already strong enough.
All I’ve got to do is get in and control my thoughts, remember that the past isn’t here, that I’m not being inhabited by a space or memory or wound, but I’m inhabiting it. I’m folding my new life into everything I do, everywhere I go.
All I have to do is tell myself that I am a survivor—that I’ve already survived—rather than tell myself I will die. I have to trust that now, today, far, far away from yesterday, I do have control. That the only thing trapping me is me.