phobias

Celia Kramer is a writer living with debilitating anxiety. In her weekly column, Celia will write about the horrible and hilarious world of fear, dread, paranoia, phobias, panic attacks, and trying to function as a halfway normal person. Some names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in her life.

I was walking up the stairs to get to my office, heels in hand as I do every morning, when I heard an unfamiliar sound—it was the sound of another person in the stairwell. While most people run into their office crushes or enemies in the elevators, I almost never see another soul while taking the stairs. I rounded the corner on the third floor landing and saw him, walking and looking at his cell phone. We exchanged awkward smiles and I kept walking, eventually passing him when he paused to readjust his backpack. I was acutely aware of him, half a floor behind me, for the next five floors. I normally take a break to readjust myself around the tenth floor so as not to show up to work a disheveled, sweaty mess, but when I got to ten, I heard him behind me and just kept going.

This has all the makings of a campy SVU episode: a girl alone in a locked stairwell with a strange man following close behind, the nearest exit three stories up. “Well, what was she doing in that stairwell with her shoes off? What did she think would happen?” But to be clear, I didn’t for a moment feel like I was in any danger. I simply wanted to appear impressive and in shape, and not stop to take a rest before he did, because I am crippled by the idea that I am unimpressive. Even though I could hear his heavy breathing, heavier than my own (afterall, I do this every day), I couldn’t shake the idea that he would look athletic passing me, and I’d look fat, sedentary, and pathetic. I knew that if I stopped, he’d walk past me, and we’d have to awkwardly brush against each other. Or worse, make small talk about how exhausting climbing stairs can be, and I’d have to acknowledge that I stopped first. I was the out of shape one. So I kept climbing.

At floor 16, he abruptly turned around and walked back down the stairs. No goodbye, no have a nice day, no explanation.

Most people assume that I take the stairs because I care deeply about my health—this is a common misconception about people from California. This is not true. The reason I climb up 19 flights of stairs every day is not because I care about my health (which I care about insofar as how it makes me look in clothing). I climb up 19 flights of stairs because I have an acutely pronounced phobia of elevators.

There is no reason for me to have an elevator phobia, but then again, phobias aren’t typically trauma-based. That girl on every daytime talk show ever who’s phobic of cotton balls never faced cotton ball-related bodily harm. And I have never been stuck in an elevator, but I have been petrified of elevators for my entire life. The very thought of getting into an elevator makes me feel dizzy. When the doors open, I feel faint. If I absolutely have to get in, I either have to bury my head in a friend’s shoulder and have the floors read to me, or stand there white knuckling it and trying to dissociate. Sometimes I pass out. I rarely even try anymore.

There are some phobias that severely and loudly limit peoples’ lives, like agoraphobia, which keeps people trapped in their homes. My phobia of elevators quietly limits my life, for the most part. I can go out and be a part of the world, but if I have to go somewhere I haven’t been before, I agonize over whether or not the building will have accessible stairs. I google map everywhere before I go and wonder “Does that look like the kind of building that has stairs?” My dream would be to have access to those gadgets in spy movies where they can see inside the buildings, using heat or lasers or science. That way, I could always tell if my new gynecologist or waxer is accessible by stairs before I’m in stirrups and find out you can only take the stairs up and not down.

I’ve been locked in countless staircases and set off alarms trying to avoid elevators. It may take me a moment, but I can almost always find a hidden staircase. But it’s a constant humiliation, to tell people “I’ll meet you up there” and either they offer to take the stairs with me, complaining, or say something like “OH, RIGHT, I forgot about your problem.” Or, more often than not, they make a pointedly snide and insulting comment. Everyone feels like it’s their duty to tell me how embarrassing my phobia is. I know how embarrassing it is. How difficult I am. Once, a friend of mine tried to force me into an elevator, physically. She was under the impression that forcing me to confront my phobia (as if I’d never tried) which just magically make it disappear. We aren’t really friends anymore, but for a lot more reasons than that. She loves fail videos where people humiliate themselves, the more profound the humiliation, the better. I think she may be a very dangerous sadist.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve seen therapist upon therapist. One summer about six years ago, I took an elevator every single day for my summer job, thinking I could conquer it if I kept trying. By the end of the summer, I was so paralyzed by fear that I barely slept for weeks. If I slept at all, I dreamt about being in elevators. I spent the entire workday agonizing about how I would get downstairs. After riding an elevator every day for three months, I didn’t set foot into another one for four years. Therapy and white-knuckling it clearly aren’t working.

There are some unintentional upsides to never, ever taking elevators. Let’s start with my legs. I can see that my calves are oddly sculpted as compared to the rest of my body, and my doctor can never believe what great shape my heart is in, despite my horrendous family history and anxiety-induced high blood pressure. I also think the physicality is helpful for my anxiety. If I feel anxious about the impending work day, I can pretty much rest assured that the walk up will level me out. Sometimes instead of going for a calming run, I’ll go visit a friend who lives on the 16th floor and run up and down a few times before knocking on her door. My phobia may limit me severely, but it’s not all bad. Seriously, you should see my legs.

I try to take an elevator every couple of weeks, and when I get out, everyone says “See! You didn’t die!” Which is true. Except that I think about it every night. I will have to take an elevator next week. I will have to take an elevator in three days. And when I do take on and get out,  I have to go to the bathroom and stop myself from my natural impulse to sob uncontrollably. I know that’s not a particularly proportional response. But for me, it is. I don’t like living like this. I don’t like making people accommodate me. The door to our floor is locked, so every morning, I text a coworker who comes to get me. I know it’s like ten seconds of her day, but it’s always humiliating. It’s humiliating to make people work around you. So I’m not giving up, even though it looks bleak. Apparently some people on the internet have had a lot of luck with hypnosis. It sounds shady and weird, but I’m willing to give anything a try.

This morning, when I was walking up to work, I heard the footsteps again. I know this sounds like a story I made up for symmetry when I sat down to finish this column this morning, but honest to goodness, it happened. My first thought was “Not this shit again.” I blow dried my hair this morning and wasn’t in the mood to get into a self inflicted pissing contest with this man again that would result in my hair frizzing up.” But, what can you do. He walked up, just behind me until the 12th Floor, where he exited and went off to work. It occurred to me that when I last saw him, he might have been thinking the same thing as me. That he didn’t want to take a break in front of another person. And maybe he got so caught up in that that he missed his floor, but didn’t know how to gracefully handle it. So he turned around on Sixteen and hoped I wouldn’t notice his shame as he walked himself back down to his floor. If I see him again, I really should say hello. We might have a lot in common. Poor guy.

Photo: The Shining