Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I’m saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it’s been with me since childhood.

Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I’ll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I’d packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don’t do elevators. I don’t book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I’m serious. I don’t do elevators.


Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI’ve worked through this shaky period and I’m making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind’s evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.


We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn’t get on the plane. I hadn’t flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn’t get my finger to click “Confirm Purchase” on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.




A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I’m out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I’ve written is set in a place where I’ve travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can’t cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I’ve coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???


A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I’d downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I’m still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I’m assuming I make it to my destination.


People. We’re headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.



Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011
Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel’s most horrific scenes. For I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it’s not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you’ll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you’ve just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle’s home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle’s husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. “No one told me,” she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don’t stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel’s end as Elizabeth’s story becomes woven into her grandfather’s.

Sebastian Faulk’s writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each era he writes: the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You’ll need them.

NPR aired the following segment on 1/23/14 about digitized British World War I diaries.

View all my reviews

Hello Panic, My Old Friend. You’ve Come To Fly With Me Again.

It starts with a red-hot ball at the bottom of my rib cage and shoots on a wire up my chest, to the back of my throat, and flares in a starburst of electricity that flushes my cheeks. My lungs clench and the red-hot ball drops into my bowels, where it run molten through the twists of my intestines. My legs tremble, my feet tingle, my fingers turn to ice. In my brain the screaming begins. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. The plane rolls forward and I know it’s my last chance. If I scream aloud, they’ll stop the plane. They’ll let me out, into the open air. I won’t spend the next ten hours trapped inside a titanium tube, hurtling across an ocean, unable to step outside, unable to breathe. It’s my last chance before an ascent into madness.

I pull the wire-bound collection of The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles from the seat pocket in front of my knees. I direct my remaining bright spots of rational thought to the first clue of puzzle #24: Fly with a long proboscis. My hand shakes as I write “Tsetse” into the squares. My body presses back into the seat at the plane tilts toward the sky. It is too late. My next breath of fresh air is ten hours away.

Julie, you can’t recall a time when you weren’t claustrophobic, can you? Remember that Hootenanny in a barn on a dairy farm on the Olympic Peninsula? Hot apple cider, fiddlers, and a maze made of hay bales. You crawled in the dark, through the musty bales, bumping nose to tail with giggling grade-schoolers, searching for the exit. You got about twenty feet in and began screaming in terror, scratching and crawling your way out, to emerge choking on wails and hay dust. You would have been about five or six.

Or that show of silly bravado when you were twenty-one and descended into the gurgling bowels of Paris to gawk at piles of bones in the creepy half-light that reflected off weeping stones. You came to your senses just as they began to take leave of you. Fortunately, your companion was a Paris beat cop who had a crush on you. Bruno whisked out his flashlight, his badge, and you held onto the back of his leather jacket as he pushed back through the line and up the spiral staircase, shouting “Step Aside! Emergency” You emerged in a December downpour that ran with the tears you couldn’t help as your heart unclenched and you gulped the air.

Elevators? Oh yeah. All about elevators. Was it San Diego State? UCLA? Some shiny-hot campus where you had to deliver a presentation to a class of International Business students. The classroom was on the twentieth floor and you walked it, didn’t you? Damn straight. You’re the one walking through four levels of the parking garage to reach street level without taking the elevator, the one whose husband curbed her enthusiasm about registering for the Big Climb Seattle – a charity run up the stairs of the Columbia Tower – by reminding her she’d have to take the elevator down.

And there are elevators that simply cannot be avoided (Hello, Swedish Women’s Clinic on the 14th floor of the Nordstrom Building). So you’ll wait at the bank of elevators, letting cars load up until everyone disappears so you can take one alone. Should even that be unavoidable, you will hover next to the control panel, helpfully punching in everyone’s floors, just to be certain no one fucks around with the buttons and somehow stalls the car. Because then it would be over.

But flying was never a problem.  After my first transoceanic flight in 1990, I flew around the world- to Asia, to Africa, back and forth to Europe. Then, one warm spring day in 1999, I sat on the tarmac of Willard Airport, outside Urbana, IL, in an idling American Eagle turboprop. I was headed for a connecting flight in Indianapolis, then onto Denver for a conference. We sat on that tarmac with the doors closed, as the central Illinois heat turned our little plane into a stalled rotisserie. That’s when my first on-board panic attack took flight. Just as my mind began to pull free from its hinges the plane rolled forward and the air conditioning whooshed icy relief into our cramped compartment. Somehow I got to Denver and back again.

Since that day, I haven’t flown without spending at least a few shaky moments in the grip of claustrophobic anxiety. But I’ve kept flying. I have no qualms about crashing into the ocean in a fiery ball of wreckage. Not a bad way to go considering the many alternatives. I just don’t like being trapped. What deep, dark corners of my childhood hide my need for control, for space, for cool, fresh air? Exorcising those ghosts on the tarmac of Atlanta Hartsfield really isn’t opportune. So, I turn fight the lack of control with deeper, darker forces of anger and determination. I can’t not travel. Being forever trapped on one continent is worse than a few hours in the air.

Crazy, lovely irony has kept my wings aloft. I spent many years as a study abroad coordinator – travel is in the job description. To Australia and Spain, to Japan and Belgium, off I went my with my heart in my toes and my stomach roiling. One job kept me traveling nine months a year, several times a month, through a territory that spanned Seattle to San Diego, Phoenix to Portland, with staff meetings in London and Atlanta every six months.  I built up frequent flyer miles galore, and what else is there to do with frequent flyer miles but to fly someplace? My husband and I even moved to New Zealand, which is nearly as far as you can fly non-stop. Fourteen hours. In a 757.

So this is where I tell you that yes, I did seek help. I’d gone to a behavioral therapist years before, as a high school student. There I learned a trick or two, something to do with cognitive dissonance, about telling myself to panic just as I began to panic – my brain wouldn’t be able to manage the conflict between forced panic and the avoidance thereof. That sounds pretty good in a textbook, but I reckon the therapist who led me through the mental image exercises understood as much about my phobia as I did about Geometry. Which would be for shit, since I failed Geometry. My own therapy is New York Times crossword puzzles. Cognitive dissonance via wordsmithing. It’s hard to panic when you are trying to remember who won the 1962 World Series (Seven letters: Yankees).

But I’m no martyr to my cause. A few weeks before a major trip I present myself to my understanding physician and renew my prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. It takes off the raw edge of panic – a chill-pill for an over-active brain – but I can tackle a crossword without chewing my lips bloody. Several years ago, I forgot to take my pills out of the bag that I checked through on the non-stop flight from Paris to Seattle. I didn’t realize the little orange vial was beyond my reach until I was on the jetway, fumbling through my carry-on. I was alone and my meltdown was invisible from the outside. I flirted with walking away from the flight, but realized my bags would travel without me. I could stay in Paris forever. Or I could take the QE II across the Atlantic and hitch a ride from New York Harbor. Or I could stop being ridiculous and muscle through the panic. I thought of the poor sods on my flight who might suffer from a fear of crashing and realized that they might need my steady hand if we started to go down. I’d be calm for them, just in case. We all survived that flight, I’m happy to report.

So here I am, packing my bags for another flight across the Atlantic. I am doing something ridiculously cool: attending two wine-tasting conferences in the South of France, followed by a few days on my own wandering in Paris. Hours and hours on a plane where I can read to my heart’s content, fall asleep watching whatever pointless Katherine Heigl movie is showing on the “romantic-comedy” movie stream, and relax, which isn’t something I do very often. We forget that in traveling, it’s not just the destination that matters. It’s the journey that offers us the opportunity to challenge who we think we are.

I just hope the hotels have stairs.