The Phobic Four: Going underground
Kevin Courtney tackles his fear of confined spaces by going caving at the Pollnagollum Cave with the Corralea Activity Centre, Belcoo, Co Fermanagh. Photograph: James Connolly
Vietnam 2006: I’m deep inside the Cu Chi Tunnels, a warren of narrow passages near Saigon, dug by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. The heat is stifling, the smell of damp mud is overpowering and the walls of the tunnel seem to be closing in. In fact, they are closing in – the deeper I go, the narrower the tunnel gets. I’ve gone from stooped walk to all-fours; soon it will be a belly crawl. I can feel my heart thumping and my breath quickening. This is hell.
No sign of the rest of my party – they’ve moved ahead. I have a choice: carry on and hope I don’t get a panic attack, or go back while there’s still enough space to turn and before another tourist comes up behind me and hems me in? I’m out of there.
This was my first real experience of being in a tight, enclosed space. It was the nearest I felt to being buried alive and it left me feeling shell-shocked. I still get the heebie-jeebies when I recall the tunnels. What if I hadn’t turned back? Would I have had a heart attack, or would I have gone a bit crazy, like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter?
I’ve kept this phobia buried away – no need to deal with it, since I’m not planning to get a job down the mines. But I’ve always wanted to try my hand at caving – it would be fascinating to explore subterranean passages carved out by nature over millions of years.
Not having a fear of enclosed spaces, though, is sort of a prerequisite for caving, so I need to tackle this head on. I make an appointment with a respected hypnotherapist, who will talk me through my fears and provide some tools for dealing with them.
I have three weeks to conquer my fear of enclosed spaces but I’ll be away on my holidays for two of those. Will one session do? Absolutely not, says the hypnotherapist. I’d need at least three one- on-one sessions.
There’s another option: downloading a hypnotherapy session that I can listen to on holiday. First there’s an exercise audio track that explores techniques for replacing my old, “faulty” thinking with new, confident thoughts. One such technique is “swish patterns”: you make a mental picture that represents your fears and put it on an imaginary computer screen. You then make a positive picture and put it in the lower left-hand corner, then, with a “swish”, you make the positive picture grow till it covers the old one.
The second part is the hypnotherapy audio track. A deep, somnolent voice lulls me down several layers of relaxation and it’s not long before I’m completely zoned out. An echo effect is added at just the right moment, making me feel like I’m in a nice, cosy cavern, tucked away from all my worries and cares.