The Phobic Four: Going underground


The fear
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?

The therapy
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.

The challenge
I’m on my way to Corralea Activity Centre in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, and I’m trying to catch a last earful of the recorded exercise, tapping my “karate point” as I drive, which is meant to seal in my new thinking.

This lakeland area on the Fermanagh/ Cavan border sits on a vast limestone shelf and is rich with underground cave systems – including Marble Arch – carved out of the limestone by water over millions of years.

My cave leader is Marius Leonard, who has been exploring these caves for years. We’ll need special “boiler suits”. We also need a head lamp to ensure we don’t get plunged into total darkness.

We’re going to start with a “beginner’s” cave, to get me acclimatised. It goes by the name of Pollnagollum – nothing to do with the character from Lord of the Rings.

We enter via an impressive shakehole at the bottom of a 12m cliff. Immediately we are in another world – like walking into a stony cathedral, its ceiling adorned with small stalactites, cave pearls and silvery patterns that turn out to be bacteria. This is a wide and high cave that goes in for about 200m. I feel comfortable enough here. There’s an optional crawl passage of less than 10m behind some fallen boulders, and I feel brave enough to give that a try. Halfway along, I have to twist my body sideways to get by and that’s when I feel the panic start to rise.

“You’ve only a few more feet to go,” Marius reassures me, and I make it to the other end, shaking a little but also invigorated.

Now it’s time for the real thing – a section of the Boho Caves, a vast, underground maze of passages. You can walk in parts of these, with head stooped, but if you’re a glutton for punishment, you could spend a day crawling around hundreds of metres of narrow tunnels.

It’s easy to get lost in this labyrinth, but Marius knows every nook and cranny. The plan is to walk through the cave, with the option of crawling up a side passage, until we reach another entrance 200m along.

Twenty metres in, I feel a massive, invisible force blocking my path. Time to exit this abyss. So, I didn’t conquer my fear, but I reckon with a little more work, I could dig deep and find some reserves of courage.

Kevin Courtney went caving courtesy of

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