I first met claustrophobia through a bunkmate at camp in my early teens. Somehow the door got stuck shut in our cabin and three of us crawled out the window, but just as the fourth was getting ready to climb out too, the window slammed down and could not be easily opened.
Our bunkmate began to cry and then told us she had claustrophobia. I asked one of my friends what that meant, and she explained it was an extreme fear of being stuck inside a small space. I later learned many people with this phobia fear the walls may actually closing in on them.
With the help of camp maintenance workers, our bunkie was freed from the cabin and life went on as before. But some years later, I got a job in New York and had to take the elevator every day to my 11th floor office. The elevator got stuck on two occasions and I got a little taste of claustrophobia. The feeling stayed with me and even now, I don’t much like going into elevators alone, especially old elevators (which still exist in a lot of older buildings).
When I started writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street and got my main character Ruby stuck in a closet, I wanted to ratchet up the tension a bit—so Ruby got claustrophobia too. Although a lot of people have this phobia who aren’t artists, I thought it was a great problem for a kid who is artistically inclined. Artists of all stripes need space to create, and when they can’t get it, I think it can feel almost like you’re being suffocated.
When I say space, I mean not only literal space where no one is bugging you and you can be alone with your thoughts—but the time to create that space around you as well. What I found in writing Ruby’s story was that even though she was stuck and scared, she was able to use poetry to get rid of the fear she was feeling. I’m not sure if that would help everyone with claustrophobia (me included)—but it’s as good a way as any to calm down.
Does that mean claustrophobia is an artists’ disease? No, but if you are an artist, it may be easier to understand it. And if that’s true, maybe artists can avoid it by making sure they find the time and space to do their work.
Or… stay out of elevators. And closets.
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