I Survived a Claustrophobic’s Worst Nightmare

Claustrophobia was Traci's worst nightmare, until birth complications forced her to face it head-on. This is her story of courage and healing.

Some would think that a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare is being buried alive, or at least temporarily stuck, in an enclosed space such as a coffin. For instance, I get claustrophobic every time I ride an elevator. However, an interesting fact is that claustrophobia, at its most basic level, relates to being unable to breathe, or move. In essence, the environment doesn’t matter so much as the situation. The gloomy talons of the phobia do not limit their grasp to constricted spaces.

I found this out the hard way when I gave birth to my son, J.D., by Caesarian Section. Immediately following his birth, I was completely paralyzed from the waist down.

I’m told that the chances of what happened to me are astronomically small. Somehow, a perfect storm of catastrophic events including pneumonia, chronic anxiety, and negligent staff brewed into a deep, dark tornado that swept me into the darkest time of my life.

Leading up to the birth, I’d been having coughing fits for weeks. I hadn’t thought much of it, since coughing is common for me. When I went to my doctor’s office for my regular check-up, I was told that my lungs were clear.

It wasn’t until I checked into the hospital, preparing for delivery, that I heard the word “pneumonia”. I was shocked to hear that the virus had travelled into the amniotic fluid in my uterus. Therefore, my baby was infected. We both had to go on antibiotics. I needed an emergency Caesarian Section.

As I was wheeled into the operating room, the medication kept me from feeling any physical pain. However, I was full of a different kind of pain—ceaseless anxiety. I questioned many things in my own mind, such as the capability of the surgeon and the anesthesiologist. I also stressed about my body’s reaction to the anesthesia.

As I began to feel claustrophobia overtaking me, these common fears were magnified. I remembered all the patients I’d heard about whose ability to breathe was compromised due to mismanagement of medication. I was in the grips of a hungry, black terror that I was sure would tear me apart.

Seriously, I did not think that I would survive.

The anesthesiologist was late in arriving at the scene, which made my terror grow. He didn’t give me a general anesthetic; he merely increased the dosage of my epidural. Therefore, I was awake for the entire operation. A drape was put in front of my face so that I didn’t see the knife slicing into my skin.

The drape sent me into a panic attack immediately. I started breathing heavily and my eyes went wide. The panic felt like a rock pressing down on my chest. The drape felt like a wall of stone inexorably closing in on me. I kept turning my head from side to side, trying to reassure myself that there was life beyond the drape. I felt like the drape was the actual lid to a box that was imprisoning my whole body. I felt blocked.

After a successful operation, I was wheeled into a recovery room. Though I didn’t think it was possible for the panic to become even more overwhelming, it did. That was when the illness and paralysis began. I suspected that I was overmedicated for four reasons: I was vomiting black bile continually, I was completely paralyzed from the waist down, I went in and out of consciousness, and the room was spinning before my eyes.

Do you know those stars that circle around old-time cartoon characters’ heads when they get hit on the head? That’s what I saw. Circles of brown light seemed to rotate around the room in a background of a vast darkness.

I knew that I was in serious trouble because every time that I clawed my way back to awareness, five to six doctors and nurses were standing over me calling my name.

“Clawed” is a perfect word for what it felt like. I literally had the sensation of crawling through a tunnel up into my own consciousness.

This lasted for five fright-filled hours.

I felt resentful of the negligent anesthesiologist who had arrived late and miscalculated the dosage of medication so much that I had become (as I later learned) a statistic. The chance of experiencing the complications that I did was about 1%.

My Struggle to Maintain Sanity after Trauma

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of my unpleasant experience in the hospital, the same hospital that later lost its license due to poor patient care. I stayed in the hospital for three more days. I felt that the nurses who were entrusted to care for my baby and me didn’t always care, or take their job seriously.

I remember one nurse, in particular, who hadn’t even bothered to check my chart to see that my baby had been delivered by Caesarian Section. She kept yelling at me, insisting that I take on chores that were difficult for someone who had been through my ordeal. For example, I was unable to unpack my own suitcase, bathe myself, walk unaided, or even go to the bathroom by myself. I felt disrespected and I cried loudly.

One nurse stood out as being particularly kind. She kept track of me through every phase of my stay in the hospital. She was an operating room nurse, but she also checked up on me when I moved into a recovery room. This was going above and beyond her usual duties. This wonderful nurse made me feel nurtured and validated.

Struggles with Darkness at Home

I became terrified of the dark. For about three weeks, I was scared to close my eyes and sleep at any time of the day. I thought that the darkness was, literally, a living entity—and that it would devour me. I envisioned lying paralyzed while it consumed me.

It was like I’d been engulfed by the mist, the fog, the blob from a horror movie—the inanimate entity that comes to life and engorges everything in its unstoppable path to destruction.

I felt completely helpless and hopeless.

I sought counseling and tried various anti-depressants. The medical remedies offered only minimal help.

My husband through that he was going to have to commit me to a mental institution. And, after a while, so did I.

But here I am.

How I Escaped the Darkness Within Me and Emerged into the Light

What pulled me through?

When I realized that medicine wasn’t going to solve my problem, I took my healing into my own hands. I began to fill my mind with images of light. I trained my mind to think of peaceful, bright places. The images of light drove out the images of darkness.

My favorite image was of myself in front of the most peaceful, light-filled building that I knew. It is a building that is sacred to my religion. I pictured myself standing, smiling, glowing, and triumphant in front of this holiest symbol of physical and spiritual light. I did this every time that the gloom threatened to, literally, suck the breath out of me.

As I healed myself, day by day, I learned the same important life lesson again and again, until it became second nature: darkness cannot endure light, physical or mental, and there is always a way to shine into our own pitch black corners.

All these years later, I still remind myself of the lesson that I learned about letting light rule over any gloom in my life. Of course, my life still isn’t perfect. No one’s is. I still face obstacles, still face darkness; but these days, everything is more peaceful because I have learned that spiritual light is always the victor in the end.

That’s me: shining with an ethereal light, love, and hope in the midst of the most pervasive despondency that can be imagined. Isn’t that the kind of image that we would all like to keep imprinted on our minds?


(Photo by Monica Antonelli)

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Traci Lawrence

Traci Lawrence is passionate about healing relationships and overcoming the odds. She is a substitute teacher and community volunteer. She is also a blogger and the author of the self-help book, Accept No Trash Talk.

3 Responses

  1. Carol Graham says:

    You nailed it when you took your own healing into your OWN hands. Learning to focus your thoughts is major — my favorite quote “When you buy the thought, you buy the lie.” I know this is not your normal writing style but it painted a word picture that drew me into your world and I thought it was great!

  2. My favourite thing about this story, Traci, is how you took your healing into your own hands. This is becoming a more common experience in our time, and it is still incredibly inspiring to witness. Especially considering the infinitesimal chance of that medical complication and considering that it wasn’t your fault, you could have spent a lifetime in bitterness, in darkness. But you didn’t. That, alone, is an incredible testimony for the power of taking responsibility for ourselves, no matter what’s happened or what others have done. Thank you for birthing this story with me. It’s been an incredible journey <3

    • Thanks, for your kind words, Vironika! I humbly appreciate the chance to share on your site! I agree that many people are face with darkness these days. Every one of those people must choose how they react to that darkness. Like you, I try to choose to stay in the light. I’m a fan of Frederick Nietzche’s aphorism “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.”

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