It was one of those college things, a bunch of people I barely knew were going, so I found myself heading out on this expedition with no real clue. A semi-claustrophobic person by nature, I probably had no business being there in the first place. I remember sitting in a closet when I was a little kid, with a flashlight, a blanket, and a book to read when I got myself latched in. It was a frantic few minutes before I was able to let myself back out again, and I suddenly remembered that experience when we walked into our first cave. But that was an old memory, and one that needed to acquire a new sentiment. After all, I managed to free myself up again just fine. I do remember worrying about finding myself in deep water in the caves.
Hours and hours we traipsed through the cool damp of these caves. Our leaders on this trip had explored these particular caves many, many times, and they guided us through different underground rooms filled with spectacular rock formations. We didn’t linger long in any of them, because we were told our very breath would condensate in the chambers and throw off the humidity levels, or something like that.
In one particular chamber, they allowed us to wiggle into the various smaller crevices. The one I was in was supposed to get narrower and narrower until it opened up into a space wide enough to turn around before wiggling back. A group of us went in, and soon wound up crawling on our bellies because of the lowering ceiling. By the time the first two people in the group reached the area where they could turn around, there was no room for the rest of us to get into the chamber, so I was told to back up. We relayed the message to everyone in the chain, and slowly started to inch our way back. This is when I got stuck.
For a moment that seemed like a lifetime and a half, I realized fully that I was 50 feet below the surface of the earth, on my belly, with rocks pressing in on all sides of me, and I couldn’t seem to move. But in that moment, I also knew that if I thought about it, I’d start to breathe faster, and that would really get me stuck. Where I was, taking a deep breath was impossible, and hyperventilating would have allowed for panic to set in. I was not giving up. I’d managed to get in there, and I’d fit going back out again. I refused to think about anything else, and I inched my way backwards, one small, measured breath at a time.
I didn’t dwell on the amount of movement, only that I was still willing to attempt it. Eventually, we all got back out again, and standing there in the darkness of the cavern, no one knew of my near-panic, nor of the change in me.
It was mind over matter, just like it had been when I got stuck in the closet as a kid. The rest of the closet story was that I panicked, fumbled with the latch, and thought I’d suffocate until I exhausted all the panic, and suddenly and calmly thought my way out. In the cave, on my belly, the memory came back fully, and this time, I refused to let myself get to the panic level.
I’m not saying this is how anybody should handle caves, or that you can cure yourself by thinking about it. I am saying that, from then on, any small crevice I found, I’d say, “Where does this go? I think I can fit in there.” And we’d try it. And when, late in the day, we found a cave with water running in it, I lined up with the group going in.
The cave comes back to me, in difficult times. I’ve truly never been the same since.
~ Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing.