Out Of The Abyss

My name is Uli.

I’m 37 years old, I have two sons, a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and an overwhelming desire to fritter away any disposable income on Starbucks, smoothies and sushi.

Rarely content to stand still, I’m a professional firefighter, an amateur writer and cynical about humid weather, people who carry small dogs in purses and the downfall of culture as evidenced by what I see on the E! channel.

I also recently came to terms with another aspect of life:

I’m claustrophobic.

I never had issues with tight spaces until I had to get an MRI a few years back, wherein I recreated a scene from The Incredibles as seen here: Into The Tube, Chunky. I had pretty much the same thing happen, minus the launch into a space capsule part. Once squeezed into there, I realized I couldn’t raise my head and promptly freaked out. It wasn’t pleasant for me, nor the tech running the machine, and a few days later, with the help of some drugs, a towel over my face and earbuds lulling me into a peaceful state via the soothing tones of Bad Religion, we got through it. It was an ordeal, and it set the tone for idiotic anxiety, I suppose.

Flash forward several years: as the member of a ladder truck company for the fire department, I’m expected to assist the rescue companies in various forms of rescues – ropes, trench collapses and, unfortunately, confined space scenarios. Getting stuck in tight places….every firefighters dream gig. I knew our training class was this week, knew how much I’d probably break out into sweats and scream like a little child when wedged in, even made several jokes about who’s job it was going to be to inform my family that I’d died of a panic attack (impossible, really, but several calls we make revolve around people panicking themselves into a stupor). Then the day arrived, and, as I gazed down the 24″ diameter pipes and felt my hands twitch nervously, I buckled down and forced myself to stay calm….right up until I was on my knees in front of the tube and my fertile imagination ran away with me.

Finally, after much coaxing, I convinced myself I was being ridiculous and just crawled in the damn thing. I got tangled up in ropes, finished the task, and set some sort of speed record getting out, based on my desire to be done with the whole thing. I thought I was over the hump. I was wrong.

The next task was to crawl into the same tiny tube, then have your partner crawl in after you, “leap frog” over you, then you over them, to simulate having to crawl over a victim to prepare them for extrication. And that’s where I just gave out. I’d crawl in a foot or two, get near my partner’s legs, feel the pinch and rapidly back out. Two guys, two feet of diameter….this is an unholy exercise in ridiculosity, and I was firmly against it. Why? Because this right here is the view with ONE guy in there:

No thanks. I decided enough was enough.

And then a funny thing happened. Well, two things, really, from one source: that crazy, cultish, thing I love dearly, CrossFit.

1.) I’ve lost weight. Thanks to the vigorous workout schedule of CrossFit Springfield, I’ve dropped several layers of fat and belt loops, all while gaining some weird thing called muscle. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to escape the pipe without getting wedged in, despite the harness and helmet and with the help of nervous sweat greasing the walls. It felt really good to know that what once would have hindered me completely was becoming something less of an issue. Now I just had to scale the mental walls.

2.) I’m not one for coaches cliche’s. From “you can do it” to “you gotta give 110%” to “we leave it all out on the field”, I can never hear these sayings without picturing the coach in tight softball shorts angrily projecting his failed athletic career hopes upon us, the Goleta Valley Little League “Cubs”, who’s record stood at something like 0-16. I appreciate honesty, not politically expedient phrases meant to offend no one. I like curse words in my motivational speeches, lots of them. Speeches that go something like this one (here!), from the Washington Capitals hockey coach. However there is a sign in our gym, large and across an entire wall, that says “Learn To Never Quit”. I joke regularly that I’m gonna sneak into CrossFit in the dead of night and Sawzall off the part that says “never”, but in truth, I’ve taken that philosophy to heart. I wrote in a previous post (here) how our gym has taught me to keep pushing through the mental and physical boundaries I’ve set up for myself, but this thing, this claustrophobia, it is a hangup with no basis in rational thinking.

I thought about the virtues of quitting, of being able to avoid that which I don’t like. I thought of being the only person in the training drill that day who was going to have a big “did not finish” hanging over my head. I thought of how when firehouse kitchen table talk came up later on, and people were discussing who couldn’t pass muster, my name might come up. I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want my crew to look at me with suspicion when shit goes downhill, as it does on emergency scenes. I didn’t want them to doubt me. I didn’t want to doubt me, either.

I was told it’s ok.”You don’t have to finish, everyone has their hangups”. I could see in the eyes of the instructor, my co-workers that no, it wasn’t ok. To be controlled by an irrational fear is to be controlled, something I loathe intensely. So, I grabbed the smallest person there (she’s the one in the first picture) and she obliged me, willing to go back into the tube with a half-crazed mental case, just to prove a point. I’ll spare you the details (screaming, et al) and just say that after some sheer stubborn willpower, it was done.

It was ugly, it took several embarrassing false starts, but, to quote an instructor that day, “you didn’t quit, you weren’t a pussy, you kept at it till you finished, and that’s what counts”.

I may finally have begun to learn what it means to learn to never quit. And while I’m sure being a claustrophobe is a lifelong state of mind, I’m grateful to have a place that’s taught me how to be physically and, more importantly, mentally prepared for adversity, however you may find it. When we have the second half of the drill on Friday, though, and we’re using 18″ diameter tubes, all this talk may be for naught; I can only hope that that same strength is in there somewhere.

In the meantime, I’ll keep on cussing at those voices in my head. Quitting is never a good option, especially to the stubborn among us. When backed up against a wall, or wedged in a piece of corrugated plastic, that’s when the triumph of will is put to the test. And, as the little league coach might say, it feels damn good to not back down.