“Mommy, we won’t have to go far underground, will we?” asked my youngest the night before our field trip to Reed’s Gold Mine. She still remembered her unease of watching men get swallowed up by an elevator shaft in a movie about coal mining in West Virginia that we saw over a year ago.
“Oh no,” I said, “You never go so far into the mine that you cannot see the light from outside.” 13 years ago, I had gone on the same field trip with my 3rd grade class as an assistant teacher.
Reassured, we both slept soundly that night. Confidently.
The next morning, our guide pulled open the large double doors that led deep into the earth, and a rush of cold, musty air hit our faces. “That’s 50* degrees you feel waking you up, folks.” I looked at my friend, and we both laughed as our kids huddled against us for warmth. No matter, this will be short and sweet, I thought to myself.
We entered into the cold and dark. But, unlike my other experience, we kept walking. I did not want to cause any confusion, so I followed the people in front of me. My oldest pulled me aside and said, “Mom, are you alright?”
“Sure, honey.” I said. “We’re not going far.”
“O.k.” she said, “but if you get really scared just stay in the back away from all the other people.”
“I’m fine.” I was amused by her concern for me and added, “I can handle anything for a few minutes.”
But, after 10 minutes of twists and turns, the guide stopped and declared, “You are now 50 feet underground.” That was enough to shake me out of denial and the moment when I realized something was grossly amiss. I leaned over to him and whispered, “Excuse me sir, how much longer is this tour?”
“Oh, well over 30 minutes,” he said.
In shock at his response, all of the blood ran out of my face in front of about 20 onlookers. Two of which were my own children.
His eyes widened with recognition and said, “You’re claustrophobic, aren’t you?”
It was not a question. It was a statement.
“Yes,” I said tearing up. In a childlike voice I heard myself say, “I don’t remember this part.”
So many thoughts raced through my mind. None of which were encouraging or stabilizing. I began berating myself for being so foolish to think a trip to a gold mine would not include a tour of the actual gold mine.
I felt so vulnerable and exposed which is never a good cocktail of emotions to drink in front of strangers. And then it hit me. The reason my only memory was of the mouth of the cavern was because I had opted out of the tour all those years ago.
I wiped away a tear and searched for my daughter’s faces. They knew my secret, and now so did everyone else.
I did self talk and breathing exercises. But, nothing was touching my deep fear of being trapped because “what I knew to be true” was lagging too far behind “what are these people thinking?” It seems silly now, I suppose, to be SO concerned with the opinions of others I will NEVER see again. Worried about the thoughts of those who know nothing about me or why I panic when I feel like there is no way out.
It seemed like I stood there holding up the tour for hours feeling like I was drowning. Splashing and flailing around internally with no hope of finding solid ground and suffocating beneath the mountain of rock and moisture.
But then, surprised by grace, the hand of a stranger reached in and pulled me out. “It is ok,” the guide said very gently and calmly. “This happens all the time,” he smiled. “All you have to do is stay away from the crowd when I stop to talk. You’ll be the first one into a tunnel, but then move to the back to be the first one out.”
“I promise you,” he said as he looked at me pointedly. “It will be alright.”
There was no condemnation. There was no judgement for my lack of foresight. Only compassion and mercy. I looked at my dear friend, and she smiled so tender and knowingly at me. My girls too nodding that it was going to be fine. All of these visual and verbal cues helped me find my footing.
We moved on, all the while the guide was checking in on me in a way that was not patronizing right down to the moment when we emerged from the cavern. I leaned over with my hands on my knees.
I was fighting the urge to be sick and panting for the air that escaped me so far below the surface. I took it into my lungs and began laughing like a crazy person. My friend’s daughter went to her mom, and I over heard her asking in a concerned voice, “Mom, what is wrong with Mrs. Luke?”
“It’s ok, honey,” she said. “She just has a really hard time with small, tight places.”
Finally, I was calm enough to sit down and rest. I felt my sanity returning to me very slowly. I looked at my friend, my girls, and the kind, patient guide as he walked away very thankful for the grace and compassion I found deep down in the darkness of my exposed weakness.
I guess you could say, I struck it rich.