There were benefits to living so close to the school, when the backyard had exhausted its full potential, an empty school playground provided a clean slate to stretch out the afternoon. With a dab of vegemite on each finger (a snack for the trip), and a basketball under my arm I could manage to spend a good hour or so at the very same place that filled me with dread during the week.
When a rest was required, I'd squirrel myself into one of the cylindrical cement pipes that was thrown in amongst the play equipment, there were two of them, the smaller one was out of the question. The larger one was manageable, just. It was a game that was played between my mind and my body. Could I crawl all the way in? Head or feet first? How long could I make myself stay there?
That's my first recollection of knowing I had a problem. I just didn't have a name for it.
I only ever went in on my own. Never with anyone else. If someone was to come in, it meant there was a possibility I could get stuck, that I wouldn't be able to get out. I couldn't risk it. Keeping myself to its edges, one foot always stayed outside of the cylinder. That one foot was the proof I needed, it was the ability to be out of the tube in a split second.
Through my teenage years the sensation would reappear. After a night at the pub, when everyone piled into the back seat of the car, I'd disguise my fear by pretending to be the voice of reason "lets get a cab rather than all squish in together". If there was no chance of a cab, I'd make sure I was the one to sit on someone's lap, always near a window and always with the window down. I became an expert at orchestrating where I'd fit in an overcrowded situation. When human pyramids were built, I'd negotiate not being at the bottom. In a crowded office building on a Friday afternoon I'd take the next elevator, or the next, or the next.
"We can squeeze you in?"
"No - it's fine. I'll grab the next one."
And then came the moment of truth. I became a mother and eventually found myself in an indoor play centre. It wasn't the smelly socks or the ball pit, it was the intricate world of enclosed tunnels and slides. It was all going well until the first little traveler asked for some help mid tunnel. Looking somewhat like a great dane trying to negotiate its way in through a cat flap, I made several attempts to make my way to her. Head first? No. Feet? No. I can't. I can't. I can't. I enlisted the help of a stranger. My mind had disengaged with my heart. My mind was making all of the decisions, and it wasn't getting in that tunnel.
"I think I might be a bit claustrophobic?" G was mildly interested. When I told him the story of our trip to the play centre it was all said in jest, an entertaining recollection of the day. Being a "bit claustrophobic" was funny - until I had to have an MRI.
I drove to the hospital knowing that it had to be done. The urologist wouldn't be able to operate without seeing the film. I was going to "harden up" "put my big girl pants on" "build a bridge". As I made my way into the room I knew there was no chance of my dignity being dented, it had already left the building with my bra. I stood wearing nothing but socks and underpants under a flimsy paper hospital gown. I could feel the breeze creeping up through my legs. I adjusted the ties, double checked that my bottom wasn't on display.
It took four attempts before I gave up.
"I can't do it, it's too small, I just can't"
We tried again. Each time the adrenaline raced to my heart. It was pure fear, mixed with a shot of panic.
"What about if we go feet first and I promise your head will be out?" My new best friend Bradley the MRI operator was trying everything to help.
"I need to be able to pretend I'm somewhere else, if I don't think I'm in there, I'll be fine. Let's do it again - feet first"
I covered my body with a blanket, I put on the eye patch, I clenched my fists, and then feet first, I went in - except I didn't.
I walked out of the back door, vegemite on each finger, basketball tucked under my arm. I opened our back gate and looked over towards Mrs Sommerville's shaggy dog, the one that would eventually disappear and go "to the snow". I made my way to the corner, looked both ways for cars and quickly crossed the road so I could jump over the school fence without anyone noticing. I walked past my grade four class, and glanced at the bench where I read from a school reader. I bounced the ball, shot a hoop, and kept walking. I made my way past the Principals office, over the grass and towards the playground. I wiggled my way into the cement tube, feet first. I felt the coolness of the cement, the freedom of having the playground to myself and remembered the feeling of endless time.
I heard the banging of the machine, I felt the table move and every now and then Bradley's voice would tell me I was nearly there.
"It's okay - I'm somewhere else" I assured him.
This time my heart had taken control.