In the Beginning…

I couldn’t breathe. The air was thick and dank, and smelled slightly moldy. I just kept taking as deep of breath as I could, and sighing loudly, trying to satisfy my need for oxygen, to slow my pounding heart. I was about to die.

About fourteen years ago, my wife, April, and I had gone on a weekend getaway to a historic gold mining town in Northern California. On a whim, we decided to take a Jeep tour down into an old gold mine. I remember the tour guide stopping the Jeep outside a fifteen-foot hole in the side of a mountain, and saying “If anyone is claustrophobic, speak now!” I was pumped. “Let’s do this!” I couldn’t wait to get in there, and had just discussed with April that we should come back sometime and take the all-day walking tour.

That all changed when he started the Jeep, and drove into that hole. Instantly, I started getting uncomfortable. I kept looking back over my shoulder, watching the light outside shrink from a comforting fifteen-foot circle, smaller and smaller again, until it just winked out. I wanted to jump out the back of the Jeep and run, but didn’t want to make a scene. When we parked a few minutes later, after driving a mile and ending up a hundred or so vertical feet underground, I wanted to tell one of the guides to take me back out, but again, I didn’t. That would be too embarrassing. I was a grown man, I should be able to handle this.

The guides ushered us into a room carved out of the stone, and sat us down in folding chairs. I heard the jeeps start up, and leave. Instantly, it was all bad. I was trapped. “I should have said something. I could have rode right back out with them”. I could feel the panic begin on the tops of my feet, an itchy, tingly feeling. The itch swept over the top of my head. We were in that room for about 30 minutes, if I had to guess. It felt like hours. My heart was racing, mouth dry. I could not get a satisfying breath into my tight chest, no matter how I tried. I kept taking deep breaths and sighing loudly. So this was what a heart attack feels like. My wife kept giving me the stank eye, which was just exacerbating my discomfort. Didn’t she understand that I was dying?

They finally let us out of that room, and numbly I walked with the group over to a metal staircase I hadn’t seen on the way in. My legs felt rubbery, my limbs cold. I wasn’t sure I could walk out. My body was just not reacting to the commands my brain was sending. The guides showed us some veins of gold, as we climbed the stairs out. We could not get out of there fast enough for me, and although I imagined the guide, who was taking her sweet time getting us the hell out of there, looking at me as if she knew something was wrong, she didn’t stop to ask if I was OK. And I could still not manage to ask for help. Another fifteen minutes of climbing and touring, and finally we broke out into the gift shop above. I had made it!

I went straight to the car and began chain-smoking cigarettes as fast as humanly possible. My hands were still shaking. My wife came out, and was livid. “What was that all about?”, she asked. “You were such a jerk, you were making her uncomfortable. If you were that bored, you should have asked to leave.” I was stunned. “Baby, I wasn’t bored. I was dying”

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