How can I let people know I'm claustrophobic?
December 12, 2014 11:57 AM   Subscribe

People throw around the term claustrophobic to describe tight or otherwise uncomfortable spaces. I actually am claustrophobic, to the point where I'll have panic attacks or come close to blacking out. How can I make this clear to people like my landlord who do not understand the severity of the problem? Would a diagnosis help?

Last night I was reminded of this lovely condition while watching Youtube with a friend. We were watching a gamer navigate the hallways of this huge prison/mansion complex with apparently no way out. The movement was starting to make me dizzy. Then I couldn't watch anymore. My blood was draining from my extremities and my fingers and feet went cold. I thought I'd managed to calm myself down... only to feel sick at my stomach fifteen minutes later while watching a perfectly benign and non-triggering video. I had to leave his house.

Hospitals and apartment buildings are notorious for triggering claustrophobia. I'll feel as if I can't breathe properly or think clearly, and my circulation goes haywire. When this happened once in a hospital, the nurse had to give me a strong sedative.

My landlord recently locked me inside of our shared house. She padlocked the front door and every door in the house, and locked the windows. I was locked inside all afternoon while she went shopping. I panicked. I called 911, who talked to me sarcastically and told me that the police can't open padlocks. (I should have called the Fire Service.) When my landlord finally returned, I told her how upset I was and why she did a horrible thing to me. She flipped out on me, calling me a bitch, and she said: "I don't care about your claustrophobia or whatever. I was getting you a copy of the key."

So that's one situation that's unresolved; at least, hopefully it won't happen again.

Then there are meetings and other situations where I'm expected to stay put for the entire duration, but sometimes it gets to me that I am in an enclosed room and then I feel faint. Plenty of interviewers and university TAs, among others, including teachers, have had to deal with my dramatic near-blackout episodes and anxiety attacks, and I hate it when it happens. It doesn't make sense to try to explain that I'm claustrophobic when 99% of the time I'm fine inside a building (as long as I can get outside easily).

I don't think I could ever work in an office. I need the freedom to get outside whenever I need to, which is why I intend to work from home.

Does it make sense to get a diagnosis? I keep worrying about situations like ending up in the hospital for a long period of time after surgery or something and not being taken seriously when my symptoms are bad. What kind of therapist would know how to treat claustrophobia, if it can be treated?

And should I file a police report against my landlord, or would that be taking it too far?

Note: I'm already on a very low dose of Valium for PTSD and associated insomnia.
posted by quiet earth to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry, your landlord padlocked you into the house? All windows and all doors? So you had no way out? Can you explain how and why this happened? I cannot think of a reasonable explanation for locking an adult into a house.

Leaving aside the vagaries of local laws, under which this is likely to be a crime, it's certainly an aggressive and inappropriate way to treat another human being, regardless of your claustrophobia. I'd file a police report and if it's at all possible, move.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:03 PM on December 12, 2014 [61 favorites]

And should I file a police report against my landlord, or would that be taking it too far?

To put it lightly: I generally recommend getting the police involved when someone has been locked inside a building against their will. It's also a fire risk (you can't leave if there's a fire) to boot.

I hope you can get help for your claustrophobia, too, but any reasonable person would have a problem with being locked up. It's 100% NOT OK for someone to do that to you.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2014 [27 favorites]

My landlord recently locked me inside of our shared house. She padlocked the front door and every door in the house, and locked the windows. I was locked inside all afternoon while she went shopping. I panicked.

Of course you panicked. Anyone would have panicked. I know this isn't answering your question, but I want to just say that this is NOT OK, not normal, and not a place you should be living (also, the police didn't take you seriously, WTF??). Being padlocked inside your house is being held prisoner against your will. Unlawful confinement. You should absolutely file a police report (and, honestly, I have no idea why the police weren't sent when you called 911). Yes, file a police report and also MOVE. PADLOCKING someone inside a house isn't normal. Not ever.

As to the claustrophobia .... talking with a mental health professional will help you with this. I actually wonder if the mechanism that is manifesting as "claustrophobia" is really something more like a panic attack that is triggered by your feeling (or imagining, in the case of the video) that you can't get outside. I don't have an answer that would say "this will help you" but a mental health professional will. The answer may be CBT or anxiety meds or something else, but it is fixable.
posted by anastasiav at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: My landlord is an artist who is paranoid about theft because we live on a main street. I have access to the second floor, where my bedroom is. She insists that I padlock my bedroom door every time I leave the house.

She only gave me a key to the front door very recently (a week ago). Until then, I had no way of entering the house unless she was home to let me in. (I moved in a month ago.)

Apparently she was in the habit of padlocking the front door from the outside before she gave me a key. Her logic is that "If you left the house while I was gone, who would lock it? You didn't have a key. The house would be wide open."
posted by quiet earth at 12:08 PM on December 12, 2014

Do the windows of the house have outside locks? That defies all logic. Your landlord sounds insane. You need to move.
posted by Linnee at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2014 [34 favorites]

What your landlord did was batshit crazy, and you should break your lease and go live somewhere else.

With that out of the way, what you need isn't a diagnosis, but a treatment. The reactions you describe to being in any building and needing to feel like you can leave at any time, not just physically, but as an aspect of your employment, sounds really severe and debilitating. Getting diagnosed might help you get treatment, but please don't stop with having a label put on it.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2014 [30 favorites]

Your landlord should not be renting to tenants. This is not ok and an issue entirely separate from your claustrophobia. You may want to contact a tenants' rights board for your city and see what they suggest for how to report this.

If I were you I would move out as soon as humanly possible.
posted by phunniemee at 12:10 PM on December 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

Yeah, I would also have a problem with the whole "locking someone in a house against their will" thing. That's at the very least a fire code violation, and seems like it might well be an actual criminal act on some sort of kidnapping/imprisonment spectrum. That is a disturbing and scary experience with or without the claustrophobia.

Therapy seems like a very good idea, and a diagnosis could certainly help your disability be acknowledged when it's officially necessary. IANAD, TINMA, but it's entirely possible a modification of your prescription and/or some sort of talk therapy might help; maybe ask about situational-use anti-anxiety meds, to be taken specifically in claustrophobia-inducing situations?
posted by jackbishop at 12:10 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're living in an insane situation, completely separate from your claustrophobia. Find a new place to live and this won't be an issue.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:11 PM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

From a previous question of yours, it sounds like you just got out of a bad living situation. Moving is definitely tough, so I hope you're able to find a good solution to this new set of circumstances.

Is your landlord otherwise ok if you're able to get keys (and maybe you do now?)? Could she upgrade the locks to deadbolt that can be unlocked from the inside? It's definitely against fire/building code to not be able to get out of a locked house like that, so perhaps she'd be open to discussion from that point of view?

I hope you can find a safe solution for yourself.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 12:14 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to the good advice above on dealing with your claustrophobia/panic attacks, I just want to say that it was absolutely not normal (or legal) for your landlady to do what she did.

I'm actually more concerned that you didn't realize this and are attributing your reaction entirely to your (real!) psychological condition. I mean, yes, I think you should get help for your debilitating panic attacks, but it's equally if not more important that you understand this isn't a normal, safe, or legal living situation you've got here. Your landlady put you in serious jeopardy by locking you in--I can't emphasize this enough. What she did was illegal as well as unsafe. It's illegal BECAUSE it's unsafe!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:15 PM on December 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think you've buried the lede here...what your landlord did was not only insane but ILLEGAL. You could have died in a fire.

To answer your actual question, I'd take a two-pronged approach. Find a psychiatrist who can give you a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug - something fast-acting like Ativan that will physically reduce your anxiety when you need it. You should also find a therapist (ask the psychiatrist or your internist for a rec) who can work with you on finding non-medication-based coping skills.
posted by radioamy at 12:17 PM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's against fire codes and likely housing codes to not have 2 exits from every bedroom. If you can't open the window from the inside WITHOUT a key, then it's a serious violation. That said, if she does not fix it, and you do call in the authorities, she will likely start the eviction process.

When you do go for diagnosis/treatment, check out using virtual reality. A Google cardboard, or Gear VR running an outdoor simulation or 3D movies may be able to act like an asthmatic's inhaler when you start to panic. Conversely, you may be able to get safely acclimated to smaller spaces while using it outdoors.
posted by Sophont at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Getting a medical diagnosis of your 100% legitimate and uncontroversial medical condition is not going to make a whit of difference to your utterly unhinged and dangerous landlord. While therapy can certainly be a good option for you, right now I think your focus should be on living somewhere far away from a person whose paranoia is endangering your life.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Your responses so far are incredibly helpful. Thank you. I'm planning to leave by the end of the month, if not before. Her new policy is to padlock the front door when I'm leaving the house, along with setting two other locks on the front door. Three locks for one door.

She also barricades the front porch with three sets of wooden fencing and a weighted chair. I have to move all of it aside to descend from the porch, and then replace it all.

The windows are locked from the inside. She has barred all the windows with plywood from the outside, even on the second floor.
posted by quiet earth at 12:32 PM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

OK, the porch barricade moves her squarely into batshitinsane territory. I am very glad you are looking for another place to live.
posted by shiny blue object at 12:35 PM on December 12, 2014 [18 favorites]

That sounds really scary, quiet earth! I'm so glad you're getting out.

Please talk to the person who prescribes your Valium about other options for therapy and possibly medication. If it's your primary care doctor, a psychiatry referral might be a good idea - if you've already got anxiety and PTSD to deal with, and now are having issues with panic, that's a psychiatric situation complex enough that a specialist would likely be more helpful.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:38 PM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

As everyone else said, your landlord is insane for locking you into the house, and being imprisoned like that is enough to make anyone freak out. Not just for the very real fire safety issue, but also just having your freedom confined without your control is not something that one adult should ever be doing to another adult. There's a reason they use prison is a punishment, and a reason why it can be considered abuse if you do things like padlock kids into their rooms.

I'll also add that her response is even more insane and tells you that she is not someone you want to live with under any circumstances. If she's the only thing standing between you and being homeless, fine. But I would start investing time into looking for any possible alternative, if I were you.

On your update: I'm seriously fearing for your safety now. Please call the police or fire department and tell them the full details. If they minimize your concerns, hang up and talk to someone else. Do not stay in a place where you risk being locked in with the windows and doors barricaded with wood. That is a recipe for very bad things to happen and she is not allowed to do that to anyone. I guarantee there are rules for landlords that make her behaviour very illegal, because it is very unsafe for fire reasons if nothing else.
posted by randomnity at 12:39 PM on December 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

Uh, your landlady is insane. I mean, see a doctor or psychiatrist for the rest of it, but I honestly think getting out of that living situation should be your priority right now, given that it's exacerbating your claustrophobia.

FWIW, even in living situations where the tenant has limited access/limited use of the full property, this situation is beyond bizarre. Like, my roommate sublet her master bedroom (which has its own entrance and exit and bathroom) to someone as a bachelor apartment/efficiency, and kept the door to the rest of the apartment locked/closed, but the subletter still had two entrances/exits and all the keys. What your landlady is doing is effectively imprisoning you. I wouldn't bother with reasoning with her, because barricading the windows and porch is well past "weird paranoia with a tiny bit of justification" and onto "actually not sane."
posted by yasaman at 12:48 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

That's horrible/illegal/dangerous, as everyone else has said. Still, to answer some of your questions, it sounds like this fear is affecting all parts of your life--if you're afraid to work in an office or be in a hospital, that's not good. Therapists can absolutely help with this (maybe someone who specializes in anxiety/panic would be best). Panic attacks are really treatable. Please do take steps to get better. Maybe you could describe it to people as an anxiety disorder, so they don't think you're just using "claustrophobic" as people do in everyday speech.
posted by three_red_balloons at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

You have an anxiety disorder and you can treat it with both medication and talk therapy, so look into that.

Your landlord is not exhibiting good mental health, and the two of you together trigger each other in a VERY counter-productive way. See if you can stay with a friend and move out as soon as is possible.

I'm sorry you went through that experience, it sounds ghastly.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:33 PM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you want people to understand your condition, explain that you have claustrophobia and a panic disorder. Being "claustrophobic" has become too colloquial a term to explain what you are getting at.

Also, your landlady Isn't simply "paranoid." She clearly suffers from some kind of severe paranoia
posted by deanc at 1:35 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not a fire marshal, but I'm guessing that your local fire marshal would be VERY interested in hearing about this situation. Wow. (I agree with everybody else that this is 100% HOLY SHIT NOT OK.)
posted by Lexica at 1:36 PM on December 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

I think that you have enough responses that echo that your landlord is doing things that are astonishingly inappropriate, dangerous, and illegal.

For the general claustrophobia, it would be very helpful to work with a therapist who specializes in phobias. It's not an overnight process to rid yourself of this or reduce its effects on you, but it would be well worth the time to start doing this. Therapy for phobia coupled with treatment strategies for anxiety/panic disorder would greatly improve your quality of life. Good luck!
posted by quince at 1:45 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify on my previous comment: the reason I'm so concerned that you attributed your perfectly normal reaction to your psychological condition (which again, I believe is very real), is because I'm worried that people can take advantage of you. From some of your previous posts it sounds like you've experienced some truly awful life situations that no one should ever have to deal with. That might be why sometimes it's hard for you to recognize when OTHER people's behaviour is inappropriate. So I think there are a few issues going on here, all of which make me equally concerned:

1) You experience debilitating panic attacks in certain normal situations; it's interfering with your everyday life.
2) Your landlady is acting in a way that endangers you.
3) You are upset about her actions but your solution to fixing the problem is to find a way to communicate to her that you have claustrophobia/panic attacks. That is, you're misidentifying that someone else's behaviour is wrong, wrong, wrong and dangerous to you.

I urge you to get your therapist to help you identify when other people's behaviour is unsafe/unacceptable for you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:46 PM on December 12, 2014 [26 favorites]

Do you have a therapist or psychiatrist? It might help you to have a neutral third party to run big things by before making decisions. Did you know this landlord was like this before you moved in? And did you retrieve your cats? It sounds like you keep landing in situations that are really bizarre and traumatic that involve law enforcement and people acting really, well, crazy, and I wonder if having a healthcare provider who specializes in mental health might really be the best thing for you.
posted by sockermom at 2:03 PM on December 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

Your first priority, claustrophobia/anxiety aside, is to make sure that she does not lock you inside the house with no way to get out. You need to call the fire and/or police departments and get them to tell her that that is *not* okay.

Hell, if you were planning by moving by the end of the month, I'd say cut your losses and see if you can stay with a friend for the next few weeks, because this is really dangerous behavior.

However I agree with other posters that you would really benefit from talking to a counselor in order to identify unsafe/unacceptable behaviors, learn how to advocate for yourself, and manage your anxiety. If you read AskMe at all you'll know that a *lot* of us have been to therapy and benefited from it.
posted by radioamy at 5:57 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, I missed the sentence in your second clarification where you said you might leave before the end of the month...I'm really glad to hear that! I hope you can stay with a friend until month end. Good luck and please stay safe!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:33 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not a fire marshal, but I'm guessing that your local fire marshal would be VERY interested in hearing about this situation.

I came here to suggest this. One of my friends had a landlord who nailed all of her windows shut, and that was more than enough to get his ass in some major trouble. Let alone the situation you're describing.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:58 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion to add panic disorder to your self description of being claustrophobic.

Please move ASAP, and the moment you're moved out, call the fire dept, the police dept, and whatever local gov't agency controls rentals, because if there's a fire in that building, someone could die unnecessarily, due to your LL's raging nuttiness.

That episode could set you back a long way in your claustrophobia, it would have upset me a ton, and I don't share your fear of closed spaces! And your local PD?!? wth was up their reaction to your call? That's pretty upsetting too imo.

Move, please move SOON.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 12:39 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your landlord:
Ok, so one of the problems with having an anxiety disorder, is that because supposedly 'normal' situations are stressful, we often don't realise when the line has been crossed into situations which MOST normal people would also find unacceptable!

I have had this problem at work many times, where I don't realise it is the work situation that was bad, not me being incompetent, or having problems with my ADHD traits.
For example, a week after I broke and finally asked for another person to help me with a particular work task, the person assigned to help went to our boss and said it should be a task divided between at least three people - and I'd been doing it by myself for nearly a year!

In this case - your landlord is not well.
It is NOT normal to be padlocked inside a house, and MANY people would have grabbed their stuff, and left the same day. Sorry, your right to me giving notice, was trumped by you padlocking me inside a house!
The police are unlikely to press charges, but you may want to make a statement, because it establishes a pattern of behavior if your landlord does other unacceptable things in future.


Diagnosis of Claustrophobia, and how to explain to others:
However, if this is what pushes you to get some treatment, that's great! Therapists CAN help you with this.
Further, explaining that you have been diagnosed with claustrophobia (and are getting treatment) is the difference between explaining "I'm feeling a bit depressed" and "I have Depression".

Try saying something like:
"I have severe claustrophobia, and sometimes faint in enclosed spaces if I can't get to an exit.
If I think I am having a problem, I may quickly excuse myself from a room, so don't take offence - it's just less of a disruption than fainting.
If I have an attack, and am unable to get out of the room in time, I generally just need assistance getting to an exit, and need people to not crowd over me."

Please customise the above script to your own circumstances. Emphasise that it's the "can't get to an exit" or whatever aspect is easiest to explain, and what would be most helpful for you if you DO get anxious (please don't crowd me) etc.
Some people are self-destructive enough that they put themselves in situations that are bad for them, and a hassle for others - Letting people know what to DO in a situation, and how they can accommodate you, lets others know you are not one of those people, and they'll generally be relieved that you're clear, upfront, and willing to avoid unnecessary drama.

Best of luck!
posted by Elysum at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I wish I could mark all of your responses as "Best Answer". I knew something was definitely off about my landlord, but I didn't know if I had any legal leg to stand on after she locked me in. THANK YOU to all of you collectively for giving me the impetus to get the hell out of here.

Right now I'm staying in a shelter. My cats are at The Asylum and I visit them every day from 5 pm until midnight. I'm going to arrange for a catsitter over the holidays, and in the meantime I'm seeking a new housing situation for January 1st.

I cannot believe what a relief it is to have some respite from this woman and her controlling nature and verbal abuse. I dread returning to her house. As soon as my cats are safely at the catsitter's place, I'm filing a police report and I'm calling the fire department. I intend to pursue a criminal case against her, and possibly sue for harassment, depending on the legal advice I receive.

She is a hypercontrolling, paranoid, and verbally abusive person. Thank you again for helping me to sort-of salvage the rest of the month and the rest of my sanity. I'm not the best judge of character when it comes to landlords, apparently, so next time I'll bring a friend along with me.

I'll also follow your advice re: the claustrophobia. Much appreciated.
posted by quiet earth at 3:55 PM on December 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

« Older Your favorite 2014 music by olds?   |   No Dogs Go To Heaven Under Any Circumstances Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.