“…Ready or not, here I come…”
Hearing these words, I squeezed my body into the back corner of the windowless storage closet and stealthily flipped off the light switch. I left the door cracked open an inch to keep eyes on the seeker, but this came at a high cost — a sliver of unwelcome light from the hallway of the apartment building pierced my small room. I slowed my breathing so that silence would provide accompaniment to the darkness. And then I waited. For a minute. Then another.
I heard the other kids gather in the hall again to start a new round, but I remained cloistered in my hiding spot. My safe space had remained pristine – soundless, unlit minus the sliver, my own. But the quietness and calmness surrounding me belied my own experience. I was too young to know the definition of euphoria, but this was unquestionably that feeling.
I expected to feel this way on special occasions, but here I was, a little first-grader hiding in a closet twenty floors up in the sky of a Manhattan apartment building, getting high not from the anticipation of playing a game or possibly being found, but simply from being alone in this dark cocoon. This was the opposite of claustrophobia. But not necessarily agoraphobia…yet. Is there a word for the loving of dark, enclosed spaces? Claustrophilia?
It was not until almost a decade later that the feeling surfaced again, this time in a slightly more pressurized context, high school. Our family had moved to Boulder when I was 10 so that my brother and I had more space to roam than one apartment, one building, one city block. The rumor was that a prison architect had designed the high school, or maybe the price of windows was prohibitively high at the time; let’s just say this: it felt like a building helicopter parents would love.
I was especially at ease on rainy or snowy days when baseball practice was moved inside and our conditioning drills started in the vast chamber that was the student center but then forced us to wind deeper and deeper into the opaque arterioles of the fortress. Occasionally, I’d branch off from a couple remaining teammates and find myself alone at the end of a slender hallway whose low ceilings and narrow walls had swelled to accommodate the rush of students pouring in and out of classrooms just hours before.
My solitary breaths echoing off the walls. No need to interact with anyone. No need to put on a face. No need to enter an AP class.
As a college man, the wisest form of humanity, I was able to finally detect the pattern. On nights when I felt anxious or like I didn’t belong, I found myself sneaking out the back door of my dorm as if being summoned by the small lake a few tantalizing minutes away.
I’d step off the lamplit sidewalk onto a dirt footpath that descended gradually to the edge of the water. If I was lucky, it was a moonless night. On these rare occasions, to find my way around the lake meant following the texture of a hidden gravel path with my footsteps; my eyes didn’t adjust to this breed of darkness.
The only evidence of the nearness of the lake was a tiny light from a campus building about a mile away faintly reflecting off the surface. The further I’d wander down the path, the darker it became. I knew I was close to the end of the path when I heard water slithering through the gorge that fed the lake, growing louder and louder to become the singular sound of the night overtaking the sound of my shoe meeting the gravel.
We were routinely warned by the school to avoid the dangers of going near the gorges at night. As far as I could tell, I was the only one of my classmates to ever venture into this abyss this late, chasing this comfort. I never heard anyone else’s footsteps; although I once stepped on what I perceived to be an abandoned pair of shoes (where was that person?).
As I’d navigate up the wooden staircase and away from the lake, using the handrail as my only guide, I knew from prior visits during daylight that I was surrounded on all sides by dense forest; they weren’t visible now but knowing the trees were there gave me the feeling of having an extra blanket pulled over a sheet of darkness, which is precisely what I needed. I would glimpse the observatory at the top of the stairs, signaling a return to reality.
I consider myself lucky that the occasional midnight stroll through a black void seemed to be enough for me to turn toward that observatory and climb my way back into normal college life. I presume mental health treatment would have helped me then, but I was able to get by without it – or put it off – because I had found a safe place of my own that I could retreat to anytime. But that was in a completely different world than we’re in now.
After college, I got the help I needed. I learned how all my forms of hiding, isolating, may have been related. The anxiety may never go away, but there are healthier ways to find comfort. Like being attuned to what motivates me to get up in the morning. Like designing programs for high school students to allow them to tell their stories. Like writing. After the years of struggle, the work I put in, I was finally feeling confident in my ability to cope.
Then came the threat of the virus. The fear, the uncertainty, the devastation is unlike anything I’ve known. In the face of this, all my tricks, old and new, they’re not working, for the first time. But I’m not alone.
Rex Manchester is a freelancer and social entrepreneur living in the Denver/Boulder area.