I recently accompanied my 4-year-old, Manny, to a birthday party at a local museum. To my horror, all the kids were piling into an elevator to take them up to the third floor dinosaur exhibit. I’m so deathly afraid of elevators that I never would have gone to the party if I had known I was going to have to ride in one.
I grabbed Manny’s hand and hurried to the museum employee serving as the party facilitator.
“Manny’s afraid of elevators,” I fibbed to the young woman standing at the lip of the elevator. “Are there stairs?”
It’s common and acceptable to use your spouse as an excuse to get out of things you don’t want to do, but it felt different and somewhat depraved to use my kid as a cover for my neurosis. But what were my options? And it wasn’t like we were going to see this woman again, I told myself.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” she said, leaning down toward my son.
Manny was about to say that he liked elevators—and his father was the weirdo—when I hushed him. “The stairs?” I asked the woman.
As a kid I was so terrified of being trapped in an elevator that my parents used to only book hotel rooms on low floors. But miraculously the phobia then disappeared. Through my teens, my 20s, my early 30s, I travelled mindlessly in countless elevators, including some really dodgy ones. However, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the old fear reemerged, and even got worse: Suddenly I was afraid of getting locked in any confined space. I couldn’t even bring myself to fasten the door of a restroom.
It’s possible that my phobia was just a fear of death, which predictably reappeared with my mother’s diagnosis. But I also like to think of its return as a display of solidarity with my mother, who had suffered with her own phobias throughout my childhood.
Whatever the cause, this fear was still with me, now years after my mother’s death.
Unfortunately, to get to the stairs at the museum we had to intrude on an art class in progress and hoof all the way to the other wing of the building. Manny insisted that I carry him up the steps, and by the time we made it to the exhibit, the dinosaur expert was already collecting some faux fossils he had handed out to the kids. Fifteen minutes later, we were instructed to go back in the elevator and return to the party room to make clay fossils.
“Daddy,” Manny said, “let’s take the elevator. I’ll hold your hand.”
It was a sweet gesture, but I picked him up and hauled ass over to the other side of the museum, down the stairs, through the ongoing art class, and back into the party room, where the children had already started indenting the clay.
I was still huffing and puffing when the mother of the birthday boy, a medical doctor, sidled up to me and said they’d been worried we had gotten lost in the museum; the party facilitator was currently out searching for us.
This mother was a person who Manny was going to see again, plus I needed to stop tarnishing my son with my own mental conditions, yet I still found myself talking to the woman for a good while about Manny’s fear of elevators.
When I returned home from the party, exhausted, I filled my wife in.
“They knew it was your phobia,” she said. “Kids love elevators.”
“What 4-year-old is afraid of elevators?”
“I was!” I said, even though it probably didn’t hit me until around 8.
“You really think they knew it was me?”
“Of course. You should have at least let Manny go in the elevator so he wouldn’t miss anything.”
“But then they would have known—”
“What?” she asked.
“I’m taking a nap.”
My other son recently was asked in school to talk about his family, and when he got to his parents, he said, “My mommy helps people,” (my wife’s a therapist) and, “My daddy’s afraid of lifts,” (using the English phrase he’d learned from Peppa). I laughed when I heard, but it was also really disturbing. I had thought the kids viewed my elevator phobia as something ornamental to who I was and not as a defining characteristic.
The good news is that they’re coming out with virtual reality treatments for phobias and I’m feverishly looking to sign up. So while other fathers will be out playing golf or kicking back with a drink or sleeping, I’ll be trapped in a virtual elevator. Because I really don’t want to mess up my kids. I want to model healthy behavior.