What is it about public transportation that screams “social boundaries no longer apply here”? I ask myself this every morning when I am taking the jam-packed 8 AM commute to work three times a week — a true test to my sanity. I get it; I am just as desperate to squeeze onto a clearly already full-to-capacity train so that I don’t have to be late to my job, but I also understand that basically holding hands with the person next to me as we grip onto the only pole within reach in an attempt to not fall on our asses is not the most socially appropriate thing.
As a person with mild to moderate claustrophobia, I get by day-to-day pretty well. I can handle myself in most crowded situations, as they tend to not be for extended periods of time and happen infrequently. Ever since starting a job five T stops into the city though, the ratio of time I spend squished up against some man’s armpit has spiked, and I have found it progressively difficult to keep my shit together on my morning and afternoon commutes.
Every morning, when I shove my way through crowds of people to stand, squished on the outskirts of the reliably unreliable green line, I sense my breathing speed up as the doors close, trapping us all in whatever yoga pose helped us slip in. As a relatively small, not intimidating person, people seem to find me a perfect target for squishing and pushing past, since there is a pretty slim chance I could do any damage in return, even if I wanted to.
For those of you who have never dealt with my good old friend claustrophobia, think of it like someone’s hand closing over your throat as all of the air in the room is rapidly sucked out by some hidden vortex. So basically, it sucks. Being in tight spaces is difficult for me, but being stuck in tight spaces surrounded by other human beings is my own form of personal hell. The relatively large personal bubble that is a result of American culture is my daily savior, but for some godforsaken reason, that does not apply in public transportation.
Before I start doling out any wisdom, I would like to disclaim that I have not come to a cure-all, end-all solution to this yet, I’m still on the struggle bus myself, but now we’re on it together.
The best method I have found for trying to deal with the circumstances (beyond Uber Pooling everywhere, believe me, I have considered it) is to plug in my earphones and put my music on full blast. This helps block out the situation I am are currently in (even though the disturbing screeching noises of the T can sometimes overpower even the loudest headphone volumes). The more calming and soothing the music is, the better. Perhaps listening to throwback My Chemical Romance is not the best idea. I have found the Spotify playlist “Relax and Unwind” to be a great soundtrack for crowded train rides as it lulls my mind a bit with the banjo tunes of Mumford and Sons and the like.
Another nifty trick is trying your best to face the windows or exits. When dealing with my claustrophobia I have found that at least being able to visualize my exit helps me know that, although it may feel like I’m trapped in a tiny, windowless box of bodies, I’m not actually. This can mean entering the T from one of the two ends so that you can end up closer to the doors, rather than coming in through the middle and ending up smack-dab in the middle of a wall of bodies (and nowhere near a pole to grab for balance). Pro tip: This tactic also allows you to avoid the awkward moment when you’re trying to decide where to rest your eyes without accidentally staring into the soul of a stranger.
The most ideal solution is to avoid the situation entirely. If you find it possible, given the time constraints in your schedule, to leave for work earlier or come back home later so as to avoid rush hours on the T that would be the best alternative. Your boss will think you’re really committed to the job and you can clock in an extra hour or so while taking steps for your own mental health, so it’s a kind of a win-win. Best of luck out there, and may there be less armpits pressed into your face in your future.