With Antelope Legs ahead of me and Peacock Muscles behind, we crawled into Sandia Cave, into the granite, single file. If anyone else was inside, we’d have to back out somehow; it was too tight to pass. We certainly couldn’t have turned around. I didn’t consider that if one of my buddies panicked, there would be no understanding psychopathology, no help, no way for me to progress, and no way for me to egress. We didn’t talk about getting stuck in the cave or panic attacks; instead, we talked about America’s bicentennial, the actress Farrah Fawcett, and rattail fights in the locker room. I didn’t want to regret a constricted adolescence—I thought I should be even more adventurous—so deeper into the cave I went.
We low-crawled with ignorance as the granite narrowed, and we squeezed in 140 meters until the tunnel simply ended. There was no cavern, no climax, and so no resolution to our adventure. I was disappointed; it wasn’t a good teenager story yet. So we turned off our flashlights and sat cross-legged in absolute darkness. I could be anyone in that cave, surrounded by zillions of pounds of granite, safe from Russian nukes and the judgment of the outside world. In that cave, there were no rules, no boxes, and no expectations. Twenty-five thousand years earlier, Sandia Man had squatted there and perhaps dreamed of conquering mammoths. I could still be an Olympian then. I could still be a novelist.
Imagining being inside Sandia Cave helps me to understand my clients with panic disorder. They aren’t afraid of getting stuck in a cave. They’re afraid they’ll panic while in the cave and be unable to escape their panic. My job isn’t to help them lose fear of the cave but rather to lose fear of the panic. When they lose their fear of panic, they lose the panic. It’s like looking under your bed for a monster; you have to look for the monster to make it go away, otherwise you’ll wonder. Really, the only monster is the fear. When people go toward the panic—in a planned, prolonged, and frequent manner—they get better. What I’m really saying is that I want you to generalize this: go into the fear of being transparent and authentic with safe others, and the fear will diminish over time.
We emerged from Sandia Cave covered in red, flour-like dust. I suppose I should ascribe some meaning to coming out of the tight darkness as if being rebirthed. But instead of emerging with colic, I emerged with the joy of being young, vigorous, hopeful, and on the cusp of manhood. The archeologist who had “discovered” Sandia Man in that cave had not yet been debunked. The plaque honoring him had not yet been removed. So, we rode back down the mountain sitting on the car hood. Peacock Muscles thought it would be a laugh riot to plaster his bare bottom on the windshield so that Antelope Legs had to look at his hairy crack as he drove. Instead, it shattered. The windshield, I mean.
There. That was better than some tortured rebirthed metaphor. Now it’s exactly right, I thought. Now it’s a good teenager story. Really. That’s what I thought.