Claustrophobia: the irrational fear of confined spaces.

I suffer from some degree of claustrophobia. It’s not too bad because most days it doesn’t make an appearance. But long-distance plane flights are claustrophobia Russian roulette. I never know if claustrophobia will appear and how severe it will be. I am always armed with prayer and anti-anxiety meds. Travelling with Bernice is a big help.

Recently I made a trip to Penang to see my mother. She is 93, suffers from dementia, and is living in a nursing home. I had not seen her for about six months, since the Covid-19 lockdown in Malaysia began. She has lost most of her memory and I was afraid that she would forget me, too. My psychiatrist friends warned me that that day would come. We tried WhatsApp calls, but with her dementia and poor hearing, they didn’t work very well. Time was passing and I didn’t know how much time the Lord would give mum or indeed any of us. So, I decided to go back to Malaysia to visit her.

I am a Malaysian and a Singapore Permanent Resident. To return to Malaysia I had to undergo a two-week quarantine in a government-designated facility at my own cost. I was more than willing to pay the money. But the idea of two weeks trapped in a room was terrifying. I prayed about it and felt convicted that this was something I had to do, so I did.

When I arrived at Penang airport, I was given a swab test straight away. Then I had to wait three hours for the result. (I was hungry by then because this was lunch-time and we had no access to the few food establishments still open.) If the result was positive I would be taken to hospital. If negative, I would be taken to the hotel where I would be quarantined. Thank God, my result was negative and, with accompanying police escort, we were bused to Bahang Bay Resort.

In my limited Malay I told the officer in charge of allocating the rooms of my struggles with claustrophobia. I even had a letter from my doctor to back up my need for suitable accommodation. She didn’t ask to see the letter and said she’d see what she could do. In the end, she said she’d get me a bigger room — it turned out to be a junior suite — and said that the room had a balcony, though I wouldn’t be able to access it.

It was a big room and I called Bernice to tell her the good news. She suggested I try unlocking the door to the balcony. Lo and behold, the glass door to the balcony wasn’t sealed. I could access the balcony. It faced the sea. I could also see the empty old Mutiara Hotel and the buses lined up near the Telok Bahang junction. Rounding the corner, I could see low hills. It was particularly soothing to see the storm clouds rolling in from the sea and, for some reason, torrential thunderstorms were comforting.

As Bernice had anticipated, the fact that I had work to do helped me to focus on things other than the fact that I was trapped in a room. I had a number of webinars I did through zoom in the two weeks and that meant I had to focus on preparing for the talks, delivering them, and recovering from them. That gave a certain rhythm to the day. Netflix helped. I watched documentaries like a series on World War 2 and one on the Rolling Stones in Latin America. (How much botox do those guys use?) As for exercise, I did brisk walking up and down the room. And every night I looked forward to a Whatsapp call with Bernice before I turned in for the day.

I also used the time to read — not as much as I had hoped — and to do some spiritual reflection. Spiritually and emotionally I was not in a good shape prior to my trip and I worked on some of that with the Lord. I also launched some new habits like reading a psalm first thing when I woke up in the morning before I looked at my phone or the computer. It also helped that I could go onto the balcony and meditate on God’s creations.

My energy levels during the two weeks were not that hot. But I survived without the need of any anti-anxiety meds. I had to do one more swab test before I was allowed to leave and thank God that too was negative. I told the Grab driver who took me back to my home that the two-week quarantine was akin to being in prison. He said that in some ways prison was better because at least you get to leave your room a few times a day for food and exercise. He was joking of course.

And then I saw mum. Would she remember me? When she saw me she smiled and said “Ah Chye”, her nickname for me. When a member of the staff asked her who I was, she said, “my son”. I spent four weeks in Penang visiting her every day. Son Andrew came up from Petaling Jaya and we celebrated mum’s 93rd birthday with the residents and staff of her home. It was a special time.

I don’t know when I can see mum again. The Malaysian High Commission folks told me that if I were to enter Malaysia again I, like most Malaysians, would not be permitted to leave the country.  Like so many, I am praying for the borders to fully re-open.

But for now, I want to put on record my gratitude to the Lord for helping me through the two weeks in quarantine and for the time with mum. I know that prayer is a mystery. Why are some prayers answered and some not? I thank God mine was.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash