Cleithrophobia, the fear of being trapped

Jeff Elder
2 min readFeb 19, 2017


The Arizona desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. Photo by Jeff Elder.

I am not claustrophobic. When I have trouble sleeping I like to be in a small space, or to imagine that I have a cozy little cave just out of the snow all to my self.

I am cleithrophobic. I have a fear of being trapped. I know exactly where it came from: a childhood trauma I could not escape. I know exactly where it leads: Out. To escape. Or, to be more specific, it leads to escaping.

Cleithrophobia is triggered by a lack of escape, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

I took the photo above on August 30, 2011, in the middle of the Arizona desert. I was driving across the country again (my fifth time). There is nothing that feels better to me than getting 200 miles behind me and realizing that there is no one in the world who knows where I am. This is where you belong, the desert whispered to me in the crackling heat. No one understands you like this space does. It sounded so convincing.

As a teen-ager I walked through cool, quiet nights on the tree-lined streets of Palo Alto, California, the ritzy Bay Area suburb that is home to Stanford. In the empty sidewalks of blue-black darkness I moved almost silently. I was alone and in motion and free as an unseen shadow.

If that seems like an odd fetish, consider the alternative that it antidotes. You will be trapped. Things or people will keep coming at you. There are no no tools of empowerment. There are no new authorities of protection. There is no end.

I was once confronted by an inescapable harassment. A friend asked me how I would respond if the confrontation appeared by my side. “I would go out on the ledge,” I said.

She laughed. “Don’t do that.” We were on a high floor. It didn’t seem funny to me. It still seems like the right idea.

I have to have a way out. Hopefully a long and scenic way, with lots of miles behind me.

There is no redeeming lesson learned. This is not a growth opportunity. I am not on the road to recovery.

I’m just on the road.



Jeff Elder

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist now writing crypto and cybersecurity. The Paris Review praised my Johnny Cash post.