Imagination is a blissful thing. Look at an empty street and it becomes a busy one filled with beautiful people and things. A blank sheet of paper can be one with artistic calligraphy and beautiful designs. Look at the sky, and imagine you can fly and see a million things. A million possibilities, an endless wonder. Imagination fueled with fear, on the other hand, is an interesting beast. And this story is a perfect example.
This time was no better than the first. I was mentally prepared for the worst, or so I thought. I was wrong, very wrong. You can expect everything and still not be prepared for what was to come.
The route for the second fire exercise was different. We entered from a different exit and there were additional stairs to go down.Unlike the first fire exercise, we do not need to crawl (until we reach the caged tunnel), but stand on our two feet. Our left foot and hand were closed to the wall, while the right foot swung in a 90’C clockwise direction to determine any obstructions to path. Our right hand was supposed to place on the shoulder of the person in front of us.
Instead of a helmet, we were now equipped a gas mask, the kind you see in movies when the front row fire fighters want to check for leakage of toxic gas. When I put it on, I was instantly aware of how hot and hard it was to breathe inside the gas mask. My long thick hair dangled carelessly down my shoulders only added to the heat. I would have tied it up, but I my elastic hair tie broke. A disadvantage of having thick hair. I told myself after, that if I had my hair tied up it would not be as suffocating.
Panic shot up instantly as the door slammed shut. Calm down. I took deep breaths to lower my heartbeat.
The darkness doesn’t scare you. I lied to myself.
At the first corner, I felt woozy. The gas mask was definitely worse than the goggles; I couldn’t see really well and I couldn’t breathe. When I exhale, the inside of the gas mask just became warmer and warmer. I had tried to hold my breathe just so that the temperature would not rise too much. It didn’t work.
After three or four corners, I felt a handrail. We had a brief run through the layout, so I knew this indicated that the stairs was in close proximity. It was warm.
By that time, the eye window of my mask had became misty due to all the water vapour from the exhaled breath. I couldn’t see anymore, and panic escalated. I started to be short of breathe. Air was running thin. The hissing sound which released the artificial smoke made me jump. I wasn’t sure what I was terrified of, but I was.
Suddenly, I saw a flash of bright light right into my eyes. I was confused, as it was an exercise conducted. pitch black. Later, that bright light made sense as it had to be from a flashlight of the instructor or whoever who was inside. How would they know if we had done the right steps if they weren’t there to see. As the torchlight beams shifted away from my sight, I started to see a white spot that originates from the centre of my vision which fades out, and my entire vision changed from black to white.
This was a familiar sight; I knew at that instant I was going to faint. I wasn’t thinking at all, but I imagined robotic monsters, lots and lots of them. In case you were wondering why it was so scary, when I was 7, I had my first nightmare where I was swarmed by hundreds of miniature robots. I couldn’t sleep well for the next few days. And after almost one and a half decade, that is the most prominent nightmare.
Back to this story, the darkness scared me. I felt extremely light headed, as I finally let go of the rail and my right hand slipped off my partners shoulder. I started to hyperventilate, and prepared to let the darkness engulf me. As I was about to slip into unconsciousness, I felt a sharp grip on my shoulders steadying my posture. I couldn’t see who it was, but it startled me back into reality.
At the same time, I felt the person in front of me holding my hand, the way you would when you lead someone from the front. There was a rule that two persons should not be holding each other hands throughout any exercise because not only would it look weird, it would.. well, feel weird. I used to jump at people’s touch, but that hand was my compass; my golden ticket to survival.
The rest of the exercise was a blur. I don’t know how I did it, but I miraculously passed the fire exercise. Maybe it was that I sparingly went through the entire exercise, maybe it was pity as the instructor probably guessed that I would not survive a repeat of the two exercises – alone. I hope I would never get to apply this exercise in the actual visit. Or anywhere, period.
There is no happy ending to this story. I did not magically come out from the exercise room, overcoming the fear of darkness. If anything, it triggered the dormant phobia of darkness. Achluophobia. It took me a very long time to be able to sleep in switch off my dimmed light lamp before I went to bed, and relied on the brightly lit street lights outside my window. I hardly ever been in total darkness, and I don’t want to ever be alone in the dark again.
Disclaimer: Story modified from the original event.