With things slowly opening up again, Laura writes about an anxiety she’s had the opportunity to forget about over the last few months. The fear of escalators.

Managing a phobia

I have an acute fear of escalators. Specifically, down escalators. It’s the main reason why I couldn’t move to London last year, even when I wanted to.

There is no ‘official’ phobia name for escalator anxiety, although it has been informally (and not exactly imaginatively) titled ‘escalaphobia’ online. Escalaphobia is often, but not always, related to other phobias, such as acrophobia (fear of heights), bathmophobia (fear or steps), and/or illyngophobia (fear of vertigo). Sometimes, there is a medical reason which exacerbates the fear, like vertigo, difficulties with balance, lack of depth perception, troubles with vision, and/or sensory issues. Sometimes, there may have been a ‘triggering incident’: a previous accident maybe or knowing someone who was hurt on one. (According to TfL’s (Transport for London) annual report, between 2018-2019 there were 1746 reported escalator-related injuries across the tube network).

I think my own escalaphobia results from a combination of acrophobia, basophobia (fear of falling), stress-induced vertigo and, perhaps, a triggering incident. I vaguely remember falling down a couple of steps on an escalator in a home department store when I was around the age of seven. A man caught me before I went any further. I don’t think it’s the main cause of my fear though. For as long as I can remember, I've found getting onto a down escalator more challenging than other people. It got even trickier about four years ago.

When I stand at the top of an escalator in the underground, my body will suddenly stop and I won’t be able to move. I lose control of my legs and my feet. I don’t know what to do. It’s as if I’ve forgotten how to walk. I usually begin shaking, so the first step of getting onto a down escalator seems even more impossible. In my anxious state, the escalator appears to speed up. I’ll feel stressed; my heart racing, my palms sweating. I’ll feel dizzy and hot and sick and I’ll wish I wasn’t there. I’ll feel like crying. The people waiting behind me will get annoyed and angry, they never seem to understand. ‘It’s not that difficult!’ a man shouted at me once, trying to hurry me up. Those experiences were so intense that I would panic days before I had even planned to go to London. Often, I would cancel my trips because of them.

The last time I got onto a down escalator in the underground I was going towards the Jubilee line at Waterloo. I tripped over my feet and nearly fell on the second escalator down. I grabbed at thin air and luckily caught hold of the handrail. I shouted an expletive. I started crying. I looked at my shoes. I could feel the stares of people coming up the up escalator. I felt my cheeks burn red and then hot tears on them. I was that child again. Rather than get annoyed with myself however (which I usually would do), I decided I wouldn’t stress myself out with escalators like that anymore. Instead, I wanted to be kind to myself.

I studied History of Art at university and enjoyed learning about architectural theory in particular. My escalaphobia got me thinking how the underground, with its 451 escalators, 402km of tracks, 543 trains, 270 stations, and five million passenger journeys a day, is philosopher Fredric Jameson’s very definition of a discombobulating ‘postmodern hyperspace’. In his book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989), writing about the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles Jameson declares that postmodern hyperspace ‘has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.’ No wonder I was getting so anxious about it all at the top of those escalators. I had the whole tube network, with all its escalators and tracks and trains and stations and passengers, at my feet. It was architecturally overwhelming.

I realised that I needed to ‘locate myself’, in Jameson’s words, and for me that meant coming up with new ways of getting about. Before the day I fell down the second down escalator at Waterloo, I’d felt so ashamed about my fear that rather admitting to myself I might have to find another route around—that I didn’t have to use the underground—I would frequently avoid going to London altogether. I made up my mind not to ‘avoid’ escalators for the foreseeable future so much as to realise they weren’t the only means of transportation. There was no point continuing to force myself on them: my attempt at exposure therapy clearly hadn't worked. I thought about how I wanted to do the underground differently, about using the underground without escalators. I contacted TfL about making a map, an ‘escalator-free’ guide. It would show which stations have up escalators and down escalators as well as how high they are. It could help people with the same anxiety as me. They already had a ‘step-free’ guide for those with physical accessibility requirements I reasoned. I received a nice reply to my email a year and a half ago; they said they’d do it. They haven’t done it yet.

I’m in the process of making my own escalator-free guide of the underground, and, eventually, I’ll share it online, for free. To make it I’ve been doing the underground differently, mapping my position in a network that Jameson would certainly call ‘unmappable’. I’ve compiled a list of tube stations I can and cannot travel from in a spreadsheet. Each time I visit a station I note if it has up escalators (which I can do, although uneasily if they are very high), and which stations have steps or lifts instead of escalators down. When a station has no escalator-free means of descent I devise an alternative method of transportation, like walking or cycling or bussing. I admit that there is a fine line between what I am doing and avoidance. But, as I haven’t forced myself to do anything I’m uncomfortable with for over two years, I’m finally thinking about moving to London again. I’m sure I’ll get back on the down escalators eventually. Until then, it’s a compromise that seems to work. I’m going in the right direction. My advice, to those with escalaphobia, is that it’s just one step at a time.