The pickings are slim in my refrigerator. In the time of the coronavirus, I know what that means. I have to leave my New York apartment and make the risky trip to the grocery store. I put on a pair of blue gloves (size small) and a black reusable mask that covers my nose and mouth. Then I take a breath before I venture outside, realizing that each time I do, I may be risking my life.
There was another time in my life, when a trip outside felt like I was taking my life in my hands, although there was not raging pandemic going on. I had agoraphobia (from the Greek words meaning marketplace, agora and fear, phobia).
Decades ago, when I was twenty-six, I hid behind the walls of a different apartment, this one shared with another woman, when I was a student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once the phobia got its hooks into me, I didn’t feel safe enough to go much beyond the confines of that space. Panic attacks that reduced my legs to jelly, gave me vertigo and made my heart pound in my chest were the price I paid when I attempted to leave the apartment. Too ashamed of my fears, I never told that roommate or anyone else what was going on with me.
During the summer when it was most severe, I still had rent to pay. I briefly took a telemarketing job where I could hide, making calls for a charity, face to the wall, phone to my ear, anonymous in a roomful of other woman being paid minimum wage to do the same thing. Getting to that job was hell. As I walked to the bus stop, I felt dangerously overexposed in the bright New Mexican light. Once on the bus, as we rumbled down the city’s main drag to the strip mall where I worked, a psychic if not physical death often seemed imminent. Maybe this time my symptoms will overtake me, I’d think. I’ll finally collapse on the street before I can make it inside the office, unmasking me as the truly mentally ill person I believed myself to be. Like most of my agoraphobic fears, which usually involved a loss of control and public humiliation, this one never came true.
The why behind the agoraphobia is beyond what I can tell here, but I had survived a fair amount of trauma growing up and I hadn’t really addressed it yet. At that time in Albuquerque, a number of things had gone wrong in my young life and I had been flooded with feelings I couldn’t contain, which echoed what had happened to me seven years before. I was nineteen then, and after I had screwed up miserably at my first attempt at college, I’d gotten phobic and eventually retreated to the relative safety of my mother’s apartment.
Each time, the acute phase of the phobia, where I had serious trouble leaving the house, lasted about six months. Then, the fear of permanently becoming the kind of person ruled by an irrational and what I considered at the time to be a freakish fear began to scare me even more than the phobia itself. I was never offered or took medication for the symptoms. Prescribing wasn’t done the way it is now. Besides, I was a creature of the countercultural times I came of age in and I wouldn’t have taken it anyway.
I did the only thing that seemed in my own power to do. I declared war against myself and stoically fought my way back to a precarious functioning, learning how to look and sound like I was okay, even when the panic threatened to ambush me. I told myself a narrative that could only go one way: I was staring agoraphobia down and winning. But the truth was, the phobia never entirely left.
A few years later, I left New Mexico and moved to Washington, D.C., to work in journalism. At thirty, when my boyfriend and I found ourselves between jobs, he proposed we go on a three-week vacation to Italy. Faced with the prospect of going on my first trip to Europe, the phobia (always a strange mix of actual fear and a fear of the fear) came roaring back. I went, never naming the real problem, and relied heavily on the calming effects of red wine to dull the fears. I grew bolder as I grew older but traveling remained difficult. When I became a producer for CNN, I struggled mightily to do my job and stay on top of the currents of a nervous system which seemed to have a capricious mind of its own.
My worst fear was for colleagues to find out about what I considered to be, in my own rigid sense of strength and weakness, a mortifying defect. It came to a head on one trip out west, in a remote part of eastern Oregon, doing a story on ranchers who were involved in a long conflict with the federal government over land rights. To get to the ranch, we had to travel the last twenty miles on a dirt road, where I began to panic, feeling too far from safety to easily escape the situation, a classic agoraphobic trigger. When we arrived, things only got worse; the ranching family we were interviewing creeped me out. A daughter in law had a black eye she claimed to have gotten in a fall, but I suspected her husband had popped her one. I could imagine the surly father and sons packing, underneath their jean jackets, ready to remedy the situation, if they didn’t like what was going on. We ran so late doing interviews that the rancher’s wife hospitably offered us dinner. As I sat down at their table, I felt her watching me, like she saw through my barely contained discomfort. Inside of me, I could not shut off the roar of a dreaded mantra: You are not safe here. Get out.
As is usually true for agoraphobics, I suppressed my feelings and got through that shoot. But I’d have rather told anybody there that I had wet my pants rather than reveal what was going on inside me. Most of all, I was vastly disappointed in myself. I was supposed to be a news producer, capable of going into a war zone to do my job, but here I was getting freaked out by a scary ranching family. If I’d had any doubts that the phobia was still alive and well, I no longer did. As the years passed, it remained a secret about myself I worked around and never wanted to divulge. It spoke of a kind of cowardice and lack of nerve I was ashamed of.
I can imagine readers asking if I have healed from agoraphobia. Like alcoholics often say, I’m best described as a recovering phobic. So, no, I am not entirely free of phobic reactions and yes, I am better. Mostly through therapy, I have learned that you don’t heal agoraphobia or any other psychological malady by trying to control, ignore or strong-arm your more vulnerable feelings. Giving the self that is scared the respect and kindness it so desperately needs has taken me a very long time to be able to do and I’m still working on it. Recently I’ve also been helped by taking a low dose of an anti-depressant (something I resisted for years). It seems to protect, like the gloves I wear these days, against the razor edge of the worst fear.
Now as an actual threat, a full-blown pandemic, continues in New York, one that has sickened and killed thousands of my fellow residents, I know I am a veteran of another war. I see people on the street in masks, some who are so anxious that they cannot even meet my eyes or my friendly hello as I walk to the grocery store in the East Village neighborhood where I live. In this strange new world, the pandemic has finally shattered the isolation I remember so well as agoraphobic, providing me with a different kind of shelter. Now it’s not just me who is vulnerable. As human beings, we all are. It’s as if the secret inner lining of my fear has become a reversible jacket, one that I can expose and wear on the street now, along with everybody else.