Hello. My name is Cindy and I’m an agoraphobic.
Thirty years have passed since I’ve uttered the words “panic disorder” and “agoraphobia” as many times as I did this summer. A challenging trip to Colorado in August led to this resurgence in my vocabulary.
“I have anxiety problems, panic attacks,” I heard myself saying to fellow writers at the Wet Mountain Valley Writers’ Workshop, held in Westcliffe, Colorado, “so I can’t hike or even go to a restaurant in the middle of town.” I spewed such words, repeatedly, echoes of adolescent phrases rushed to my lips. Can’t, sorry, anxiety, not able to do that, need to rest. Conditions of panic attacks and agoraphobia have afflicted me in varying degrees of intensity since I was seventeen.
I like to think I’m no longer suffering from panic disorder and its terrorizing energy that drive me to hide away in a safe room: my house, my bedroom, a Ladies’ Room, a motel room, or anywhere I can get away from the world. I like to think my panic problems have vanished over the years, thrown into that polluted ocean of my past, along with acne, thousands of cigarette butts, bad relationships, and even my menstrual cycle. All that shit floating around over there and I’ve moved over here, to a high, dry, free place.
A high dry, free place.
A place like Colorado.
Yet my trip to Colorado conked me on the head to remind me that once an agoraphobic, always one. I’ve survived a decade without cigarettes, lost the acne nearly thirty years ago, and await that watershed one year mark, which means I’ve finally crossed the threshold of menopause and can throw out that bag of unused tampons I’ve been carrying around for two years. All these things I’ve left behind, but my agoraphobia remains, my forever friend, foe, alter ego, pain in the ass, fuck-er-upper of my life, maker of who I am, devil, angel, evil, innocence, storm cloud forever to blow back into my face, windy, rainy and obstructing a view of my life, of the world, of my potential in the world.
At moments, when at my strongest, I believe that panic attacks and agoraphobia have thundered out of my life forever, as angry storm clouds disintegrate when the hurricane ends. And then there are those other times, when I travel, for example, and thunder drums in my ears and invades my body, as if someone has shot me up with the sky’s lightening.
I have fought and kicked and screamed over the years. At seventeen, I stayed in my apartment (with my mom) and went nowhere, except once a week to a shrink, and even then, with his office just a mile down the road and my first car waiting in the parking lot of my apartment building, my mother still had to drag me kicking and screaming (more or less figuratively) in a roiling panic, and drive me that one little mile, to see him. I sat in his office shaking and quaking and he hooked me up to a machine that was some kind of panic-o-meter and I set the thing over the top of its scale. At a carnival, you would have heard the bell ring after I banged my mallet on a pivot board. I would have won a stuffed bear. At the shrink’s office, I didn’t win anything except a forever changed life.
Other than that weekly activity, I sat in a third floor apartment watching Laverne and Shirley reruns, trying to do homework that the high school guidance counselor had teachers send home to me since I could not sit in classrooms. I stared out the apartment window, and wondered what I could possibly become when I could do nothing at all.
I took up prayer, although not much of a believer, that tomorrow I might wake up to find I’d been thrown into a miracle of calm and could live my life. Or maybe this experience was a bad dream from which I would awake.
These stories sound so old to me. I’ve told them over and over in so many ways. In the past decade, I’ve often forgotten to tell them as the condition has fallen so into the back ground. But still: three decades of telling the same old story. Could you possibly find this interesting?
When I write about panic disorder and agoraphobia, people say, “You need to write that book.” I tend to turn away and think, “Why?” People suffer from much worse conditions: bipolar, schizophrenia, or any number of purely physical diseases such as cancer or diabetes. It’s ironic that I just wrote that last sentence. Last night, I read passages from a book written by an agoraphobic man and I criticized him for devaluing his condition as lesser than some of these others I’ve just mentioned. I just did the same thing. “Cancer is horrible,” I said to my shrink, “But he’s not writing about cancer so why qualify?” And yet I did, too. Humans are strange creatures.
Does anyone want to read an entire book on this subject? Not a how to feel better book; there are plenty of those, but a book that addresses the subject through the personal essay or memoir form. So you get a glimpse into a struggle that may not be yours literally but may mirror the kinds of struggles you’ve faced. Or maybe you know someone with this condition. Maybe you know me.
“I don’t know a lot about that subject and I’d be interested in reading that book.” Dorothy Allison said something much like that to me in the winter of 2010 when she was a visiting workshop leader at the Solstice MFA program of Pine Manor College. And in my essays, when I mention my agoraphobia, people most often point it out and say things like, “That’s what makes this essay interesting,” or “poignant,” or “compelling,” the fact that the narrator has that condition. I usually shrug my shoulders and think: “Really?” because this is a condition I’ve had for three decades. For me it’s like going bald, nothing too fascinating about it or too attractive. Just is.
Back to Colorado, a mere thirty years after my first stint as a housebound agoraphobic.
I board a plane to fly to Colorado. I will participate in the Wet Mountain Valley Writers’ Workshop. I’ve been waiting for five months for the event, knowing all the while, it would be a challenging trip – the high elevation affecting my body, which affects my anxiety level, and a new landscape, in a desert valley of strangers. To get to Westcliffe, Colorado, I must fly on a jet to Minneapolis and pick up a Delta connecting flight on a small fifty-seat jet. There are no straight through flights from Boston. Strange as it may sound, with all of the phobias I’ve collected like dolls during my lifetime, I’ve never been afraid of flying, although standing in lines at airports can set me off into a panic frenzy. I feel so stuck in an airport line, but planes move.
When we touched down at the Colorado Springs airport and deplaned, the moment, THE PRECISE SECOND, that I breathed in Colorado’s thin air, which wafted through the sliver of opening between the small plane exit door and the ramp into the airport, I screamed in my head: I CAN’T BREATHE!
I then proceeded to the Ladies’ Room and into a stall to have an anxiety attack.
Hello, my name is Cindy and I’m an agoraphobic.
I missed many opportunities at the Wet Mountain Valley Writer’s Workshop, although to most, I probably appeared relatively normal, if a writer can be considered normal. Dorothy Allison pretty much told us we were all fucked up and that’s why we wrote. I believe at least one woman, my new friend, Michelle Hampton, noticed I left the after workshop gatherings most evenings. I missed the one dinner that was held at the restaurant in town for the group. I missed the poetry reading at the library. I didn’t attend Bar Scott’s breakout session on lyric writing. During Dorothy Allison’s reading, I moved from the couch, where I was sitting between two new friends, and found a seat on the outer edges of the room in case I had to escape. I think one woman has been upset with me ever since. I never told her why I had to change seats, and she probably assumes I was sending her a bad signal. Gosh, I was just being agoraphobic. But I never explained it to her. I was sick of talking about it.
I never learned to trust my body while I was in Colorado. I thought the thin air would do me in, even after I’d acclimated and felt pretty much fine. I traced a line from my motel room, which served as a panic room, to the Coyote Moon Lodge, where most of our workshop events were held. I’m not sure the distance was even a quarter of a mile. The motion of tracing a path toward a safe place is the agoraphobic in action, finding a place to “run home.”
I kicked myself all week. My long-awaited week in Colorado was saved, however, by Michelle, with whom I spent the final Saturday doing some sightseeing on our way back to Colorado Springs. We both were staying at the airport Raddison that night, since our planes did not leave on that day. My friends from home, Suzanne and Faye, also were very supportive that week via telephone and text.
I’ve been home for two weeks. In those two weeks, I’ve been invited to join an online group that consists of the other writers in my Wet Mountain workshop. I’ve exchanged very nice emails with several members who have said nice things about my writing and about me. While I was fighting my panic and agoraphobia, apparently, another part of me was functioning just fine and making friends and connections.
If I were to write this book, that phenomenon of existing dually would need to be a major part of the story line – how one part of my brain functions quite well while the rest of it is off on an adventure of panic and avoidance. I participated in the Colorado workshop in spite of my problems. I will try to pat myself on the back, never an easy act.