My name is Heather, and I have a problem
I live with agoraphobia, and it keeps me bound to geographical and emotional areas.Agoraphobia directly translated means “Fear of the market place.” Interesting. I dream of a life where I could enjoy the marketplace or any public place. But I can’t. Not yet, anyway.
It started when…
Many therapists are confident my agoraphobia is a result of childhood sexual trauma. Makes sense. I did live with ongoing sexual abuse between ages six and 14. Those years, I spent most of my life looking over my shoulder and gauging my perpetrator’s true intentions. But I got out of that situation, and I feel pretty healed.
I think my agoraphobia is the result of a medical problem. I was 18 years old, and nursing my firstborn when suddenly, my heart started pounding wildly in my chest. My friend drove me to the hospital, where doctors and nurses acted very suspicious that I was on drugs. The male nurse leaned over my shoulder and whispered into my ear, “Would it be alright if I undress you with my hands?” Then, they left me hooked up to a heart monitor for a few hours. My heart rate fluctuated around 230 beats per minute. That is fast. Too fast, they told me as they quickly pushed a bit of adenosine into my IV. I remember the feeling of bricks on my chest, and my vision fading into one pin-point of light that reminded me of turning off a tube-television. I lost consciousness for a moment.
The doctors said this was likely an isolated episode. Still, I was traumatized. I was constantly aware of my heartbeat. Was it too fast or too slow? Would tonight be the night it stops altogether? I was what my first therapist would call hypervigilant before she diagnosed me with panic disorder. It was a good call, but no amount of therapy or medication seemed to help.
The panic grew into insomnia, and it didn’t take long for me to lose the desire to leave my home. I couldn’t locate the source of this panic. It wasn’t a tangible thing that I could hit or run from. What I could do is retreat into my zone.
Defining the Zone
When people learn that I suffer from agoraphobia, I think they imagine me cowering in a dark corner of my hoarder house and mumbling to myself. This is not the case at all. I have built my life in such a way that I can actually live it.
Here’s a little known fact: There is a somewhat secret border surrounding Los Angeles’ Jewish communities called an eruv. This line is made up of walls, hills, and partially by a thin string. The string, somewhat like a fishing line, is secured inconspicuously between existing poles. Orthodox Jews aren’t permitted to push, pull, or carry outside of their home on Sabbath. So rather than stay inside, the eruv expands the idea of “home.” Not that these people live in the street, but the eruv marks a common vs. public area where they are safe to conduct necessary activities like carrying their child to temple or pushing grandma in a wheelchair. They are safe to do so without fear of sin. They are safe.
I have done something similar to contain my fear and expand my home. I selected a house that I love and filled it full of comfort. I don’t have a cowering corner, but I do have a little Harry Potter closet beneath the stairs if I need to be in a small space. I can walk to the park with my children. My doctor, the grocery store, hospital, pharmacy, and library are all within steps of each other. I have picked a coffee shop and a restaurant where the people aren’t threatening, and the environment is cozy. This is my zone. I am never far from professional help, should I need it, and I am safe.
Yet somehow, this system is imperfect. I have been married for ten years, and have never been to my inlaws’ home because it is eight hours away. Not even once. My relationships suffer.
Living with agoraphobia makes it nearly impossible to forge new relationships. The second I set foot out of my zone, I am overcome with panic — my heart rate increases, I am suddenly starved for air, my head is dizzy, and I am positive I will die. Not figuratively. I am suddenly faced with a few choices: Fight it, run from it, or retreat. So I choose to retreat, and when I do, I forgo meeting new people.
Getting around is a bit of a problem. I drive, like most everybody. But I can’t drive out of the zone, and I definitely cannot use the freeway. Try that out sometime in Southern, California.
Even as a passenger outside of the zone, I get the urge to jump out of a moving car. Let’s be real clear- I don’t want to die, and I am not suicidal. Since I do want to live, I have to be child-locked into a car.
The rough part is, not everyone wants to be my chauffeur. Especially when I’m in the back seat having an entire come apart. And public transportation? Nope. I can’t do it. For this reason, my circle has become extremely small.
I have friends. Like…two friends. No, seriously. Their names are Tanya and Amy. I used to have many, but a friendship with me lacks a particular quid-pro-quo element common to typical relationships. You might want me to drop by, for instance. Only I can’t. Not unless you want to meet me at my coffee shop, where it is safe. The friends I do have know they need to come to my house, and any excursion may end with me begging to go back home. And they love me anyway.
Making new friends can be hard on me too. Once a person finds out about my situation, they want to fix me. Whether it be through prayer or multi-level-marketing snake oil that they think I should buy. Strangers are sincere in their desire to fix me, I guess. I just feel like they should try to understand me first. Am I really that broken?
In life, though, sometimes stuff happens — unavoidable stuff like funerals, weddings, and grandbabies. These are milestones that you can’t miss — even an agoraphobic mess such as myself.
So I get into a car, or a plane and grit my teeth, white-knuckling it the whole way. There is not enough Xanax in the entire world to make me go if I didn’t have to.
It isn’t all sadness and tears, though. I can promise that Tanya and Amy are genuinely my friends. And my husband, boy, does he ever love me. They are an integral part of my tribe, along with my family. My tribe respects my self-imposed boundaries and sees my panic attacks as just some quirky thing that comes with loving me. They understand I am not trying to have a one-sided relationship.
My health suffers a little. My most recent bloodwork showed my Vitamin D to be a whopping 13. So I spend more time writing on my balcony or at my park.
My future is brighter than it has ever been. No one should feel sorry for me, because I have progressed in leaps and bounds. I’ve come from not leaving my home, to creating a zone. Every day, I try to push those boundaries out, just a little. It doesn’t take long for a bit of work to become a lot of progress. The world isn’t trying to hurt me. It is merely waiting for me to become part of it.