On Thursday night, I enjoyed a three-course dinner out on the town with friends. That event, as normal as blueberry pie to some, is utterly remarkable to me. I honestly don't remember the last time I've been able to manage my anxiety enough to allow myself to eat dinner at a restaurant. And to be able to grant my full attention to the conversation, and even participate in it? And to savor each bite, both mindfully and joyously? Heaven, I tell you.
For the last few years, I've relinquished control over my personal and professional life to a rather exacting and merciless personal assistant by the name of Agor A. Phobia. Forgive the lame joke. It's an ugly word, and I don't like associating myself with it. Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia? The word evokes some unsightly mental images: shut-ins who bathe infrequently and peer suspiciously through mini-blinds at the mailman; cowardly, cowering folk who succumb to the fearful sadness and pen things akin to "The Yellow Wallpaper"; and spiders (wrong phobia, I know). I don't feel comfortable calling myself an agoraphobic because I don't think it's useful to define myself in terms of my fears. But I've suffered from some pretty crazy agoraphobia and while I haven't been confined to my house, I came pretty damn close to it.
Whenever I consider how I should talk about the agoraphobia, I get lost in the details. When did I first start feeling this way? Which events may have triggered the mounting fears? There simply isn't a clear timeline here, which befits the topic, I suppose. There is nothing rational or logical about agoraphobia, but there are very clear-cut ramifications of surrendering to it.
I've always been hyper-conscious of how others have viewed me, and I think that that quality, as well as a fairly typical sense of self-worth that is commensurate with a skewed approximation of my own desirability (sexual and otherwise), led to a burgeoning adulthood fraught with anxiety.
I experienced a panic attack or two before going to France, but they were so infrequent as to be entirely unremarkable at the time. I remember France as virtually anxiety-free. The following year, as I finished my studies at Bates College, I became less and less able to manage my nerves. Choir concerts triggered panic attacks. My voice recital was excruciating. Still, a lot of people get nervous in public situations. Once out of the situation, I bounced back and felt normal. I told myself that the panic attacks weren't so bad; as soon as the recital/concert/speech was over, once I could escape the potentially critical gaze of the public, I would feel fine again.
I began a Master's program at Purdue University in the fall of 2004, and it soon became clear to me that I was no longer the smartest person in my class. This realization wounded me because I defined myself as "a person with intelligence." I wasn't the prettiest or the thinnest or the funniest, but I could be the smartest. Except I was no longer the smartest. The classroom became a space to admire and applaud the insight that others shared and judge the unsuitability of my own potential (and sometimes spoken) contributions. I felt vulnerable and inferior and completely out of place. I internalized all of these feelings.
I also began experiencing panic attacks during class. Panic attacks: physical manifestations of irrational fears. Clammy hands, hot flashes, flushed face, dry mouth, phlegmy throat, and the feeling that oh-my-God-I'm-going-to-die-if-I-don't-get-the-hell-out-of-here. Sometimes I would skip class if I felt particularly vulnerable that day. I skipped a lot of classes.
I have learned that once you give into fear, once you make the smallest concession and allow it an inch of control, it takes a mile from you. It did in my life, anyway. What began as a cycle of fear and avoidance in the classroom setting spiraled over the following few years.
[Side note: I paused here to gather my thoughts, and grabbed a bag of pita chips. I'm eating them now because I'm feeling scared that I haven't come far enough, that I haven't healed enough to escape falling back into the darkness.]
It's too confusing to try to document each step of the spiral downward. Let's just say that by February 2010 I had amassed a seriously troubling list of restrictions on my activities that I followed in order to avoid any rumblings of anxiety:
1. I can't go anywhere alone. (What if I faint? What if I have a panic attack, and people can tell? How do I deal with them looking at me?)
2. If somehow I can convince myself to go somewhere alone, it has to be somewhere close by (within a few minutes from home) and I have to drive myself there or be driven by Stefan or friends who know about my "issue." (Again, there's the fear of fainting -- who knows where that came from -- and the fear of generally just freaking the hell out in front of people. Also, I was ashamed of what was going on in my head, so there were only a few people I felt comfortable telling).
3. I can't teach anymore. (Standing in front of people who might judge me? No way.)
4. I can't go to campus without Stefan waiting for me in the parking lot. (An easy escape route if things get tough is essential).
5. Under no circumstances can I go to a restaurant, grocery store, movie theater, or -- heaven forbid -- an airport. (Basically any situation which would be difficult or would cause some kind of scene to leave was unbearable.)
I'm concerned that this post is becoming too depressing. Perhaps because I've read over the list of "don'ts" and now I'm crying. Bear with me, please.
Placing such constrictions on living put me in a very dark place. I felt out of touch with reality (clearly I was going crazy), and I had lost interest in people, hobbies (what were my hobbies? I couldn't even remember), and even living itself (Had I ever felt happy? I couldn't remember that either). As a child, I often came home early from sleepovers, overwhelmed with homesickness. In the throws of the agoraphobia, I felt mired in a similar fear, an inconsolable need to escape my situation. Movies on Netflix and constant perusing of online news sites provided temporary solace, so I filled my days with these distractions. If I didn't allow myself time to think, I wouldn't have to feel the darkness creeping through the seams.
This all sounds awfully melodramatic, but it didn't feel that way at the time. Fear dictated the life I had carved out for myself and left room for nothing else, but a deep, terrifying ache.
I've begun to heal these past few months. One of the many catalysts for my healing has been Geneen Roth's Women, Food, and God. She doesn't write specifically about anxiety disorders, but her reminder to resist "the inclination to bolt" seemed to speak directly to my situation. She says, "To stay, you have to believe there is something worth staying for -- and then you have to bring yourself back, again and again. The initial glimpse of wonder, of love, of possibility, of expansion becomes a commitment to returning, to bringing yourself back each time you bolt."
When I avoid a situation because I fear a potential panic attack, I'm succumbing to the inclination to bolt. When I decide after ordering appetizers that there is no possible way I can sit through the meal and make my family do take-out instead, I'm succumbing to the inclination to bolt. When I choose to spend hours online, moving frantically from site to site, I'm succumbing to the inclination to bolt.
Thursday night, I felt an overwhelming inclination to bolt. Waves of panic swept over me, and I headed to the restroom to calm myself.
I knew how that story would go. I'd emerge from the bathroom, fake some kind of illness and, with a deluge of apologies and self-deprecating excuses, insist that we leave the restaurant. Later, I would feel defeated, and the darkness would be on the move.
Instead, I took a leap. I decided that night to leave myself open to the possibility of a new story. I knew what would happen if I ran from the panic, and I hated how that story ends. I didn't know what would happen if I accepted the panic, and just sat with it.
The experience was terrifying. A tumult of groaning fear and tingling panic overwhelmed me, although I knew that outwardly, I appeared still and controlled. After a few moments, I was able to listen to the conversation, and before I knew what was happening, a new story had already unfolded. It's a joyful story, filled with laughter and vibrant conversations with good friends. It's a delicious story, dotted with new flavors and blissful moments of true nourishment.
My God, how absolutely liberating.