Hikikomori Or Agoraphobe?

I’m agoraphobic.  The severity of the symptoms fluctuate, and during most of my life I’ve been okay with leaving home and following a routine as long as I don’t have to travel too far.

Traveling is difficult, but I’ve been to New York City three times since 1994.  I’ve flown to Los Angeles County six times since 1997. Between 1968 and 1994, leaving Northern California was unthinkable (I visited relatives in Missouri in 1964 and 1968, and remember having panic attacks during the 1968 stay).

I attribute the agoraphobia partly to trauma which began early and continued into adulthood.  By the middle of seventh grade (early 1973), I developed debilitating panic attacks, a severe nervous stomach and a fear of going to school, where I’d been burdened with one sort of cruelty or another since Kindergarten.

For years, my family was not supportive.  Relatives who witnessed the panic attacks and waves of nausea referred to my year and a half away from school as my “vacation.”  From the beginning, they knew about the bullies (some of whom committed sexual battery), and the teachers who conveniently vented on me when they were angry with my more intimidating classmates.

My family knew I had spent a lifetime troubleshooting to avoid confrontations, without success.  How do you avoid a neighborhood bully when he hides near your house, ready to ambush you as soon as you step outside?  That boy was one year ahead of me in school, so he also molested and generally tormented me on the playground and on the bus going to and from school.  I have memories of trying to avoid him by planning to board a later bus to go home from school, and running into him at the bus stop.

“You weren’t on the bus earlier, so I waited for you,” he said one time, smirking.

My family never intervened to defend me against destructive people, and I was forbidden to defend myself.  I was told that if I was an easy target, it was only because I encouraged people to hurt me.  There seemed to be a unanimous agreement that I had no right to hit back, go to the police or do anything else a person with self-respect might do.

When I finally fell apart in seventh grade, teachers, relatives and friends of the family were no more realistic or empathetic.  They watched me drop ten pounds below my normal weight from lack of appetite, then gain thirty-six pounds from compulsive eating after my stomach got a little bit better.  They ignored the fact that my mental state was similar to the mental state of someone who has been emotionally scarred in combat.  I had, and still have, P.T.S.D.

“You’re well enough to sit at home and listen to music, but too sick to go to school?  Bullshit!” an alcoholic relative said.  He also commented on how fat I was getting.

Oddly enough, I had a rich inner life during that year and a half.  You could call it a fantasy world, but it was comforting and it helped me develop the more controlled creativity I have now.

I never recovered fully from the mental breakdown which caused me to slam the door — almost literally — on everything external.  Flying from San Francisco to Southern California — or even to New York — is easy for most people.  In my case, every time I travel it’s regarded as a major victory.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that life breaks all of us, but many of us become strong in the broken places.  It took a long time for me to believe that could happen, but my ongoing disability convinces me I’ve developed strength that wouldn’t even be in my frame of reference if I’d had a more common background.  A second breakdown, in my junior year of high school, was slightly different from but every bit as horrifying as the first.

The current issue of San Francisco Weekly has an interesting article by Channing Joseph, exploring a segment of the Japanese population called the Hikikomori.  Mr. Joseph never uses the word agoraphobia in the article, but there are similarities.  A link to the full page appears at the end of this post, but what really got my attention is circled in this screenshot:screenshot-221_li


13 thoughts on “Hikikomori Or Agoraphobe?

  1. The reason why agoraphobia isn’t used in the article is because in order for hikikomori to be applied to a person by definition, no other disorder may be present to explain the behavior. So agoraphobia, PTSD, and other anxiety based disorders have to be ruled out first.

    I first encountered this term by coming across an anime titled “Welcome to the NHK” which not only depicted the hikikomori, but the otaku as well. The attitude gave general society around the central character was that it was a choice he was making I think and he did eventually come around so I think the creators shared that view but I’m not entirely sure if that’s completely true.

    I mean I don’t have a fear of leaving the house, but I’m not motivated to leave it either. It takes quite a bit to get me going or it has to be really important. I would sooner identify as a hikikomori before agoraphobic based on my own behaviors, but then again I have PSTD so I think it rules hikikomori out anyhow.

    Anyway, I just find it a thought provoking topic. Especially since it appears to becoming a more global phenomenon.


    1. Thank you for the insight. When I read the SF Weekly article, I thought there must be a distinction.

      It’s disturbing that assumptions are made about anyone who withdraws from society.

      Although my own reasons for withdrawing were due to abuse, I also developed creativity when I was in that condition. While some kind people have at least a limited understanding of an abused person going into hiding, they’re less likely to grasp the concept of solitude making someone a better artist.

      In Japan, it’s estimated that two million people are Hikikomori. I hope that isn’t being used as a label to suggest every isolated person has made a choice. Japan has an accelerated, work-centered culture, and there must be people in that society who regard withdrawn people as undisciplined and nonproductive . Some of those two million people who stay in one private space must be terrified of the outside world, and at least a few may have reasons they can articulate.

      In 1976, Manuel Puig published his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. A beautiful line from that novel was included in the movie adaptation, and although the author was referring to something with different consequences I identified completely with the secret fantasy:

      This dream is short, but this dream is happy.

      Valentin (the character in the book) was finally defeated, but short, happy dreams were a survival skill.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly and I agree. That part of the anime series I was deeply troubled by. He didn’t appear to be lazy or unmotivated. In fact I related to him on a personal level with his paranoia – something I suffer from. “People” are “watching” so you stay inside even though you might not fear the world. It’s not the world I fear, it’s what they will see that scares me. Now that I’m receiving treatment for my Bipolar, that paranoia is gone, but the habit remains. So it makes me wonder how many of them are like me, who have something undetected for years. Who would otherwise be considered high functioning.

        I do believe it is more than people just becoming lazy or what have you – especially in a society that brings a people up steeped in discipline and honor like Japan.


  2. I believe hikikomori people can suffer from a variety of things, like anxiety, depression, trauma, ongoing parental abuse etc so unless they consult a mental health specialist it is very hard to distinguish.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. Even a mental health professional may not get the whole story because many sources of stress are embarrassing to talk about. Some people don’t even recognize their external stress is hurting them, and they assume it’s all normal.

      Some adult children of alcoholics remember how old they were when it dawned on them that not every child’s parent was getting drunk and confrontational. It can take a while for a young person to discover that something in his or her daily experience is harmful and outside the norm.

      Where depression is concerned, a person must get past the shame inflicted by society when seeking treatment. The family should refrain from gossiping (“We’ve taken our son to a doctor for the laziness problem, and we’ll keep you up-to-date on his progress,” some people may tell their friends), and it must be understood that depression can be due to external causes, a chemical imbalance, or both.

      (Disclosure: I am not a mental health professional. These opinions are based on personal experience and observation.)

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I hadn’t even thought about the potential of abuse playing a role in this, but it could now that I think about it. Sadly due to the way victims often protect their abusers instinctively, how easy would it be to miss the connection between the two? 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If their society really wants to help them, they have to assign professionals like psychologists and social workers. I believe only people specialized in trauma bonding and childhood abuse can detect the signs and offer proper support.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you’re right. I also think some people are starting to realize that the hikkomori exist globally and not just in Japan. Personally I find it hard to believe that this phenomenon would exist in just one country. I think that this culture just happened to be the first to notice it due to its natural disposition. Here in the US I think that maybe it’s easier to turn a blind eye to it where in Japan they might feel that it’s in their face.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Even if you are, why is it a problem? I believe that you should do what you can and what works for you. I became a hikikomori after a break up because that was the best i could do at the time and i needed the isolation. Society is so judgemental and demands you to be like everyone else.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That’s a good point. I choose the rural communities because it’s questioned less, but I have family that keep saying I need to get out more. I suppose the real question is how much is realistic vs. how much I actually want given where I live.

        Liked by 1 person

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