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: