A Closet Agoraphobe Comes Out(side)

Jul 08 at 6am

From the time I was old enough to prostrate myself across the threshold of our house, barring my parents' exit out the front door, my sister and I never went anywhere without them that we weren't required by law to go, that is, school. We did not go on sleepovers. We did not go to camp. And our parents did not make us go.

When I was nine, my mom (an archetypically worried Jewish mother) and dad (a recovering agoraphobe himself) sent us to sleep at our grandma's house. As they drove us pint-sized agoraphobes the three miles from Santa Monica to Westwood, they said, "Tonight you're going to learn that it's OK to sleep away from home. Everything is going to be just fine." But it wasn't. On the contrary, that was the night of the Northridge earthquake.

A 6.5 on the Richter scale, it was a go-down-in-the-history-books natural disaster and the only sign I needed that my agoraphobic instincts were just plain good sense. In the span of those earthshaking 15 seconds – during which all the dishes flew out of the cupboards and I started vomiting – I came as close to a religious epiphany as I'll ever get. "There is a god," I thought. "And he wants me to stay at home with my parents – for the rest of my life."

Agoraphobia is defined as a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic. The most nebulous and far-reaching of all phobias, it is, in essence, the fear of fear.

Agora in Greek means "gathering place" and "phobia," of course, means fear. For a long time agoraphobia meant a fear of public places. But in modern psychology, agoraphobia is defined as a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic. The most nebulous and far-reaching of all phobias, it is, in essence, the fear of fear.

Agoraphobia looks like this: As your list of anxiety-provoking triggers – for example, restaurants, the sight of a person eating alone, getting thirsty and not having a water bottle on you, a stomachache – grows, so does your dedication to avoiding them. Moments that for some could be described as nothing more than mundane – receiving a destination wedding invitation in the mail, standing in line for public transportation, or getting asked out on a date – can rain down on an agoraphobe a crippling onslaught of panic and self-loathing. Each time you avoid a fear, it increases in strength and becomes harder to face.

Avoidance looks like this: A friend invites you to a housewarming dinner. Dread makes you ask for a rain check. Twice. Finally you force yourself to go see their new apartment, but only after several nervous shits, swallowing a Xanax, vomiting, taking a second Xanax (this time administered under the tongue in hopes it'll make a beeline for your bloodstream), and four different breathing exercises that four different therapists taught you.

Growing up, every time I turned down an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah party, missed a class trip, or bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying as a friend regaled me with stories of sleep-away summer camp, I lost points. By the end of high school, after a few failed attempts at spending the night away from home, the scoreboard read: Chloe: .75. Agoraphobia: One zillion.

Every time I turned down an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah party, missed a class trip, or bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying as a friend regaled me with stories of sleep-away summer camp, I lost points. By the end of high school, the scoreboard read: Chloe: .75. Agoraphobia: One zillion.

Agoraphobes go to great lengths to avoid the unknown. If the avoidance gets bad enough, our only recourse is to stay at home, the safe haven of a controlled environment. And that's probably the image most people have of the agoraphobe: a pale, fidgety Woody Allen type with unmatched socks, poor socializing skills, and a severe vitamin D deficiency who won't leave the house.

But, many agoraphobes are disguised as normal human beings.

Take me, for example. I went to UC Berkeley, have no shortage of friends, and have pursued careers in music, journalism, and social media, all inherently anxiety-provoking professions because they demand a somewhat public life, have an utter lack of routine or schedule, and bombard you with a constant influx of invitations and free tickets to events, shows, openings, and parties. I can perform at the Great American Music Hall in front of hundreds of people, schmooze the shit out of an industry party, and walk up to pretty much any stranger and tell them how much I like their Instagram.

For years I asked my dad, "When will I be able to do things and go places?"

"The moment when the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it," he always answered.

An Instagram follower recently commented on one of my posts: "Your life looks like it's full of so many fun adventures." My old self wanted to respond with a knee-jerk self-deprecating joke: "It's 3 p.m., I'm in the fetal position in my bed, and I haven’t left the house in two days." 

For me, the scale tipped as I watched all the high school and college experiences – partying, going abroad, dating – whizz by me. A lifetime of missing out culminated in a profound sadness that incentivized me to seek a cure, and I haven’t stopped seeking one since. From hypnosis to medication, psychic readings to meditation, therapy to exercise, there's nothing I won't try at least once.

Agoraphobes have the monopoly on phobias. Because our panic attacks are not triggered by something that we can avoid, like an elevator, the fear becomes a constant, chronic condition of our lives. Like a shadow, it follows you wherever you go. The therapies that work for others most often fail for us because our fears are not identifiable. That said, the most widely accepted treatment of agoraphobia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

A simple phobia is a fear of a particular object or situation, like spiders or heights. These are usually addressed with a CBT technique called "desensitization through exposure." You make a hierarchy and repeat each step until the situation doesn’t cause you anxiety anymore, then move on to the next. For example, a sufferer of arachnophobia might design a hierarchy that looks something like this: 1. Look at the word "spider." 2. Look at a photo of a spider. 3. Look at a live spider in a tank. 4. Touch a spider with gloves on. And so on until the final step: 5. Get a pet spider.

I learned about hierarchies when I was 12 and my parents took me to a class entitled Phob-ease, taught by a man who called himself "Dr. Fear." I sat in a room with 30 neurotic messes who offered up a bevy of simple phobias: a fear of elevators, a fear of public speaking, a fear of cats. I wanted to yell, "You're afraid of cats?! I'm afraid of waking up, of going to sleep, of any abnormal physiological sensation, of being in a different room than my parents, of eating, of taking a shit, and pretty much all the other basic requirements of being alive. We are not in the same club. Seriously, cats? I'm allergic to cats and I'll tell you something: They're not that hard to avoid. Problem solved."

Currently, I just tell people one at a time that I'm agoraphobic, usually much to their surprise after they've gotten to know me. Did I really want to tell all of San Francisco in one fell swoop that I am not who I claim to be on stage, at parties, and on the Internet?

An Instagram follower recently commented on one of my posts: "Your life looks like it's full of so many fun adventures." Still not used to the fact that I now have an adventurous-looking life, my old self wanted to respond with a knee-jerk self-deprecating joke: "It's 3 p.m., I'm in the fetal position in my bed, and I haven’t left the house in two days. I did that adventurous-looking thing a week ago and made the photos last for eight days. That's not a full life, it's an Instagram Chanukah miracle."

I still call myself agoraphobic for the same reason that a recovering alcoholic self-identifies as an alcoholic. Because, although I get up every day and go out to meetings and parties, on dates and on airplanes, into stores and onto buses, there is still always a moment of dread, and if not a moment of dread, than an awareness of its absence. Either way, it is a reminder, like a craving for a gin and tonic, that there will forever be activities that fall outside of my perceived realm of possibilities.

Because of this, I have always been attracted to fearless people. The other day a newer friend said, "Hey, you should come traveling through South America with me this summer." I sighed, and replied, "We need to have a talk." She was in disbelief. "But what are you afraid of?" she asked. And I tried my best to explain that that’s not how it works. What prevents agoraphobes from living the full lives we may have once imagined for ourselves is simply a fear of panic attacks away from the safe zone.

The difference between a person who is having their first panic attack and an agoraphobe who has had more than they can count is that a first-timer usually lands in the hospital because they are afraid they are dying, while an agoraphobe is afraid that they aren’t dying– that the attacks will never end, and that if they went to the hospital, there'd be little a doctor could do to help. It is for this reason that we hate when people nonchalantly abuse the term panic attack. As in: "I'm literally gonna have a panic attack if I don't find the cereal aisle."

A literal panic attack is the body's misfiring of the fight-or-flight response, a cascade of adrenaline hormones that are supposed to help you when faced with a threat to survival. Thoroughly unhelpful when triggered by non-life-threatening things, it is a prehistoric and outdated mechanism usually reserved for true acts of survival, like lifting a car off a baby or fighting a bear.

When I was asked to write this article, I almost said no. Currently, I just tell people one at a time that I'm agoraphobic, usually much to their surprise after they've gotten to know me (and occasionally on a first date, though that is not a great tactic for getting a second date). Did I really want to tell all of San Francisco in one fell swoop that I am not who I claim to be on stage, at parties, and on the Internet? But then I realized something: I am the person I claim to be on stage, at parties, and on the Internet. I'm just better equipped than most to fight a bear.

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