That’s what I bawled tearfully at the sky when my bathroom sink clogged.
“I want just one thing to be on my side. Just one.”
That’s what I said next.
In the grand scheme of things, the sink isn’t very big. But it was just one more thing gone wrong. And really, I don’t have the bandwidth to handle any more.
Bear with me for a moment, because I have to back up all the way to 1995 to tell this story. Before 1995, this stuff didn’t happen. That’s the “Before” time, as I call it: a time that I remember very well and would give anything to have back – well, maybe without that mistake of a first marriage. My ex and I are great friends now, but we both would have been spared some heartbreak.
Anyway, 1995 was the beginning of the nervous breakdown that saw me pulled off work for a total of four weeks, and began a two-decade long ride on anti-depressants that never helped but left me with permanent side effects.
That was also the beginning of the agoraphobia. Yep, agoraphobia. Many people who know me are surprised when they find out about it.
And just yesterday, Dec. 1, 2013, it kicked me in the ass again. You learn coping skills over time, but deviate from them and you may as well not have a plan at all. More on that in a bit.
I tried to capture some of this experience in Les Pensees Dangereuses, but I was overly broad in trying to describe a depression that, twenty years on, I understand to be largely due to a thyroid disorder that went undiagnosed. The agoraphobia is different from all of this.
I’d been having panic attacks for a while before the agoraphobia, but I didn’t understand how they were connected for a long while. The very kind worker’s compensation psychiatrist I went to when my job refused me accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (again, more on him in a bit) explained it something like this:
You have a panic attack at the mall and, even though you know it’s irrational, you are embarrassed. People might have seen your fearful, rushed departure. So, you don’t want to go back there.
Then, maybe it happens at the grocery. Or while you’re driving.
Pretty soon, the only safe place is your house … because people won’t be around to see you freak out.
He was speaking my truth, this young guy with a ponytail and John Lennon glasses, who pretended to be an intern and led me all over the office cracking jokes before he finally introduced himself as my doctor.
“Your pain,” he said, “is all over your face. Your eyes, kiddo, are like piss-holes in the snow. Screw ADA accommodations; I’m pulling you out of there for another week. You need a break, and those people won’t give you one.”
The accommodation I had asked for? That people answer their own phones for half the day so that I could have some time to focus on my projects. I could barely dress myself; multi-tasking was not on.
Anyway, I had lived what he talked about. I felt like I owed the box boys at my local Andronico’s grocery an apology for the number of carts I abandoned before literally running out the door to drive home. My Berkeley apartment was safe; my cats and elderly do were there and they would always understand.
So, what did it feel like? What was the feeling that made me afraid to finish my food shopping? Even after living with it for all of these years, it’s still hard to explain.
It’s as though the walls are closing in. It’s as though everyone is staring at you and ridiculing you, because who the hell is scared of the grocery store? It’s hard to breathe, and your chest feels tight. Your pulse starts to race. You feel hot and start to sweat – even in air conditioning. The texture of your clothes bothers you because your skin is crawling.
And it just plain does not matter how much of your rational mind tells you that the canned goods are not out to get you. It’s not safe to be there; your choices are fight or flight.
There’s only one way to treat agoraphobia: controlled exposure. This means that you have to go do things, even when it’s the last thing you want to do. The most frustrating thing about it is how it affects your ability to do things you love.
I developed a program that I called “making small agreements.” I would break every single activity into increments and promise myself that I would keep them. I remember, in particular, the night that I’d been invited to a birthday party. The “birthday girl” knew about my struggles and was very kind when I would only accept tentatively.
Anyway, I started getting ready more than two hours in advance, because I knew I might need to give up.
The first agreement was that I would get out of my pajamas and take a shower. If that was all that it turned out I could do, that was all right.
The next agreement was that I would dry my hair … but only after deciding I could do that additional step.
Next was picking out an outfit and accessories.
Next was getting dressed.
There were long pauses between all of these while I decided whether or not to make another small agreement.
Next was walking out the door. Getting into my car. Starting the motor. Driving across town. Parking. Getting out of the car. Walking to the door. Ringing the bell.
Every one of them was a new small agreement. Every one of them was spoken aloud, even if it was only a whisper.
The last one, right before the door opened, was “You only need to stay for five minutes. It’s okay if you can’t do more.”
I wound up being able to stay for a couple of hours, but it was only because I’d already agreed upon an escape plan.
An escape plan – the most important coping skill – is crucial.
I have escape plans everywhere I go, even when I’m traveling abroad. I got lost during my first visit to London, in 2000, and started to panic until I came up with the plan, which went like this: I will pick a direction and start walking. I am bound to find a taxi, a Tube station, or a policeman, and will use whichever one I find first to get back to my hotel.
So, I started walking. Soon, I found myself at Ludgate Street. I knew, from many readings of Black Beauty as a kid, that St. Paul’s Cathedral was at the top of Ludgate Hill. And I also knew that there was a Tube stop at St. Paul’s. After that, I got back to my hotel without difficulty.
The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that I absolutely must listen to my body when it tells me to implement the escape plan. Every time, without fail, that this is overridden by someone else, I suffer for it mentally and physically.
“Five more minutes” or “just another half-hour” may not seem like much, but if I need to escape, it’s an eternity.
My situation is a little complicated because, on top of all this, I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy; it means that I’m more internally driven. It’s why I do so well in on-line university courses; I don’t need the hubbub of a brick-and-mortar classroom to stay on task.
It’s also why that “five more minutes” can reduce me to tears if the situation is loud, noisy and crowded. I’m the person at a party who will need to step away from the group, even for a couple of minutes, to recharge my batteries. Good-time Charlie types (aka extroverts) have a hard time understanding this.
Put another way, if we’re at a noisy party and you wonder where I’ve gone, I’ve probably found the host’s cat or dog and am sitting with them until we’re both less overwhelmed.
So, what happened yesterday to trigger all of this? I was in a loud, noisy social situation and, after nearly five hours, I said words that amounted to “I need to trigger the escape plan.”
Then I was told that I didn’t. I offered a compromise of thirty more minutes.
Two hours later, after my pleas both in person and via text message had been ignored, we left.
I was resentful, to say the least. I depend on my safety net.
I was told that I was keeping people from having fun because I wanted to leave (suffice it to say that I am paraphrasing). Five hours was not good enough for someone determined, by hook or by crook, to spend seven.
And those two extra hours meant the difference between me getting a good night’s sleep and insomnia … because the adrenaline that comes with panic does not subside quickly.
I started writing this during my lunch break; I had plenty of time, because food tastes like wallpaper paste until the adrenaline subsides. Your body needs blood in places other than the stomach, so your appetite disappears.
It doesn’t matter how many small agreements you make before escape is necessary; if you can’t execute that plan, you’re back at square one.
The worst of it is that I’ll go along for a while, doing very well indeed. I always have a plan in the back of my mind, but sometimes I don’t need it.
Other times, it’s as though the agoraphobia is lying in wait for me. It’s like it’s a separate being that needs to be noticed by wreaking havoc. It’s like the annoying bully who won’t leave off tweaking and teasing until you’re in hysterical tears and then walks away, smugly saying “That’ll teach you to ignore me.”
And then you’re left, shaking and sobbing, surrounded by people who cannot, and do not, understand why “just five more minutes” was that big a deal.