When we left him last week, David was dangling from the top of a telephone pole while the wild cat that chased him there clung halfway up the side, ferociously guarding the only escape route. I, in the meantime, was trying to drive the demon off by wildly throwing rocks into the cattails, the nearby trees, the air, and one that even went a full forty-five degrees down the road to my left. I was considering trying to shimmy up the pole myself when, for no discernible reason, Wild Cat suddenly decided to call it quits. It went silent for a few seconds before backing down the pole and disappearing into the surrounding brush and then poof. It was gone. That fast.
Initially I was relieved. Elated. Jubilant. But then I looked back up at David still hanging from the crossbar and realized he probably didn’t know how to climb back down. Of course he hadn’t really known how to climb up either but he’d had the benefit of adrenaline-fueled terror moving in that direction. Now that it had worn off he was just uncomfortable, limp, and fat. The thought occurred to me it might be time to see if firemen really do rescue cats from high places.
In the end that wasn’t necessary. It took close to twenty minutes of cajoling but David finally decided to come down on his own. He scooched back along the crossbar, transferred to the pole, and worked his way down to the ground backwards. Once there, no amount of coaxing could lure him back up onto the exposed vulnerability of the road, but he followed me on a parallel path through the brush as I turned and beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment. At the last he had to break from cover and make a wild dash across the road to the door where he bunched himself into a corner, casting panicked glances over his shoulder for the few seconds it took me to unlock it and let him inside.
Needless to say, David refused to ever step outside the apartment again and I no longer invited him to even accompany me to the door. We were both pretty shaken up. Color me superstitious but I found myself wondering if his agoraphobia might not have been due to some kind of premonition on his part. What if he actually knew what was waiting for him out there? Maybe he’d had wild cat nightmares from kitten-hood, warnings sent from the future to Stay! Stay inside for godsakes! no matter who beckons–no matter how friendly or safe the girl who eventually opens the door might seem.
The good news is that, after things settled back down, as long as he didn’t have to go outside David was the same bloated, happy, affectionate cat he’d always been. Aside from a new tendency to give the front entryway a wide berth, he seemed basically unchanged by the whole experience. His world returned to the small, cramped space it had been before, the one which constricted his geographical range but in no way limited his level of contentment. That was what particularly struck me. In spite of his phobia David the Scaredy Cat remained one of the sunniest, most upbeat creatures I have ever, to this day, encountered.
I thought about him a lot, years later, as I spiraled down into the collapsing world of agoraphobia myself. My first instinct was to fight against the overwhelming tendency to withdraw, to try and force myself to go out anyway and do all the things I’d always done, but it was like trying to swim out of the gravitational pull of a black hole. I could spend hours in paralyzed terror contemplating the front door, trying to work up the nerve to grab the knob and turn it, but the harder I pushed myself the more extensive my internal collapse became. Eventually, not only was I unable to go outside the house most of the time, I could barely function inside it either.
So finally, in desperation, I decided to try David’s trick. I surrendered. I shaved down my life to the bare essentials, outlining the few critical commitments I had to at least try to meet–getting out of bed in the morning, taking a shower, feeding my family–and then deliberately cut the rope that tied me to all the rest. I redefined my basic world as the one that existed within the four walls of our home, accepted it, and–surprise, surprise–experienced an immediate rebound.
This is not to say I instantly attained David’s zen-like level of perfect bliss by any means. Not hardly. My agoraphobia was only a beginning symptom of something far bigger that would take me years to learn how to navigate.
But the immediate paralysis ebbed somewhat. As soon as I stopped demanding a full return to my previous, now impossible life schedule, something frozen in me started to thaw again. It wiggled its fingers and toes. It drew breath. It tentatively started to work again on the now drastically scaled down version of my life.
I discovered that–for me–in spite of the fear, in spite of the sluggishness, in spite of the overwhelming sense of heaviness that kept dragging me down towards lethargy and despair, I still somehow retained the capacity to both love and navigate. That was my miracle during those years, the transcendent thing I could still create even in an incredibly shrinking world. My territory got a whole lot smaller, yes, but my heart and willingness to explore it didn’t. And that’s what David’s example taught me.
That’s also why David is, along with Cerebral Palsy Man, one of my biggest heroes.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn