Agoraphobia, Sea Legs, and Life with the Red Pill

Taken by the hubster on the Maine coast

Intense cold is scary to me, but then so many things are.  Over the last couple of decades, one of agoraphobia’s many little gifts has been to heighten my awareness of much of the danger out there that I never would have noticed before.

It’s made me conscious (sometimes paralyzingly so) of how unbelievably fragile all this is.

Before the fear came I used to live in a luxurious world where I could still take what I have and love for granted by just assuming that everything would last.  But that sense of safety is long gone.  In it’s place came the (existential and largely useless) knowledge that every breath, every desire, every heartbeat, every moment of touch or warmth or joy is actually teetering on a razor’s edge above a chasm of eventual loss, and the sheer size of the realization started causing a kind of perpetual, emotional vertigo.

On the inside I started dropping to the ground, squeezing my eyes shut, and white-knuckling onto anything that felt even remotely stable.  On the outside it became increasingly difficult to leave the house.  Needless to say, the change wreaked some widespread havoc on my daily routines and commitments, but life has a way of incorporating even the more difficult things and, with enough time and practice, I eventually began to get the hang of the swings.

On our recent trip up to the cabin during a winter storm and cold snap, as usual, I was obsessively clear on how vulnerable we were.  There the hubster and I were, driving along through the mountains, nothing but the thin walls of the car and a working engine standing between us and exposure, hypothermia, or worse.  I was acutely aware of what a flimsy, fragile bubble it was, carrying us along through a hundred miles of frigid landscape, and in all honesty even once we got up to the cabin I didn’t feel that much more secure.

All the necessities were laid in of course (because being afraid all the time makes one a stellar planner.)  We had water, food, firewood, tools and supplies, warm clothing, everything we needed to secure our survival.  But even so I knew that if something went wrong, something as simple as a power outage coupled with a broken window during a storm, a whoops! moment with the axe, a snowshoeing misstep, or some bad food, things could get complicated in a hurry.

Ordinarily, there’s a fantastic and really helpful illusion that says, given enough effort and planning and control, life can somehow be made secure.  Unfortunately, I can’t access that illusion any more. 

(Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?)


While even I know that some activities are less dangerous than others, still, I can’t shake the reality that there will never be such a thing as completely harm-proof or hurt-proof or loss-proof or safe.

Knowing this mostly scares the bejeezus out of me and make me want to withdraw.  But then I remember this quote from Helen Keller:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  I love that.  I love that Helen Keller said it, this other woman who also lived with a challenge that made it harder to navigate life.  It’s like a mantra that helps me find a way out of the holes I fall into, a rope tied around my waist so I can never completely disappear.  Living with the perennial tug of agoraphobia as I do, it’s so easy to get sucked down into the creeping paralysis of chronic fear again, to wind up curled in a ball back in the bedroom, or frozen for hours at the front door just staring at the handle.

It just seems so weird sometimes, how somebody as naturally adventurous as I am could wind up grappling with such an odd and opposite kind of illness.

For me, learning how to live with chronic fear has felt like learning how to live on a schooner.  It’s different from living on land.  The surface beneath my feet heaves and plunges and rolls now in a way it never did before, and I’ve had to develop my sea legs in order to keep from being tossed off and battered and drowned.  But over time I’ve gotten better at the shifting balance, learned how to read a horizon that’s constantly rising and falling, rhythmic and grinding, as the level of my daily fear ebbs and flows.  Gotten better at reminding myself every day, every hour…every minute sometimes…to try to relax and just roll with it.  To take a deep breath, then stand up next to my fear and hang onto it’s hand for dear life, rather than letting it run around crazy consuming everything I love.

I’ve gotten better (while I’m oh-so busily preparing for the the end of the world) at remembering, oh yeah!  Of course it’s terrifying.  Life is a daring adventure or nothing.

Which makes it a little easier, each time, to face forward, lean into the wind, and let myself either fall or fly.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

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6 responses

  1. I can’t begin to imagine how I would cope with this illness. To my knowledge, I’ve never known anyone afflicted with agoraphobi so I don’t know much about it. But then, I realize I may have known people who were silently suffering from it,masking their symptoms in any number of ways that probably seemed neurotic to me.

    As I read this, I was thinking of Beethoven, who lost his hearing, of artists who lose their sight, or control of their muscles. And in the middle of thinking these thoughts, you pointed out that you, too, were once an adventurous person.Bingo. Its almost as if there were some law of nature that is determined to incapacitate the very traits that make us unique individuals.

    My life has been so blessed__so far: I seem to have been innately born with the knowledge that “life is a daring adventure or nothing.But my blessings often cause me to stop and ponder when and what my comeupance will be, because I know it’s coming, just like all the other inevitabilities of life.

    Now I will ask an ignorant question, born of my own ignorance of agoraphobia: Can you trace the onset of this curse to any particular event in your life? How did it first manifest itself? It must have been terrifying and confusing…not that it isn’t still terrifying and confusing.

    Thanks for sharing this bit of life with us. The human condition is so amazingly varied. We can never understand what hurdles anaother person has dealt with and continues to deal with.

    • Actually, I’m still an adventurous person. It’s a basic personality trait. I don’t think illness or disability ever turns us into somebody else, it just redirects our innate, natural impulses in different ways. I’m still curious, I still need a challenge, and I’m still exhilarated by learning. That will never change. It’s just that some of my adventures have changed and there’s an added overlay of fear inherent in any challenge I face. In a way there’s even more challenge and adventure available for someone with a phobia. 🙂
      The hardest part of the whole thing was the transition. But then that’s always the hardest part.

  2. dia
    I too have a fear that has haunted me all of my life…I cannot cope with heights!
    The vertigo you describe….I suffer from badly and literally would topple forward off any high structure or mountain if I was ever foolish to walk to the edge…

    as a boy I was drawn to the movie Towering Inferno……Jennifer Jones’ death from the scenic elevator ( an elevator I actually travelled in when I went on holiday to San Fransisco)has haunted me too for 36 years…….

    and I am not kidding!!!

    • Are you serious? You went up in the same elevator even after you’d seen the movie!? How BRAVE!

      I don’t envy you the vertigo, it can be really dangerous as you say. I remember feeling dizzy one time when I stepped out onto the lip of a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon. I had to back up quickly as I didn’t trust myself to keep my balance with the way I was feeling.

      I have scenes from movies that haunt me, too. There was a scene in White Squall with Jeff Bridges where his wife (Caroline Goodall) is trapped in the cabin of their sailboat as it sinks away into the depths. I couldn’t shake the image for weeks afterwards and it still gives me the willies today!

  3. Good morning Dia,
    My “cross to bear” is closterphobia (wish this had spell checker) and reading your blog this morning added some compassion to others I’ll meet today…and myself. This is one of your best written pieces…keep up the great work, it makes a difference in the world.
    Cal

    • You always amaze me the way you push through the fear and don’t allow it to stop you. Thanks again for going down in the crawlspace to close the vents…that was pretty heroic!

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