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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More Role Models and Superheroes

Cerebral Palsy Man was not the only role model that helped me see how happiness can prevail in spite of having every reason in the world not to.  There were two others who illustrated the mechanics of this for me–Maggie Full of Grace and David the Scaredy Cat.

Maggie, a victim of one of the final polio epidemics to sweep across the U.S., lived out the following fifty some-odd years from a wheelchair as a near quadriplegic.  Shortly before she died, she shared one of her keys to maintaining freedom in a low-functioning body with me, which I’ll cover in a following post.   But for now I’d like to talk about David.

David was a cat, literally, and an important part of the apartment package I agreed to house-sit for, one summer during college.  I’m not generally a  cat person–god help me I’ve tried but I just don’t understand a creature that blows hot and cold like that.  However, David was one of those strange cats that behave a lot like a dog and was therefore, to me, one of the more engaging members of the species.  He was both affectionate and hugely fat and loved nothing better than curling up in a nice, warm lap to sleep, thereby numbing the attached legs into a kind of appendage coma.

He was also agoraphobic.   I never heard the details of how or when it all began, but evidently once David developed a terror of leaving the apartment he never did so again except for a yearly trip to the vet during which he was heavily sedated.  Years had passed since he’d experienced the outdoors in a conscious state.

I had no problem with this.  David was content to live inside and seemed no worse the wear for his annual drug-induced stupor, so far be it from me to pressure him to change.  But as the summer progressed he and I developed a little game around his condition.  He would accompany me to the door whenever I left to go anywhere.  I would then open the door, pause for a moment and invite him to step outside with me.  He would then carefully consider the invitation, stick his nose over the threshold and take a few sniffs.  But then he’d always pull his head in, step back, and look up at me as if to say, Y’know?  Thanks awfully, but I think I’m gonna pass today.  You go ahead.  Knock your socks off.  Have a great time out there.

We did this every day, every time I left, for two months.  It became our little joke.  He never intended to go and I never expected him to, but we’d pretend like it was a possibility anyway because we both got such a kick out of it.  But then one day, out of the blue, David changed his mind and with no warning at all, stepped through the door and down onto the sidewalk.

I was floored and just stood there staring at him, slack jawed and goggling.  I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.  But he looked so confident there at my feet, jaunty and gazing around him, surveying his new domain,  that I quelled the scream of excitement rising inside me and tried to assume an equally casual attitude.  I walked forward slowly, testing him, and he kept pace with me step for step, calm and curious.  There wasn’t a trace of fear in him so eventually we strolled off down the street together, nonchalant, as though we did this all the time.  As though we were heading to the club for martinis, arm in arm, top hats tilted at rakish angles.

Eventually, David grew so bold that he even stepped off the street to explore some of the low brush growing alongside.  The road bordered a large pond full of cattails and nesting, red-winged blackbirds who instantly and strenuously objected to his presence.  He ignored their dive bombing (you vulgar birds…we do not notice you) and proceeded to thread his way through the vegetation like a pro.  He looked like such a cat all of a sudden.  Stealthy and smooth, feline and graceful, all signs of the fat and dumpy slug he was at home gone.  I was proud of him.  Happy for him.  Intoxicated with his success.

And then came the wild cat.

It showed up out of nowhere.  No.  Out of  nightmare.  It was tiny in size but mighty in ferocity and it hurtled straight at David, spitting and hissing like some writhing, poisonous, pit creature.  It scared the living shit out of both of us and David immediately panicked, bolting for a telephone pole sticking up out of the brush about fifteen feet away.  The other cat took off after him and  I started chasing them both, waving my arms (threateningly I thought) in the air over my head and shrieking unintelligibly.

There was a brief moment, as David scaled twenty feet of pole in an adrenaline fueled blaze of lightning speed, that the wild cat and I both paused in surprise and grudging respect.  But then he scooched over and hung himself by the armpits from a crossbar, dangling there like some weirdly displaced flour sack, and chaos erupted again.   The wild cat pursued him about halfway up the pole then stopped, clinging and spitting curses there like the demon spawn of hell it was, threatening him with god-only-knows-what kind of cat horrors while sticking all its fur straight out as if it was being electrocuted.  I, in the meantime, was on the ground spitting curses of my own and clumsily throwing rocks, broken glass, and any other debris I could pry out of the dirt at the impossibly small target hanging off the side of the pole.

And here I apologize but I’m going to have to leave you hanging for a while longer with David.  This post has totally gotten away from me and I’ll have to finish it next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn