Reemerging from the Pandemic with Agoraphobia Illustration by Jeffrey Kam
Illustration by Jeffrey Kam
Life

I Learned How to Cope with Agoraphobia. The Pandemic Eroded It All

As the country reopens for “Hot Vax Summer,” I’ve had to face the crippling fears I avoided for more than a year.
July 1, 2021, 11:00am

I’m sitting on the curb, as I often do, contemplating how far I can go on my walk today. The sun is shining, and New York City hasn’t yet descended into its suffocative, piss-redolent summer heat. All around newly-unmasked people are out with their dogs and boyfriends and children, breathing in the good wind. 

For me, this is a more complex equation than just my feet, or time, or stamina allows: I have severe agoraphobia, and the equation involves how to navigate my fear in the world—a fear that offers me the shortest of leashes. With each step, I calculate how far I am from my apartment building’s door, and sometimes, without warning, I turn back, drawn by an inner calculus of fear that is sometimes baffling even to myself. Over the past year, during the pandemic, my range of motion has been pared down beyond recognition; once it spanned boroughs, whole cities, and now it spans a few blocks. I’ve memorized the mica and the placement of fire hydrants, and I see the same faces every day, when I take my air squatting curbside; I know precisely what’s growing in the planters, I examine the weeds, my life shrunk to a pointillist’s level of detail.

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A panic attack is a deeply unpleasant experience. The comedian and author Sara Benincasa described it as the precise opposite of an orgasm, a full-body sensation one cannot ignore, and I call it being struck by bad lightning, electric terror that buzzes under every millimeter of your skin. Once you have had one—or ten, or 20, or 100—trying to avoid another is a fully rational pursuit, but the list of things you avoid gets longer and longer, until suddenly you are an agoraphobic, cut off by your fear from the world. I have a lot of stories from my disorder, raw and a little bit funny, dispatches from the outer edges of sanity. I once vomited copiously while watching a musical about Joan of Arc in the Public Theater, dripping with bile for the remnant of the musical Siege of Orleans. On a flight from Georgia to Ukraine, I stood half-crouched in my plane seat, ready to flee, for a full half-hour before takeoff, until a gold-toothed man with whiskey on his breath in the next seat over held my hand and prayed to Christ with me, a Jew. I’ve lived with panic disorder for 11 years, and agoraphobia, that metastatic outgrowth, for at least seven.  

Why We Have Night Terrors

The first time I had a panic attack, I was 21. I was in Russia during the summer of 2010, and I thought I was dying. I called Russian 911 from my host family’s couch, unable to calm myself, my heart beating the primal tattoo of dread for hours on end. They gave me an EKG there on that couch, and a tonic of “herbs” to drink, and told me I was fine. My host mother, a heavily-made-up woman in her mid-twenties weighing 90 pounds at most, told me she regularly experienced such episodes, her heart hammering at her in the hot Kazan night. I wondered if this was a language-barrier issue because I didn’t know, yet, what had happened to me. How could she have nearly died so many times? Was the woman who’d made her husband carry her down four flights of stairs in glittery roller skates somehow an immortal—Highlander in pink stiletto heels?  

In time, I learned that what I’d experienced wasn’t an incipient heart attack, but rather anxiety at its most savage; I got on Lexapro, saw a therapist briefly, poured myself into my studies and experienced a year of night terrors, waking up with a scream in my mouth and a weight on my chest to rival Giles Corey’s. I cultivated a support network of a few friends and relatives I could trust to soothe me back down from the edge, learned a few breathing techniques, downloaded a one-dollar panic meditation app, and lived as best I could for as long as I could. I went on different meds, and then other meds, and more meds after that, seeking out a formula that would allow me life; I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, psychoanalysis, and raw bleak stretches of silence. 

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Throughout, everything was colored by anxiety, as if it were an impermissive chaperone: I can do this, I can’t do that; that’s too much and that isn’t. It was a constantly shifting set of parameters to live my life through, but one that permitted me some measure of mediated freedom. Until the pandemic. For a year and a half, my anxiety’s natural instincts—to stay at home, surrounded by trusted people—became the way of things. I no longer had to force myself to run a daily gauntlet of low-level fear. Unchallenged, the fears became stronger, and multiplied. I have seen an erosion, and then a disappearance, of my abilities, gradually and then faster and faster, into the big black maw of a fear that’s swallowed my life and left me little.

As New York City has opened up on the strength of a flood of vaccines, the city feels like a body whose veins, once pinched and restricted, are coursing with new blood. My friends—the ones that haven’t moved away, or faded from my life because I cannot, cannot come to the picnic or the birthday party or the brunch—are flowing back into the center of the city, laughing a little about how weird it feels to be together again. A few have commented in passing about the hitches they’ve faced in their reentry: a new unease in crowds, awkwardness around small talk with strangers, a certain reluctance to dance back into the swing of things as if the past year and a half of isolation had never occurred. I empathize, but distantly, as, for me, the permissive, pulsing life of the city in which I live is so far from my own eroded capacities. 

It is so very unnatural, and so very American, and I want my piece of this sweet and terrible lie and can’t have it.

From my enforced distance, the heady period being heralded as “Hot Vax Summer” doesn’t feel all that different from the ways in which we were expected to contend with, or ignore, the disease at the height of its deadly ferocity in this country. The president told us to go out and spend while tens of thousands were dying; expectations of productivity never waned, no matter how much stress we were under. Now, what meager aid has been offered is being yanked away, and the vast constellation of loss we have endured must be left hushed. Go out and spend: time in the sun and money in the bar, and subsume yourself in breathless companionable laughter and don’t think for a moment about what you lost, or you’re weak and strange. It is so very unnatural, and so very American, and I want my piece of this sweet and terrible lie and can’t have it. 

Last week, I got an absurd marketing email, inviting me to an overpriced conference of “thought leaders” in Lisbon. A few hours later, a friend invited me to meet her in midtown, to walk the High Line park. The two felt equally far away to me, unreachable—one 40 minutes away, the other thousands of miles. I sat on the same couch I’ve practically melded with for nearly two years now, sealed in my own little unpierceable bubble, in which Lisbon and Midtown are equidistant and unimaginable. I last took a train alone in early 2020, my last plane ride longer ago than that. 

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Some time ago, I was a different person: someone who took a fishing boat out at dawn onto the glittering Danube, herded cows on horseback in rural Washington, drank til insensibility at an archaeological camp north of Rostov-on-Don. One friend recently described going to a comedy club and seeing famous comedians returning to the stage, eager to prowl with a mic after so long in captivity—the joy of communal mirth after so much solemnity. I’ve stood on stages with that same mic in my hand, felt the hot burst of laughter from a thousand throats at once evoked by my own words, and I know the sheer power and the high of it. Then the disease came on and the adventures got smaller and smaller until there were none. I grieve that self, and wonder at her, that hot-blooded heedless person who didn’t know what she was going to lose.

Feebly, with the atrophied muscles of my mind, I’m trying to return to her. Over the past few months, I’ve taken up running, a Couch to 5K program, in the hope that regular physical activity will take the edge off my mind’s restless self-savaging, and I post chipper graphics with sweaty selfies and running stats to my Twitter and Instagram. What I don’t show are the maps the app generates—the maps that show me running halfway down the same three blocks over and over again, for ten, and then 20, and then 25 minutes, a thick web of overlapping lines in the shape of a tiny letter T. It looks like the IUD wedged in my cervix; it looks like the artifact of a diseased mind; it looks like trying, and a little like despair. 

Most days are banal like that. My life is a shuffling vaudeville hat-and-cane dance concealing the extent of my illness to all but a trusted few. You learn who will visit you when you are this ill, and you learn who won’t. I’ve toyed with describing myself as disabled (the Social Security Administration recognizes agoraphobia as such), although I rarely do so in public—partially out of shame, or a fear of stolen valor from those whose disabilities are physical and visible, or a fear that accepting this designation means I will never get better. But it’s hard to deny, as dependent as I am on others to draw me out of my straitened world, that I am at this moment disabled, living inside a terror that feels solid as a bricked-up room. I’m Erzsebet Báthory, confined for her many crimes to starve in one room of her castle; or on more hopeful days, I am Edmond Dantès, the future Count of Monte Cristo, scraping away at the walls of his prison with a pot shard, making a tunnel out, piece by piece. 

As impossible as it seems, as daunting as the task of regaining my abilities feels, I have taken it upon myself, with the aid of a therapist and the new medication I’m slowly adjusting to. He tells me to be kinder to myself than I am inclined to be, to shower myself with praise for every tiny victory, to be saccharine-sweet with the fearful homunculus inside I often wish to annihilate, in order to coax it into peace. Last week, I finally managed to walk all the way around my block, speaking gently and so softly the noise of traffic drowned out the consoling murmur of myself exhorting myself. I ran to the edge of the block instead of turning around halfway; I walked a few feet further in the park; I made it nearly to the busiest street in my neighborhood, though I had to turn back, hand pressed to my rebelling heart, before I reached the street sign whose cool pole I’d wanted to touch in triumph. 

Thieving my own life back, piece by piece, from fear will take even longer than that year and a half in the comforting arms of isolation and confinement. Despair takes so little time to dig its pits, and it takes so long to climb out, hand over hand, hanging over the abyss. But somewhere up there is the bright warm light of a walk in the summer afternoon without fear, somewhere up there is the tinkle of glasses in casual fellowship, somewhere up there is Midtown and Lisbon. The long, slow work must be done, and when I emerge, the brilliantine world will be waiting.

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