This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
One eternal truth about agoraphobia is that you're unlikely to run into someone suffering from it. Those severely affected can experience anxiety attacks and physical pain when they find themselves stuck in an open space, surrounded by people, so tend to stay indoors, out of sight.
Davide is a 32-year-old from Florence who has been living in his flat by himself for over ten years. He leaves his house only to buy bread downstairs, because going outside immobilises him and terrifies him to death. I spoke to him about what that's like.
VICE: How does one become afraid of going outside?
Davide: Ever since I was a child I've felt uncomfortable with outside stimuli. Crowds, loud noises, very bright lights – they almost hurt me physically. In my teens I would go to parties and clubs – I'd have fun like everyone else. Then, at 18, I had a series of panic attacks when I found myself in big open spaces with a lot of people. I felt like I was dying and the only thing that made me feel better was the idea of isolation.
After the last of those attacks I locked myself in the house – it was my final year of secondary school and I didn't show my face at school for a month. I became used to that kind of life, and as time passed the outside world seemed increasingly inaccessible to me. At university I basically lived like a recluse, and these days even leaving the house to go to the shop is a problem.
How does your agoraphobia affect your everyday life?
Well, it's simple – I rarely leave the house. The only time I feel relatively comfortable going outside is the early morning. I wake up around 5AM to go for a walk for about an hour, and stop by the bakery to get breakfast. The last few years I've had months where the guy at the bakery downstairs was the only person I talked to who wasn't a relative or one of my five close friends. They come visit me at home.
The rest of the day I spend in my living room or in the kitchen – I watch TV; play video games; eat; exercise; click around on the internet, which is heaven for agoraphobes; I read a lot; I masturbate. I imagine being agoraphobic is a bit like being retired when it comes to how you spend your days.
What exactly happens to you when you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a crowded square?
I don't know if you're familiar with derealisation and depersonalisation, but they are some of the symptoms of panic attacks. Basically it feels like my body doesn't belong to me any more. I get tachycardia, I lose feeling in my hands. It feels like my brain can't handle my thoughts and I'm going mad. It's only when I'm by myself at home that I regain control.
How do you earn a living if you don't get out of the house?
I'm very lucky in that respect, because I don't have to work. I'm an only child and my parents gave me the flat I'm living in. They have other flats that we rent out – I manage them and collect the rent. I live off that money. The only thing I have to do is go by the lawyer or our accountant every now and then.
What about relationships and sex?
I was going out with someone when I first started getting really sick, which despite everything lasted for another two years. She obviously got fed up after a while – I can't blame her. I've had two brief relationships since then, but it was almost impossible to keep them going. If I just want to have sex I call a prostitute. It takes about three minutes to find girls who make house calls; you just need to pay more for them. I do it four or five times a month.
What is the most annoying thing people assume about you?
It really pisses me off when people assume my problem is amplified by the fact that I'm well off and I can "afford" to be agoraphobic. As if there's no other, more rewarding way to earn and spend your money. "If you had to earn a living, you would leave the house" – what does that even mean? There are hundreds of people who suffer from agoraphobia just like me who are forced to work. They don't suffer any less. If anything, they stuff themselves with tranquillisers just to be able to do the simplest things. I'm lucky I don't have to do that. It's such a useless attitude. Have you ever met someone who's actually suffering who felt better after you remarked that "it could be worse"? I haven't.
Do you tell people about your phobia when you first meet them?
Yeah, it's a huge factor in my life, so it's too important not to mention. I feel safer knowing that the people I'm in touch with know I have this problem, so I say it straight away.
Has being agoraphobic changed you as a person?
Definitely, though I never really realised it. I think one thing is that I've become more understanding about other people, because I always expect it back.
How do you see your future? Have you resigned yourself to the fact that this is your life forever?
I always feel that at some point it will be easier to go out and live my life. It does happen – I have months where I can pretty easily go out for a dinner, see a friend or go to the park, but I always need to feel I'm in control. If I do go out I always evaluate the situation – how hard will it be to get home if I start feeling bad? I might never overcome that obsession with control. In the months that I'm feeling a little better I always go see a therapist. She thinks it will happen for me sooner or later.
Have you ever used your agoraphobia as an excuse to do something you just didn't feel like doing?
Oh sure – I managed to get out of going to my cousin's daughter's first communion once by saying I'd had another attack.
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