Living with agoraphobia: an immersion essay
There’s a tingling in my fingers and it’s not from the alcohol. I don’t belong on this dance floor and these kids know it. What do most people do when they find themselves in the middle of a herd of sweaty, cocksure teenagers? If I were their age I suppose I’d go with it — throw my head back and just be. But I’m not their age. I’m not even from the same galaxy. They tower over me — a different species — as if anyone born after the year 2000 was endowed with superhuman height.
Must be the millennial bug.
There’s the familiar stench of body odor and frothing hormones that conjure memories: the mid 90s, football halls crammed with staggering, sloshing teens bobbing their heads to Foo Fighters. But now … here … I’m an imposter. My breathing is unsteady, my heart throbs at a staccato, racing to match the pulse of the music. Become the pulse, feel the music. The music surges skyward and I wish I were lifting with it … up and away. But instead I am shrinking and certain that some unseen, enormous hands are closing in — fingers splayed, invented for smothering.
I watch as one of the male creatures pirouettes into my space — not before glancing down to check if I’m real. He’s been baptized with Hollywood looks, vigorously gay and comfortable in his own skin. He wears a polyester blue shirt fastened with bubblegum braces and his hair’s a shock of wax chocolate.
There’s an amused expression plastered across his face, as if studying an oddity — a man out of time. And I am. I’m a time traveler.
The young man cranes his neck. From this close I can see a hint of mascara and some glitter peppered across his right cheek. Then quite suddenly, he contorts his face and gyrates around me — striking ostrich poses, his neck doing things my arms could only attempt. Ignore the cartoon, I tell myself. Ignore the dread — the true provocateur — but it’s too late, fear is out of its cage. I close my eyes.
The night had been a series of false starts. Tom had the idea we do a pub crawl. “Let’s gargle down some single malt, roam the streets like escaped mental patients,” he joked.
I hadn’t seen Tom in years, but he was still the same: half philosopher, half writer. He still had the same parted fringe and rocked the goatee. Still deceptively abstemious and reserved — yet his boyish, near impish quality had not waned. After warming up with several pints in a comfy bar called Hell’s Kitchen (a name that begged foreshadowing) we continued on to what Tom referred to as ‘the badlands.’ We strolled up and down King Street in the spitting rain, my hair falling wet and flat across my face, water dripping from my nose. Perhaps it was my appearance that sealed our fate — a drowned rat would’ve looked younger.
On our first attempt to enter a nightclub (a place called Brown Alley) we were greeted by stony glares and folded arms. A big guy dressed all in black approached me, asked if we were on the guest list, to which we replied a blatant no. Then we were informed that we were in the wrong line. “This line is for a private function. General entry is in that line,” he said, pointing to the line opposite. We course corrected and were immediately gobbled up by a crowd of teens and twenty somethings. Upon reaching the roped entrance we were scanned by yet another ominous sentry. “Not you two,” he said in a low muscular drawl.
I stood my ground. “Why not us?”
He gestured for us to leave the line. “You’re not on the guest list.”
A blatant lie.
“Well … how do we get on the guest list?” I asked, some edge in my tone.
“Invite only. You need to book, gotta be V.I.P,” he said.
I am very important I wanted to declare, but instead I came back with something just as antagonizing. “Is this because we’re not sixteen?”
All at once we found ourselves surrounded by three immovable slabs of meat. The one I was failing to parlay with told us to step out of the line, said something about us causing a scene — and I thought it was just simple discourse. Then I uttered a word that really stirred the broth: discrimination. He thrust his chest out like a gorilla marking his turf. I could almost smell the testosterone in the air — a mix of wet asphalt and pepper. “Whatcha gonna do mate, call the police? Go ahead call ’em, see if they fuckin’ care,” he barked.
I never mentioned police or intended provocation. I didn’t realize a simple conversation could evoke such hostility. I also never asked to be dragged into a back alley, howling and kicking like a fresh catch. I never asked to be beaten and tossed to the curb, the rain washing away the blood from my pummeled face, Tom desperately wiping the spit from his phone to dial an ambulance — at least that’s what was playing through my mind as Tom tugged at my arm and said: let’s go, let’s just go. I suppose it was a trigger, the cocking of a gun. It was true, I wasn’t a young man anymore. But did that denote a proverbial kick in the teeth?
Have I reached the age of the social outcast and haven’t yet realized it? Am I obsolete?
Every club after this was a similar experience (though not as hostile as Brown Alley). It was as if all the bouncers along King Street had texted through the same codes: birthday event, private function, V.I.P function, guest list, invite only. Finally one bouncer shot us a look of both pity and sympathy and suggested The Waterside Hotel — told us it doubled as a nightclub for all ages. I gave him an equivocal glare and he shot me a look that said: yes, even social outcasts can get in. Our destination was secured and my anxiety primed.
My eyes are still closed, but I’m experiencing what can only be described as sleep paralysis — a suffocation that arises from the invasion of one’s personal space. The only difference is, I’m awake. In moments such as these I try to imagine holiday destinations like Thailand: basking under the balmy weather, sipping on a cocktail — but it doesn’t work. You see, fear is like an old friend, just one you don’t invite to parties. Fear is not a singular sensory experience, like a pain receptor in your finger — rather, it’s ubiquitous, like a brain full of insects; a head full of southern meat ants that devour everything in sight. When I open my eyes I’m sure everyone will be glaring at me — their hands covering their mouths, arms akimbo, shaking their heads, gasping and muttering words like: unbelievable, embarrassing, pathetic, old. So I don’t open them, not yet.
Maybe I can navigate my way to the bar, like a blind person … feeling my way through the fear.
When you have agoraphobia one thing quickly becomes apparent: you need people to be far away from you or the entire universe will collapse in on itself — your own personal Big Bang. I recall the day I had my first panic attack …
It was 1999 and I was riding a bus to the city. It was nothing out of the ordinary. I was just watching the passing scenery in a trance, like washing in a dryer — when all at once something felt wrong. It started as a gnawing in my stomach, my throat felt parched and narrow and the space around me — the meters, centimeters, millimeters — began to compress and I found myself caught between a pair of shoulder pads and a stranger’s armpit. Only then did the fear arrive. First, a stirring in the blood. Then, a series of short shallow breaths. Until finally, my heart wound up to a gallop and panic took control. Then came my screams: stop the bus, stop the bus! Passengers gawked at me, spoke words I couldn’t make out as I barged through them, my only thoughts being: where the hell is the exit and I need air. The bus finally stopped and I stumbled off gasping for breath, clutching at my chest in the middle of some imaginary suburbia.
I saw a doctor shortly after my first attack. He handed me some pamphlets and instructed me to try some breathing exercises — said it might help reduce the likelihood of another panic attack, but there was no guarantee. Is there ever?
I wanted to know how it all began, how I’d become frightened of the mundane, terrified of everyday people.
He informed me that each phobia was unique and triggered by some latent indelible fear. “When you were a child did your mother ever abandon you?” he asked. No, of course not. And then I remembered how my dad once, mistakenly, dumped me on the wrong bus. Instead of being delivered safely to school, I endured a solitary journey through the urban sprawl of the city. I was only six years old at the time and far too mousy to talk to strangers — so much so that I failed to seek help. Instead, I wandered the city alone before a group of people discovered me sobbing in the crouch position and notified the police.
I never told the doctor that story. I don’t know why. Perhaps I didn’t want to believe that my panic attacks truly stemmed from childhood. It just seemed too obvious, so ridiculously Freudian or something. He said something like: try to avoid busy crowds, things that might spike your anxiety. Nowadays they tell you to face your fears, they call it exposure— people who confront their phobias one step at a time. But even the most sensitive person can have trouble crossing an intersection.
When I open my eyes I’m immediately greeted by a young woman’s glare. She has blonde hair that falls straight to her shoulders and is dressed in what can only be described as a black faux–leather onesie — she’s just missing the devil horns. Nonetheless, she studies me like some dizzy marsupial before twirling around so her back’s facing me. It’s subtle — but clearly a rejection. I don’t blame her. I’ve made several disco faux pas since being here. It’s no wonder. I have no dance floor etiquette and move like some dysfunctional automaton — scissor hands slicing at the air, yet somehow barely kinetic. I’m the non-collectable action figure left in the center of the room that nobody wants to play with. And now the sweat is pouring from me and I’m afraid it will cause some youngster to slip and break their iPhone. There’s that word again: afraid. This emotion has clearly been overstated, fused with social blunders and indiscretions.
Suddenly a girl in a wine colored smock crashes into the back of me. ‘Sorry man … you OK?’ she winks and laughs, her eyes gleaming. Then she transforms her arms into two pythons, locking her gaze, a grin shifting across her face. She’s the kind of girl I would chat up in a parallel dimension, but in this one I’m about sixteen years older. And when squeezed between a dozen youths, anyone over the age of thirty is going to resemble some kind of parent figure — a hierarchy that doesn’t belong here, and nor should it.
I try to tell myself … this is sacred ground, equal footing, yet my brain can’t help but crunch the numbers: 18, 21, 26, 31, 36, 46 …
Perhaps it’s the presence of the girl — her devil-may-care smile, the way she shakes her head as if to say: you really need to relax dude. And so I try. Or at least I feel something shift … and my brain begins to slow. Now I can actually hear the music: the wobble of the bass, the thud of the beat rippling through my bones. I’m still in the wrong place: a man out of time, out of his depths—and so what. As soon as we’re born we’re out of our depths, doggie-paddling towards the inevitable.
But I didn’t come here to demystify the age crisis (a subsidiary fear). I came here to face my social anxiety, to see if I had what it takes. And what does it take? Surely we must reach an age when status and image cease to govern our social lives — when things like panic attacks and agoraphobia no longer take precedence over our right to simply exist. Perhaps this is the face of fear — that we never really graduate into the ideal human beings we imagine others to be.
We’re all on the dance floor and nobody really has the perfect move, or nonpareil fashion sense, or a first-class face, or is ever the prime age.
I think of all the years I’ve lived and I’m hit with a single truth: I’ve done this already. I was one of these kids — I was just shorter and carried a Walkman, swapped Blur and Smashing Pumpkin tapes with my friends. But no matter, I once danced like them, albeit more awkwardly and to better music. I lived my beautiful and capricious youth in a whirlwind, as they are living theirs now — in all its ephemeral charm.
There’s a place beyond the fear— where the very act of being alive is ample enough reason to careen in a crowd or catch public transport. We each have a need to belong, but that inclusion must begin with a little raw exposure. In fact, facing your fears may be a prerequisite for living a long and healthy life. I smile back at the girl in the red smock. A small connection is sometimes enough to remind us, we’re of the same stock … the same species after all. I place a finger over my wrist and count my pulse.
I’m fine. I’m better than fine. And the fear? Maybe it’s jumped on the wrong bus and is heading out of town. At least for the moment.