One Small Step For Mankind, One Giant Step For Me

I’m on my own this week.

My husband is in NYC visiting his mom, and I’m here with the dog.  There’s nothing unusual about that except for one thing: I’m a recovering agoraphobic and my husband is my safety person. For those of you who are new to this blog, or who haven’t read my book, all of this might sound odd to you.  Let me fill you in: I’ve battled agoraphobia for many years, and although I’ve gotten much better, I still feel a little bit lost when my husband is three thousand miles away.

A recent Huffington Post article by  Jordan Smaller, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, listed the top ten phobias, and agoraphobia (fear of public places, open spaces, or traveling) ranked close to the top at #4. Seven percent of the population suffers from it, and at times it’s so debilitating it can stop you from getting out of the house.  The fear an agoraphobic feels when she’s out in public gets worse if she has a panic attack. The best way I can describe a panic attack is one moment you’re feeling fine, and the next, like someone has opened up the ground you’re standing on and you’re free falling. Your heart takes off running, while you stand frozen.  A little bit of fear is not a bad thing – evolution has created a fear/ flight mechanism that was handy years ago when we were running away from woolly mammoths. But too much fear (for no obvious reason) can spiral into a panic disorder, or phobia, and you can end up watching the world only through your HD-TV.

That’s not good.

I stayed in my house a lot before I met my husband.  I’d find any excuse not to go outside.  But then, when I started dating hubbie-to-be, I realized I couldn’t keep suggesting that we stay home every night.  I finally confessed that I wasn’t necessarily a homebody; I was just scared to death of leaving home.  Once I admitted that to him, my life started to change.

I could talk about it.

Talking about agoraphobia – what I felt, what I was afraid of –turned out to be the beginning of getting better. For the first time, I began to trust. I trusted this man (good thing – I was about to spend my life with him) and suddenly, there was someone who understood when I’d get a far away look in my eyes as we entered a store; or if he suddenly turned around, and saw me running back to the car, he wouldn’t take it personally.  He wouldn’t call me strange, or stare at me for being weird.  He’d just take my hand and say, “Let’s try. We can always go back if it’s too much.”  Just knowing I could try, and bail out if I had to, helped me, and made me want to try.

Don’t ask me why, but all this drama didn’t scare away my husband-to-be, and we ended up getting married. I found that I could venture out into the world if he was by my side.  As I started to get better, all I needed to know was that he was at work or at home, someplace reachable. Slowly, I started getting my life back. I even tried driving a little bit – always side streets, and never freeways, but at least I was behind the steering wheel again. Now, I’m at a point where my safety person, my husband, can travel 3,000 miles away for five days and I’m perfectly okay.

I think. I hope. I pray.

I’m pacing myself, making sure I leave the house every day. Yesterday, I even took myself to lunch: a quick Mexican takeout place in the outdoor mall – the one mall in town I can manage going to by myself.  While sitting out on the patio waiting for my food to arrive, I noticed another customer moving tentatively to sit at an isolated table in the corner.  She was pushing a baby stroller but she was a lot of years past the baby bearing years.  As she pushed the stroller further, I got a better view inside.  There was a dog – a little black ball of fur wearing a red sweater with “Service Dog” printed on it.

This dog is a lot bigger than the dog in the stroller, but you get the point.

People who have a disability use service dogs.  But the woman across the patio from me showed no signs of any disability: she wasn’t blind, and she didn’t seem deaf. She walked normally, and she didn’t look ill at all. It made me wonder:  Why did she need a service dog?

Well, it took me halfway through my quesadilla to finally figure out what I thought might be the answer.  If I was a recovering agoraphobic out in the world, maybe she was one too.  Maybe this was a service dog for a psychiatric disability.

Are there really such things, I wondered?  Well, thanks to Steve Jobs, I could look it up on my iPhone right there and then.  I did a google search and there it was: The Psychiatric Service Dog Society. And you know one of the disorders the dogs are used for?

Agoraphobia.

I remembered a psychiatrist (one I didn’t like) once telling me the quickest way to cure my agoraphobia was to just have kids.  “They’ll take your mind off yourself.” The guy had a real attitude and I never went back to see him again.  But I must admit, I watched the way this woman fussed over her dog, tucking him into his stroller, and those doctor’s words suddenly made sense.  When the woman looked up from her dog, and saw me watching her, I smiled.

I knew a fellow traveler when I saw one.

Tomorrow is my big day for errands.  It involves driving the car  – taking those side streets (a helluva lot longer to get there but at least I get there). There is a bank downtown I have to go to, and the train station on the other side of town to purchase tickets for my husband’s Father’s Day gift. The most challenging errand: the grocery store.  I will make sure I go there at an hour when most people are at work, or at home watching t.v. just to keep my wait time at the check-out stand to a minimum. I will take each one of these errands one at a time.  And if I have to bail out, I’ll give myself permission to do so.  I’ll go home, wait a little while, and then, I’ll go out and try it again.

Maybe I’ll even take my dog with me.

…Wish me luck?

31 thoughts on “One Small Step For Mankind, One Giant Step For Me

  1. Your story was very informative and enlightening. Until Cookie told me about you and your agoraphobia I had no idea about this problem. To write about this problem on such a public forum is quite admirable. And it sounds like you found the perfect man to marry. As usual, I enjoyed reading your words and look forward to every Thursday’s new posting.

    • Thanks, Marty! I always hesitate whenever I write about my struggles with agoraphobia, but mental health issues are stigmatized because there is so much silence about them. I’ve learned to speak up because it might help somebody else deal with some of these same issues. And yes, I did marry a very understanding guy.

  2. and if it gets to be too much, you can call me and I’ll come and be your safety person for the day!! btw, the idea of a service dog for mental health issues is an excellent one – I didn’t realize it was a recognized use — I know of several children who could benefit from having one!!
    I, too, enjoy your Thursday postings. Enjoy your mini-trips tomorrow, I’m sure you’ll do just fine!!

  3. Harper Lee said it best via Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Your post helps others climb into a different skin–a skin some of us have never really considered. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome, Pam! It wasn’t easy to write this post, but I thought it might be important to people to understand the struggles agoraphobics go through. That’s a wonderful quote from To Kill A Mockingbird, and it’s so true, isn’t it?

  4. The heroic is facing your fear and conquering it—not all at once in a show of bravado, but day by day, a little at a time. Good for you, Darlene. Over the years, I’ve faced mine and won back a little patch of my turf with each foray. Over time, you’ll win back yours. That’s how it’s done: a little at a time.

  5. I admire your courage to face your challenges and your willingness to share your story. I’m glad you have Phil in your life.

    • Yep, me too. I think he has the patience of a saint at time. I oftentimes hesitate about writing about something that’s so personal. But I keep reminding myself that maybe there’s someone struggling with this, or some other mental health issue, and maybe this conversation we’re having might help them. So I throw caution to the wind, and just write. Thank you for letting me know it’s okay to talk about this.

  6. I might have seen that same lady at The Habit at La Cumbre Plaza. She came in with her dog in a stroller. I have to confessi had less compassion than you. You have grown to handle this problem of agoraphobia with grace and now with such honesty.

  7. Yep, different but many similarities. Bipolar disorder. Eight years of recovery, Very slow recovery. Reading things like this is very encouraging! Keep it up, Darlene. You have much courage.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I knew that service dogs were used for other disorders. They have been used for children with Autism for years now. I think Service Dogs are a WONDERFUL things for almost any disability (physical or not) Thank you again for sharing 🙂

    • I only knew about service dogs for physical disabilities, so I was happy to see they’re used for many others also. Thank you for mentioning their use with children who are Autistic. It was my pleasure to share this, and I appreciate you continuing this conversation.

  9. Hi Darlene, I found this post as a reblog on my friend Maddy Walsh’s 1EarthNow blog (who has a wonderful, compassionate and selfless heart, btw). This is a very touching article and I wish you all the very best on your journey of understanding and making peace with your condition and the world around you! The world we live in is not easy and I understand you very well.

    I wanted to suggest something. Have you tried spiritual sort of cures? For example, meditation, positive affirmations. Also, there is a past life regression, or more heavy duty, shamanic soul retrieval. I am writing about some of this stuff in my upcoming book, The Earth Shifter.

    Finally, just wanted to mention that dogs are wonderful, selfless beings. They are angels (whether you want to understand this directly or figuratively, is up to you) in a furry form, who help humans and ask for very little in return. They certainly are not “things” as one comment by “Opal” suggested and should not be “used” for anything. They are alive and should be loved and respected as partners. The sooner humans learn to respect and understand nature and others around them, the sooner life on Earth will be healthier and more pleasant. And then, perhaps, many illnesses will disappear of their own accord.

    • Those are all wonderful suggestions – Thank you for pointing the way for me! I oftentimes use the word “thing” or “things” when writing quickly, and I don’t think Opal was suggesting that dogs shouldn’t be considered “partners.” As a matter of fact, just the nature of the service dog – human relationship suggests a partnership.

  10. I find you to be incredibly fearless for facing your fears head on. So many lose control of their lives forever, for whatever the reasons. I am just happy for you this moment and send you my hopes for a brighter future for you and your husband. Continue onward!

    • (Somehow your comment got trapped in my SPAM filter, so I’m very late responding to you. So sorry!)

      I really appreciate your kind words, and your well wishes for my husband and me. Life can be tough at times, and I understand how a person can feel so overwhelmed. It helps to have a good support system, I think. Or at least some way to communicate your needs. Just being able to ask fro help is the beginning of getting that help. But sometimes finding the right words can be extremely difficult. Writing has always helped me, and that’s why I always try to encourage people to write down their thoughts, feelings, and fears in a journal. Putting it down on paper can be an important first step to feeling better.

  11. Darlene, I really need to carve out the time to read back through your entire blog, and I had no idea until I read this post that you have a book out (which I will promptly obtain and read). You’re a brave woman, both in your actions and your ability to write about those actions. Who knows who your words may have helped? Even if it’s just one person, that’s one more individual who is taking a step towards a healthier, happier life. I’m wishing you lots of luck!

    • It took me awhile to speak out, but I must admit that being open about the agoraphobia really helps. At the very least, if I have a difficult day I just tell myself, “Well, so you’ll write a blog post about it.” Thanks for sending luck my way!

  12. A wonderful, honest sharing that immediately struck a cord. I’ve known one other agoraphobic, a writer, and have two friends who suffer from mild to extreme claustrophobia, and I’m going to recommend your blog to them. Your attitude is encouraging, and you writing is excellent. Thank you.

    • I appreciate your very kind words. I never even considered writing about my struggle with agoraphobia until I wrote my book. Once I started writing it I found that it really helped to be open about what it was like to juggle parenthood, a marriage, and a career with agoraphobia. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding the illness only makes the illness worse. I made the decision when I started this blog that I would be completely honest about everything: my writing, my agoraphobia, and life in general. It helps to connect with other people, and that’s what I try to do through my writing. Thank YOU for coming by and commenting!

  13. Pingback: 10 Things That Helped Me Get Over Agoraphobia | Darlene Craviotto

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