It’s Impossible to Hide In Your House When You’ve Got Friends

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You Gotta Have Friends LIGHTERFriends manage to talk you into doing things, going places, and tasting life outside your comfort zone.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it againFriends can help your agoraphobia get better.  Not the ones who shake their head and tell you you’re being dramatic, just get out of the house.  Not the ones who laugh and say, “You’re a agor…ah…a WTF?”  Not the ones who try to talk you out of the house, or guilt you into stepping outside.  Those people you will eventually learn are not your friends; they’re simply people that you know.

The friends that I’m talking about are those that love you for who you are.  And if that means you don’t get out much (for whatever reason) well, that’s okay, and they’ll sit in the house with you and be perfectly fine with it.  At my most phobic, when I was terrified of so many things, a rather large space station called “Skylab” (yes, a whole space station!) was poised to re-enter our atmosphere and come crashing back to earth.

I was certain it would fall on my head.

Actually, fall directly on my head.  Nobody else would be injured, I was sure, except for me.  And boy, that did nothing to get me to budge from my couch.  The logic escaped me that perhaps if I left the house and moved around a lot, that maybe I could avoid this 169,000 pound massive missile from the skies.  No, my idea of saving myself was to become a sitting duck on my sofa in West Hollywood.

The truth was I was just too terrified to move.

So what did my friends do?  We had a party to celebrate Skylab’s return.  Well, actually, I threw the party because I was the only one with a blender at the time and we were having frozen daiquiris.  But the point is:  my friends came to keep me company.  There I was sitting on my couch, so terrified that Skylab had my name on it, and my friends came over to join me on that couch.  In my mind, they were risking their lives just to be there with me.

And that’s not all.

They showed up – all of my friends – wearing construction hard hats, an Army helmet, and my dear friend John even put a large bullseye and a magnet on top of his baseball hat just to defy fate.  Or maybe to save me from a direct hit.  I was so busy laughing and enjoying our “impromptu” party that I completely forgot about Skylab.  All that dread and terror my imagination had been feasting on simply was forgotten that evening.

My friends got me through the night.

Thanks to my friends (and 9 other things that helped me go from agoraphobic to recovering agoraphobic) I now get out of my house.  I still need help with driving – I don’t do freeways.  So if there are freeways involved, my hubbie is the one behind the wheel.  And that’s how I will be getting to Ventura this Saturday for a book signing and personal appearance at Bank of Books at 748 E. Main Street. It’s an hour away from my house so I’m calling it a road trip.  Yes I’m a little bit nervous – it’s definitely out of my comfort zone.  But I’m certain I can do it.

My friend Wayne talked me into it and he’ll be there.

And thankfully, no space stations are scheduled to fall this weekend.

(If you live in or around Ventura, please come by and keep me company.  It always helps to be around friends.  Not sure I can bring any frozen daiquiris…Will cookies do?)

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One More Thing (Before I Forget)

Last week when I wrote, “10 Things That Helped Me Get Over Agoraphobia” I forgot to list one very important item.  It’s something I use every day, and it’s been crucial in helping me get out of the house.  Here is item # 11…

11)  Disability Parking Placard

A few years ago I wanted to go back to college because I never finished my degree.  With my kids moving on to their own  lives, there was really nothing stopping me. We live close to the university, and I knew it was within my driving range.  I could get to the campus all right, but something was holding me back.

Parking.

UCSB sits on 1,022 beautiful acres.  Classrooms are at the center of the campus, while parking is not.  Students use bikes or skateboards.  Everyone else hikes by foot.  I couldn’t do it.

It took me several years to get comfortable enough (thanks to my Big White Van) to drive again locally.  But how could I leave the safety zone of my Big White Van  to cross a huge campus all by myself, while my home-away-from-home sat in a distant parking lot blocks away?  Just thinking about it made me not want to do it.   Or even try.

My life had limited itself to going places where parking was right next door to wherever I needed to be.  I learned to circle parking lots endlessly until a closer space freed up.  I would arrive hours ahead of time just to find parking that didn’t involve me walking.  Not because I didn’t like to walk but because panic always followed in my footsteps across a wide open space.  Many times, I would just give up.  I’d find an excuse not to park, not to even try, and I’d turn the van around and just go home.  I couldn’t do that if I went back to school – I’d have classes, and I’d have to park to get to them.  I needed some help, but I couldn’t admit it.

When you’re in denial for a condition you’ve been wrestling with for years, you sometimes fail to see an answer right in front of you. Or maybe the real problem is the stigma that’s attached: as long as you don’t call attention to yourself, you figure nobody else will either. The only trouble with trying to avoid a stigma is that you also avoid getting better.  I didn’t want to acknowledge that I had a disability.  I looked fine on the outside.  No wheelchair, no crutches, no cane.  People would never know just by looking at me.  I didn’t want to ask for help because in my mind my disability wasn’t as bad as others.  I didn’t think I deserved the help. I thought I could just “tough it out.”  But toughing it out for me always meant avoidance – turning the car around and just going home.  Because to stay and to keep trying meant more pain that made my condition worse.  I might have looked able-bodied and fine.  Except I wasn’t.

It took a doctor to point that out to me. He suggested it was okay to ask for help – that help for me might mean parking as close as I could possibly park.  To a classroom.  A grocery store. An event. Anywhere or any reason that took me out of the house and allowed me to be in the world again while at the same time helping  me feel safe. The more mobile I could become, the healthier I would get.  So that doctor wrote a letter and helped me apply for a disabled parking permit.

It took awhile for me to use that little blue placard.  I didn’t like announcing to the world that I was different, or having to explain my difference to anyone who asked.  But it is a small price to pay for the sense of security I have every time I go anywhere. I never have to doubt now that I can go and do something.  That blue placard has taken away a lot of my fear.  And if it means that a stigma comes attached along with it, I’ll take it anyway.

It’s worth it.

(I did go back to college, and I graduated with Honors.  I also gave my speech the other night to the members of the P.E.O. Sisterhood.  And you know what?  They asked me to become a member.  Good things can happen when you leave the house.)

10 Things That Helped Me Get Over Agoraphobia

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I have a speaking engagement for my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood, on Monday.  The P.E.O. International Sisterhood promotes educational opportunities for women, and they asked me to make a personal appearance at their local chapter.

I’m already getting butterflies in my stomach.

The title of my speech (or at least how the events programmer is advertising it) is: “Darlene Craviotto – Getting Out of the House.”  I can talk about screenwriting for days,  or how to be a working mom for hours on end.  But when it comes to speaking about my struggles with agoraphobia my mouth suddenly goes dry, and the room gets unbearably hot.  The only way to fight through this is to make sure I’m prepared for next Monday.  I’m no Ph.D. with all of the answers, but I’ve had my adventures with agoraphobia over the years, and (as nervous as it makes me to admit it) I’m doing much better now than I did in the past.  I’ve gotten healthy enough to step out of the house on a regular basis.  And if I had to tell you how or why I got better, I think I could list ten things that have helped me go from a full-blown agoraphobic to someone who regularly gets out of the house – and usually has a pretty good time while doing it.

(Not counting the panic attack I had in the Home Depot this morning.)

Here’s my Top Ten List for Overcoming Agoraphobia:

1)  CABS, TOWN CARS, AND LIMOUSINES

Having somebody else drive taught me that if I was too nervous to get behind the wheel I could let someone  (hopefully, less nervous) do the driving for me.  This worked fine for a while until one day I got a cab driver that drove like a crazy man.  It took me a few minutes of internal debate (“You have to speak up!” “I can’t speak up – He’ll drive even faster!”) before I finally found my voice and asked the cab driver to slow down.  I told him I was in no hurry, and I didn’t mind if it cost me extra.  Well, he turned into one of the slowest drivers I ever had – which was fine with me.  That experience taught me that I had the power to speak up even when I was terrified, and that lesson was worth every dollar I paid for that overpriced cab ride.

2) THERAPY

I don’t have to explain this one, do I?  The more you talk about your problems (preferably with an expert) the better you feel.  And feeling confident and good about yourself not only helps agoraphobia, but it’ll help a whole list of other problems too.

3) NEVER QUIT TRYING

No matter how badly you want to hide in your house, you’ve got to force yourself to get out.  NEVER LET THE PANIC ATTACKS WIN.  No matter what happens: Get out there past your front door and try it again.  I did have a panic attack in the Home Depot this morning – just a day after I had gone there with my husband.  Ironically, while we were going to the back of the store (a real problem area for me), I said to him, “Wow!  This is the first time I’ve been in the Home Depot and not wanted to run for the nearest exit.” Well, okay, so today that flee-right-now-feeling found me again in the Home Depot (I had to return a towel rack) and this time the panic won.  But the important news is that I walked (not ran) to the exit, went outside, took some deep breaths, and drove home leisurely, intent to (one day soon, but not today) return again to that huge behemoth of a store known as Home Depot.  I’m in charge of my life, not the panic attacks.

4) A JOB

I took a job that forced me to get out of the house every day even though I felt miserable trying to get there. Just having that regular commitment of a place to go every day – a place that’s familiar – can put you in a better frame of mind.  I met people; I interacted with them; I even dated one of them and eventually married him.  He became my support person and that really helped me and well…that brings me to the next step in my recovery:

5)  KIDS

You have to leave the house eventually when you have kids – there’s no way around that.   One of my readers here at my blog (who has had her own challenges with agoraphobia) wrote me: “Doing something for my kids gets me out of my comfort zone.”  Every parent can relate to that – even if they don’t struggle with agoraphobia. There is no comfort zone once you become a parent: kids are messy (toddlers and public bathrooms are a real challenge), noisy (we preferred to call our kids “extremely verbal”), and overly honest (“Mommy, why is that man so fat?”). But here’s the good part for an agoraphobic who is a parent:   As my kids started to explore the world, they took me with with them.  There were times when I needed some help – Hubby would drive, or I’d have someone else drive us. But what was important was that my kids were getting me out of my house – away from my comfort zone. And the excitement in their eyes at looking at the world (a place that for me felt so frightening at times) made me see life with a brand new enthusiasm – a zest for living that only children understand.

6) GOOGLE MAPS

Part of the fear you face as an agoraphobic is being in a new (and unknown) environment.  Thanks to Google maps no location is ever surprising to me anymore because I know what to expect (and what it will look like) when I get there. And now  you can see the world at street level and 3-D!  When we went to England two years ago, I immediately recognized the outside of all of our hotels; I could walk down the street like a local.  I knew every building in the neighborhood, from the pub next door, to the Italian restaurant around the corner.  Google has given me the confidence again to travel.

7)  FRIENDS

Make some.  Or become closer to the ones you already have. For the longest time, Hubby was my only safety person – someone with whom I could venture out into the world and feel safe doing it.  I didn’t have that feeling with my friends.  If a friend wanted to go out to lunch or meet for coffee or a movie I’d always find a reason not to go or I’d cancel last minute.  It wasn’t the fault of my friends: it was me.  I just didn’t have the same level of trust with them.  That changed the summer my husband was hired to star in a play in Colorado.  While he rehearsed during the day, I stayed alone in the condo and wrote.  I didn’t dare venture outside.  As a matter of fact, I was a nervous wreck just being there, thousands of miles away from my comfort zone – our home in West Hollywood.  And then a good friend came to visit, and I had a choice to make:  spend all of our time indoors (there’s a limit to how much telelvision you can watch) or venture outside with our friend. I was a wreck trying to decide what to do. What was I afraid of, you might ask. That’s certainly what the therapist had asked me, when I called her frantically all the way from Colorado. “What if something bad happens to me?” I told her.  “I trust my husband to help me, but I’m not sure about my friend.”  Well, thanks to that therapist (See Item #2 above) for saying: “You’ll never find out, Darlene, unless you get out of the house.” So my friend (Jeff) and I went fishing at a nearby river.  For a first step, it was a big one.  A big step that turned into an even bigger stumble:  I slipped on a rock on the muddy river bed, fell backwards into the water, and I couldn’t move. My ankle was sprained and I couldn’t get back up. I was trapped there and my head was slowly sinking under water.  Jeff did what any of my other friends would’ve done: he laughed.  I looked ridiculous, spread-eagled, still wearing a cowboy hat (somewhat cock-eyed on my head), and still holding my fishing pole.  But Jeff did something else too: he came running, reached down to stop me from slipping completely underwater, and he helped me back up to my feet. Easier said than done – we slipped and slided along the muddy river bank, both of us now laughing (and me wincing in pain and hopping on one foot).  Jeff saved me from drowning.  And he taught me that day that I could feel safe in the world with a friend.

8) GIRLS’ SOFTBALL

My daughter started playing competitive softball when she was five.  When she was seven she was asked to be on an All-Star team and to travel during the summer to tournaments.  I remember how exciting this was, but also frightening for me.  We had to go to new towns every weekend, adjusting to different motels, new restaurants, and thousands of people at the tournaments.  The first time we had a team meal I was certain I couldn’t do it.  There must have been 50 of us all sitting together with tables joined  – everyone talking non-stop, people I barely knew. I thought to myself, “If I can get through this meal without bolting out of the restaurant in hysterics, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”  I made it through that meal, and after that, team meals started to feel okay.  As a matter of fact, they started to feel like we were one big noisy family.

Softball taught me how to be flexible, and how to travel to strange new towns (like Mesquite,Nevada) and how to feel comfortable in a group of people, even if my husband had to miss a tournament.  I had to fly with my daughter and her team to Denver (thanks to valium) and Houston (thanks to valium again) and one time my best friend Marie drove my daughter and me to a tournament in St. George, Utah.  Marie’s not exactly a softball fan but she drove us anyway (See Item #7 above).   Softball taught me “to hit whatever strikes were sent my way.”  And in return, my confidence really started to build.

9) A VAN

I stopped driving completely in Los Angeles, and anyone who has driven in a large city can understand why: the streets are crowded with traffic. Once we moved two hours away (back to my hometown) and to a suburb, I couldn’t use traffic as an excuse not to drive anymore.  Plus, my kids were older, and getting busier.  True, they were in school all day in one location, but after school they had sports (located all over town). I realized that I needed to start driving again full time.  That was easier said than done. I was able to make short trips – down the street one block, and around the corner to pick up my kids after school. But I had to get more comfortable behind the wheel for longer drives, and I just wasn’t sure how to do that.  If I could’ve put wheels on my house, that would’ve helped.  Then it dawned on me: that’s what an RV is.  It’s a house on wheels.  All right, maybe an RV was too large, but if I could get something like an RV, maybe I’d feel more secure while driving. I looked in the newspaper one day and I saw an ad for converted vans. That sounded promising.  We had to drive an hour away to test drive it, but the moment I saw the Great White Van  I knew that I’d found my home away from home. Complete with wood paneling inside, a television set, mood lighting, and a third seat that (with the push of a button) turned into a bed, it was more like a pimp mobile than anything else.  But it was exactly what I needed.  I called it my mobile office.  And I would drive it to the beach, park it with a 360 degree view of the beautiful Pacific Ocean, and feel as safe and happy inside as I did in my own little track house in the suburbs. My Big White Van became my home away from home, and  I started driving (the kids and anybody else who would go with me) all over our small town.  Except for freeways – I’m still working on that.

10) WRITING

Writing my book (An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood) was one of the best things I ever did to help my agoraphobia.

As I worked on the revisions, I started to feel a lot freer because I was finally opening up (publicly) about something I had kept hidden for years.  When the book came out, (and through this website) I started hearing from people who wanted to know more about what it was like to battle agoraphobia.  For the first time in my life, I was giving myself permission to talk about all the fears I’d so carefully locked away because I was afraid people would think of me as weird. I had been terrified that if I talked about it people wouldn’t understand, or they’d put me down as a whiner, or some kind of malingerer.  Writing the book helped me in one other way too: it became another reason for me to get out of the house. There have been book signings, and personal appearances (like the one coming up next week) and I have to leave my house to do them.  True, they’ve only been in my local community, but still, I can’t hide behind my computer in my home office anymore.

When you struggle with a BIG PROBLEM in your life, its difficulty tricks you into believing that you’re the only person in the world suffering from it. The bad thing about agoraphobia is that it keeps us suffering all by ourselves. I once wanted to find a support group for agoraphobics, but then I realized probably no one would show up to the meetings.  That’s what’s so great about the Internet. You can show up here without really showing up.

There’s one more item I should add to this Top Ten list (even though that would make it a Top Eleven List) , and that’s humor. Never take anything so seriously that you can’t find a way to laugh about it.  Remember the Irish proverb, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”

I shed a lot of tears in the worst of times – when agoraphobia first called my name and I answered.  But life only started to get better once I figured out  that it’s not about getting out of the house – it’s just about trying.

Anyway, it’s worked for me.

(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back? Want to read more of my posts about agoraphobia? Read One More Thing Before I Forget, and One Small Step For Mankind, One Giant Step For Me.)

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Merci! Gracias! (and whatever the word is in Polish)

Writing a blog is a little like hosting a cocktail party: You’ve got a house filled with people, there’s food and drink for all, but if you don’t circulate, you’re not a good hostess, and the party isn’t going to last long.

My living room after a party.

In the spirit of keeping a good party going, let me say thanks to all of you for dropping by.  For reading my stories, leaving your wonderful comments, and lending me your support. As a professional screenwriter, my readers have always been executives, producers, directors, and yes, actors. They’ve been more concerned with changing my words than connecting with them. Writing stories here on my blog is much more fulfilling because it takes a true partner – you, the reader – to complete the experience. I may not know all of you personally, but every time you leave me a comment, you become someone special to me.  You’ve stepped out of the anonymity of the internet to say hello.  You’ve become more than just one of the stats on a WordPress page, and I thank you for wanting to connect with a writer who spends far too much time sitting alone in a room, rather than venturing into the world to meet new people.

Judging from the stats page of this website, many of you live all over the world.  I’m amazed by the number of nations represented as “hits” on this website.  Since I started “Can You All Hear Me In The Back?” people from the following countries have visited the site: India, Brazil, Germany, Australia, Canada, Spain, United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Greece, Mexico, Netherlands, Thailand, France, Turkey, Eqypt, Russian Federation, Switzerland, Singapore, Cape Verde, Philippines, Romania, El Salvador, Czech Republic, Nigeria, Belgium, Jordan, Israel, Saint Lucia, Austria, Portugal, Pakistan, Tunisia, U.S., and the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.

My last post about my struggles as a recovering agoraphobic brought eleven people from Poland to this site.  Why? I have no idea. Maybe they were just lost. But I still hold out hope that if they come back to visit again they’ll say “witajcie” which means (according to the Polish-English dictionary http://en.bab.la/dictionary/polish-english/witajcie) “hello” in Polish.

For those of you who have been reading my posts weekly, let me give you an update on several of the stories.  Last week I wrote about my safety person (my husband) going out of town, and what that meant to me as a recovering agoraphobic. I want you all to know that it was a great week – I managed to do all of my errands (including going to the supermarket) and anxiety was at a minimum. I thank everyone who sent me well wishes, and told me to hang in. I did hang in, and I did take my dog with me when I went to the supermarket. I didn’t actually bring her inside the store, but I saw her through the window as she sat behind the steering wheel, (she likes to do that) watching me as I shopped.  And I must say, it did help me to know she was out there.

The last couple of days of the week, my friend, Cookie (yes, of Cookie & Marty) came to visit me, and we had a wonderful time.  Oh and for those of you wondering after reading A Love Story (sort of), and A Love Story Continues (sort of), Cookie has taken a leap of faith and booked an airline ticket for a week in New York to go sit side by side with Marty in beach chairs and to look out at the ocean (the same ocean) at the same time. She promises to keep me posted as to “how it all goes.”

Finally, for those of you who have nominated me for blogging awards, I thank you with all of my heart.  I want you to know that I’ll be creating a special page for those nominations, and I’ll be posting them over the next week.  Merci! Gracias! Danke!

I hope you’ll continue to drop by here and say hello to me.  It does get awfully lonely being a writer.

But the occasional cocktail party does help.


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?

Are You an Introvert (Or Am I Too Much an Extrovert for Asking)?

Introvert Poster You might have seen this sign on Facebook over the last couple of weeks: “How to Care for Introverts.” It lists twelve rules, from respecting an introvert’s need for privacy to never embarrassing them in public. As a recovering agoraphobic, I appreciate the sentiments. I know what it feels like to be an introvert. I’ve struggled with agoraphobia for years; I write about it in my book.  I’d like to say I’m recovered, but a recent panic attack at our local Albertsons makes me hesitate. (Not that anyone could tell I was in a panic. But more of that later.) I’m not sure you ever completely get over agoraphobia, but you can learn how to live with it.  And living with it is one way you can get better. It’s a little bit like a dog chasing his tail: he’s never going to catch it, but at least the exercise is good for him.

At a recent book signing in my hometown, during the Q & A part of the evening, my cousin approached me and slowly leaned over to whisper in my ear.  It’s one of those moments you fear in life, something unexpected that makes an agoraphobic think twice about leaving the house. There I was, standing in front of a good-sized crowd and my cousin was about to tell me something obviously quite private. In my breast-feeding days, I would’ve feared my blouse was leaking. Nowadays I was sure something was opened, ripped, stained, or missing. My mind was racing at the possibilities, and none of them were good.  I held my breath, and as the room grew silent, my cousin whispered softly in my ear.

“Are you better?”

The fact that I was standing in front of 50 people, and I wasn’t home in my living room, should’ve been answer enough. But as I looked out at all the faces of everyone now wondering what-the-heck my cousin had told me, I suddenly understood her dilemma.  How could an agoraphobic stand so comfortably in front of a room filled with people? I’m sure I must have looked perfectly comfortable – the last person anyone would’ve guessed was a recovering agoraphobic. Or an introvert.

Introvert or Extrovert?  Do We Have to Pick Sides?

You can’t always tell who’s the introvert in a room.  Oh sure, with some people you can.  But why is it important that we know that? Those suggestions for treating an introvert with respect and sensitivity maybe aren’t bad suggestions for treating everybody in the room that way –  not just the one sitting alone in the corner, or the shy person who never says a word. You’d be surprised how many of those people you think are so cool and collected, skating through life with ease, are really filled with so much doubt, fear, and low self-esteem.  Sometimes it’s the braggart, the person speaking too loudly and too much – the one that seems to fill up the room, sometimes in more ways than one.  How do we know which side they play on, or how comfortable they really feel?

Some of us suffer from “selective extroversion.” There are times when we slip into an extrovert’s personality in order to deal with the world. I do it sometimes; it’s helped me get out of the house.  My social self takes over – the tour guide part of me.  But I had to learn to be that tour guide – it didn’t come naturally.  Universal Studios almost didn’t hire me because the tour director said I was too shy.  I told him I was an actress, and once I had a script and learned it, I wouldn’t look shy at all. I just needed to know my lines and play the role.

Everyone plays roles. We certainly do at Halloween. You choose what to wear, what character you want to play, and you decide when you want to play it.  We may not really be that princess, or that jester that the world sees on October 31st.  It’s all just acting. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s really the costume or just the person underneath it.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wonderful short story called, “Who Am I This Time?”  It’s about a character (Harry Nash) who is painfully shy – an introvert who never interacts with people. Except when he’s cast in a play, and then he takes on the personality of the role he’s playing.  It’s the only time he can go into the world with a sense of purpose and identity.  So who was Harry really?  An introvert? What if you met him at a party when he was playing Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire?”  Or you were at a PTA meeting with him when he was playing the lead in “Julius Ceasar” or “Othello?” You can’t really tell, can you?  Not just by looking.

Maybe those twelve rules should apply to everyone.