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?