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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