Once an Agoraphobic

Today’s essay is by Cindy Zelman, who reminds us that sometimes progress sneaks up on us when we least expect it.

On a hot early-August morning, I board a plane to Colorado to participate in the Wet Mountain Valley Writers’ Workshop. I’ve been waiting five months for this event, to work with famous writers (Dorothy Allison and Abigail Thomas) and to get away for the first time in two years so I can lose myself in creative pursuits. For eight days, I will leave behind my nine-to-five  job. Yet all the while I remain cognizant of the challenges this trip poses to someone like me who suffers from panic disorder and agoraphobia—Colorado’s high elevation affecting my body, which affects my anxiety level—and a new landscape, in a desert valley of strangers.

To get to Westcliffe, Colorado, I must fly on a jet from Boston to Minneapolis and pick up a Delta connecting flight on a fifty-seat plane. The small jet lands in Colorado Springs. With all of the phobias I’ve collected like porcelain dolls during my lifetime, I’ve never been afraid of flying. Standing in lines at airports can set me off into a panic frenzy; I feel so stuck in an airport security line. But planes move.

When we deplane at Colorado Springs, the precise second that I breathe in Colorado’s thin air, I scream in my head: I can’t breathe! Understand, I am talking about a tiny breeze that wafts through the sliver of an opening between the small plane’s exit door and the ramp into the airport. The airport is an air-conditioned cocoon, but no matter, I proceed to the Ladies’ Room and into a stall to have an anxiety attack. I shake like a heroin addict jonesing for a fix; I hold my hand over my mouth so I won’t scream my terror. Boston is so far away, I am so far from home with no way to get back! Sweat pours out of my body, and I feel near to passing out.

“I just want to be home,” I say to the stall door. And I’m afraid to leave the stall. It shelters me from that big, high wide-open state of Colorado.

Hello, my name is Cindy and I’m an agoraphobic.

I don’t know if I was born with panic problems and agoraphobia, but by the time I became a teenager, the conditions exploded inside me. The trigger event was a terrifying experience after smoking marijuana. I have learned that for people with my condition, the marijuana experience is often a trigger for their panic disorder; narcotics react badly within those of us who are prone to panic. I any case, I have been dealing with panic attacks and agoraphobia for thirty-five years.

Reaching the workshop was a ninety-minute van ride from Colorado Springs into a desolate nowhere. Where are we? On earth, I know, but it doesn’t look like the earth back in Boston.  Everything is so wide open. And big. And tall. And high. And my breath is light, even though I’m in great physical shape.

“I have anxiety problems,” I say to my fellow writers at the workshop, the day after I arrive and look over the schedule, which includes mountain hikes and walks through fields of flowers. “I can’t hike or even go to a restaurant in town.” There I am in the middle of a breathtaking landscape—wedged between the Wet Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the valley itself at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, and I can’t go anywhere. I see the majestic mountains in the not-too-far-off distance. I never explore them.

I never learn to trust my body while I am in Colorado. For the eight days of the workshop, I trace a line from my motel room, which served as a panic room, to the Coyote Moon Lodge, where most of our events are held. The motion of tracing a path toward a safe place is the agoraphobic in action, finding a place to call “home.”

“Drink lots of water,” the owner of the inn says. And so do my friends who have visited Colorado. “You need to keep hydrated.” Or what? Or what??? I drink so much water for fear that my head might explode if I don’t. I’m on the edge of panic at every moment, even after my body acclimates to the elevation.

Thirty years have passed since I’ve uttered the words “panic disorder” and “agoraphobia” as many times as I do at the workshop.  I spew such words, repeatedly, echoes of adolescent phrases rush to my lips: can’t, sorry, anxiety, not able to do that, need to rest. Panic attacks and agoraphobia have afflicted me in varying degrees of intensity since I was seventeen. I am forty-eight.

I like to think I no longer suffer from panic disorder and its terrorizing energy that compel me to hide away in a safe room: my house, my bedroom, a Ladies’ Room, a motel room, or anywhere I can get away from the world. I like to think my panic problems have vanished over the years, thrown into that polluted ocean of my past, along with acne, thousands of cigarette butts, bad relationships, and even my menstrual cycle. All that shit floating around over there and I’ve moved over here, to a high, dry, free place.

A high dry, free place.

A place like Colorado.

Yet my trip to Colorado conked me on the head to remind me that once an agoraphobic, always one.

I’ve survived a decade without cigarettes, lost the acne nearly thirty years ago, and await that watershed one year mark, which means I’ve finally crossed the threshold of menopause and can throw out that bag of unused tampons I’ve been carrying around for seven months. All these things I’ve left behind, but my agoraphobia remains: my forever friend, foe, alter ego, pain in the ass, fuck-er-upper of my life, maker of who I am, devil, angel, evil, innocence, storm cloud forever to blow back into my face, windy, rainy and obstructing a view of my life, of the world, of my potential in the world.

At moments, when at my strongest, I believe that panic attacks and agoraphobia have thundered out of my life forever, as angry storm clouds disintegrate when the hurricane ends. And then there are those other times, when I travel, for example, and thunder drums in my ears and invades my body, as if someone has shot me up with the sky’s lightning.

I have fought and kicked and screamed over the years. At seventeen, I stayed in my apartment (with my mom) and went nowhere, except once a week to a shrink, and even then, with his office just a mile down the road and with my first car waiting in the parking lot of my apartment building, my mother had to drag me kicking and screaming (more or less figuratively) in a roiling panic, and drive me that one little mile to see him. I sat in his office shaking and quaking and he hooked me up to a machine that was some kind of panic-o-meter, and I set the thing over the top of its scale. At a carnival, you would have heard the bell ring after I banged my mallet on a pivot board. I would have won a stuffed bear. At the shrink’s office, I didn’t win anything except a forever-changed life.

Other than that weekly activity, I sat in a third-floor apartment watching Laverne and Shirley reruns, trying to do homework that the high school guidance counselor had teachers send home to me since I could no longer sit in classrooms. I stared out the apartment window and wondered what I could possibly become when I could do nothing at all.

I took up prayer, although not much of a believer, that tomorrow I might wake up to find I’d been thrown into a miracle of calm and could live my life. Or maybe this experience was a bad dream from which I would awake.

I miss many opportunities at the Wet Mountain Valley Writer’s Workshop, although to most, I probably appear relatively normal, if a writer can be considered normal. I believe at least one woman notices I left the after-workshop gatherings most evenings. I miss the one dinner that was held at the restaurant in town for the group. I miss the poetry reading at the library. I didn’t attend one of the workshop leader’s breakout session on lyric writing. During one nightly reading, I move from the couch, where I sit between two new friends, and find a seat on the outer edges of the room in case I need to escape. I think one of the woman is upset with me because I never tell her why I have to change seats.  She probably assumes I am sending her a bad signal. I am just being agoraphobic. But I never explain it to her. I’m sick of talking about it.

I expected a lot of myself that week in Colorado, and when I did not live up to my expectations, I kicked myself. And yet, looking back on the trip, what I did do was miraculous, given my history with panic disorder and agoraphobia. I never missed a writing workshop and I participated fully. I attended the evening readings and read a piece out loud on the student reading night.  While people may have noticed I wasn’t around for the extracurricular events such as hiking or shopping or dining halfway up a mountain, they didn’t think too much about my absence. They probably assumed I was resting or working on my writing.  They didn’t know I was hiding away to feel safe. I spent the final Saturday doing some sightseeing  with a new friend on our way back to Colorado Springs. By then, I had acclimated to the elevation and Colorado Springs was lower in elevation so I felt good, with very little anxiety. I will admit, however, that when my plane took off from Colorado Springs, the moment the wheels left the ground,  I cheered silently: Get me the fuck out of here, thank you very much.

Since Colorado, I have been to Seattle, New York City (twice), and Chicago, and I experienced very little anxiety, nevermind full-fledged panic attacks.  While I will always need to manage this condition, along with its lurking companion, agoraphobia, the key word is “manage.”  I have learned to manage over the years. I have more than learned to manage many times in my life, and have had more successful, anxiety-free experiences traveling and living in my forties and now my fifties, than I had during ages seventeen to forty. Hard work (behavioral therapy, changing thought patterns) and pharmaceuticals, Klonopin in my case, have changed my life, and I am on most days, dare I say it, nearly normal. Emphasis is on “nearly,” as once an agoraphobic, always one.

Still, there were those days long ago, when I could not sit outside on the stoop. And look at me flying through the sky on a fifty-seater, touching down somewhere in the Colorado mountains. You get better.


Cindy Zelman is a Boston-based writer who has published essays and other creative work in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Feminist Studies, Sinister Wisdom, The Cobalt Review, The Whistling Fire, and other journals. She is a regular blogger for Lesbian.com, and her own blog, The Early Draft (www.cindyzelman.com) deals with a number of topics, including panic disorder and agoraphobia.