Living (and Working and Traveling) With Agoraphobia

I actually go out of the house on purpose to perform in front of crowds, something that seemed impossible a decade ago, when my mom had to extract me from my filthy apartment in Boston and drag me home to New Jersey for psychiatric intervention.

Feb 1, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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When I was 21, I was afraid to use the toilet. It's because the toilet was not in my room, and I'd convinced myself that my bedroom was the only safe place for me to stay. So, sometimes, I peed in cereal bowls.

To my credit -- and I'll pat myself on the back for this one -- my agoraphobia wasn't strong enough to overcome my revulsion at the thought of shitting in my bedroom, so I still used the loo for that task. But I was so mired in mental illness that a lot of my nurtured social behaviors went to the wayside, including answering phone calls, showering, and even leaving the house.

I clung to my yellow stuffed giraffe, Mary, who played a lullaby I'd been listening to at night since I was born. I wound her up and listened to her song over and over again, rocking myself back and forth, wishing I would just disappear. I stopped eating and fantasized about a slow, gentle kind of suicide.

When untreated, many people with anxiety disorders avoid situations in which they do not have total control over their surroundings. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder, and it often manifests as panic attacks experienced while traveling, particularly in a crowd of people or in a big open space.

My friend Scott and I recently made this video about panic attacks, and if you've never had one (or even if you have) it may be helpful. It's also funny and, fair warning, there's a little advertisement for my book at the end. But mostly it's educational. 

This is an inelegant and imperfect comparison, but agoraphobia sometimes feels like the opposite of claustrophobia.

In fact, when I am anxious, I often take comfort in swaddling myself tightly in blankets or fantasize about hiding in the closet. There is something incredibly comforting in the idea of the womb-like confines of a smaller space.

And it's telling that in my darkest moments as a young adult, I clung to my stuffed giraffe, Mary -- even on car rides.

I'm 31 now, with several years of therapy for anxiety and depression under my belt and a whole lot of delicious, delicious Prozac and Abilify in my belly (at this point, my body makeup is 75 percent drugs and 25 percent water, I think). I've got a small collection of great (and cheesy) self-help books. I know some funky breathing exercises and visualization techniques.

And I'm a travelin' comedian, so I actually go out of the house and even the state and country on purpose to perform in front of crowds, something that seemed impossible a decade ago, when my mom had to extract me from my filthy apartment in Boston and drag me home to New Jersey for psychiatric intervention.

Oddly enough, I travel to talk (in a funny way) about my fear of traveling. I bring Mary with me in my carry-on luggage.

In the years since I started to learn to manage my agoraphobia, I've overcompensated for my fears by throwing myself fully into the airport experience.

I visit the chapels; I play video games in the arcades; I dine in the sit-down restaurants; I visit those wacky little spas and get my feet massaged even when I shouldn't spend the money. I do these things because they distract me from my fear of being away from my safe home base, and also because they're kind of fun.

En route to a gig in Oslo, I once bought a day pass to a spa in the Helsinki Airport and luxuriated in a sauna with real pine branches strewn across the floor. I also swam in an indoor saltwater pool and washed my hair in the sparkling-clean shower with wonderful lingonberry shampoo.

Mary stayed in my luggage, as spas are generally not the best environments for worn stuffed musical animals. 

This past weekend, I flew out to Minnesota to do a gig at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and to hang out with my good friend and her kids in Minneapolis. My flight was delayed by four hours due to rain and snow, so I bought a day pass to the Admirals Lounge in the American Airlines terminal and got myself some grub. It was $50, quite an extravagance, but I did it anyway.

The American Airlines Admirals Lounge at LaGuardia Airport isn't as glorious as the spa at the Helsinki Airport, but they do offer complimentary bagels and green apples, my favorite.

I grew increasingly tired as the day wore on, and then I texted my lovely manager to say hello. I joked in the text that since I was doing a 45-minute set as usual, I'd probably find some time to squeeze in jokes about the airport delay.

"Actually," my manager texted back, "The contract says you're doing 90 minutes."

Oh. Fuck. I had forgotten to read the contract.

And then my flight was called.

By the time I left the lounge to board the plane, I had decided I really didn't want to go to Minnesota. Sure, I wanted to see my friend and her twin toddlers, and I wanted to earn money from the college gig, but I really didn't want to schlep so far away for just a few days, and I really didn't want to have to rely on my rusting driving skills to get me around, and I really really really didn't want to talk about all this agoraphobia and mental illness stuff onstage for 90 freaking minutes, because it's weird enough to do stand-up about personal shit, and what if the kids didn't laugh, and what if I felt sick on the plane, and what if my friends' twins didn't like me, and what if… and the old familiar cycle wore on.

Finally, as the plane climbed into the air, I felt a surge of panic. It wasn't as bad as it is when I'm not medicated, but it was there all the same. I breathed through it, reminding myself that I was going on this trip in part to help people who were dealing with the same crap, sometimes on a daily basis.

The way I derive meaning from struggle is convincing myself my experience will be of use when related to someone else. In fact, I used to find other people's written tales of managing mental illness to be so comforting that I would sleep with these books in my bed, next to Mary. It calmed me enough to deal with the fact that the middle-aged man beside me was watching Harry Potter on his laptop with no headphones (because I'm so hyper-alert in travel situations, I'm a fussbudget about travel manners.)

I figured maybe he needed it in order to calm himself down. Or maybe he was just a Potter freak (as someone who announced games at the 2011 World Cup of Quidditch, I'm fond of this type of weirdo).

I didn't need to grab for Mary, and I didn't need to dose myself with Klonopin. I felt, for a moment, like a real adult. Then I remembered that I hadn't been behind the wheel of a car in six months, and I got nervous -- if not physically anxious -- again.

A few hours later, I drove north from Minneapolis for two and a half hours, frantically trying to reach the gig in Duluth on time. Fueled by Burger King iced coffee, I fairly bounced up and down with jitters, trying (and failing) to magically write 45 extra minutes of material in my head. I knew I could do some crowd work to fill some of the time, but that was largely dependent on the audience members' willingness to play along with me and be silly.

I have friends in comedy who are brilliant at crowd work, but the truth is that I'm always at least a little bit afraid of my audience. I still do the Public Speaking 101 thing where you stare at points in the audience that make it look like you're making eye contact, but you're actually just looking at a shoulder or a hat. Unfortunately, you can't do crowd work with shoulders and hats.

When I got to the venue, I was greeted by a super-nice kid wearing a Capoeira T-shirt, and brought to one of the fanciest green rooms I've ever been in -- and this includes TV green rooms. It had Queen Anne chairs and reproduction Tiffany lamps and crown molding and frigging wainscoting. It was like your fancy aunt's fanciest room.

I threw on my makeup, sucked down the rest of the Burger King iced coffee, and told myself that if I spoke really slowly and took a lot of deep breaths, I could probably stretch those 45 minutes into 55 minutes. Then I would only have 35 minutes of onstage agony to endure.

There was no introduction, so I just kind of walked onstage to zero applause, facing a crowd of approximately 175 students and some adult community members. I stared at them. They stared back. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of something that was the exact same shade of yellow as Mary. It was a Minnesota lumberjack-looking kid in a yellow mullet wig. 

"I'm sorry," I said, "But you need to come up here right now, sir."

He gamely hopped onstage and explained why he'd chosen to wear a mullet wig (it involved a wrestling match). He made me laugh. He made the kids laugh.

And from there, we were off, bouncing with good energy and cracking each other up. I brought a bunch of audience members onstage, something I never do. I made fun of them. They made fun of me. I did my jokes and segued into the more serious material, and they stayed with me the whole time. When I reached the Q&A portion of the show, it went on for a good 15 minutes. And when I got offstage, a line of kids waited to talk to me. I looked at the clock. I'd done 100 minutes.

That night, I stayed in a Tiki-themed motel attached to an indoor water park. The hallways were crowded with tween hockey league players and drunk middle-aged hunting club members, all gamely laughing at the freezing temperatures outside, eager to slide down a waterslide that concluded with a glamorous exit through the mouth of a giant, heinously offensive "Tiki man."

There was a barking dog staying in the room beside me. Children shrieked throughout the night. I slept like a drugged baby. Mary the giraffe was in my suitcase, nestled somewhere between underpants and The Economist.

The next day, I drove to Minneapolis and finally met my friend's twins. They're fucking awesome. We played games like "Hide in the Closet," where they hid in the closet and I loudly demanded to know where they were, and then they flung open the closet door screaming with joy.

Another game, "Climb on Mama's Friend," was basically what it sounds like. We watched "Yo Gabba Gabba!" with my future husband DJ Lance Rock and the future best man at our wedding, Biz Markie. We played with their grandparents' puppy at what they referred to as "AbueloAbuelaHouse."

My friend's son loves animals, and we spent about 30 minutes making his stuffed monkey hug each and every one of his plastic animal figures. At night, he grew upset that I wasn't going to sleep with him and his sister, crying, "I want Sara to lay with me!" (Get in line, pal! Just kidding, there is sadly no line.) 

The next day, when I was going through my suitcase, I found Mary hanging out there. I looked at her. She looked at me. And without even thinking, I held her out to my friend's son and said, "This is Mary. Would you like to play with her? She plays music." He immediately grinned and embraced her.

"She pways music?" he asked excitedly.

"Yes," I said. "I'll show you." And I wound her up and played the lullaby I've listened to on more nights than I can count, the good nights and the bad nights, the nights wracked with fear and cold sweats and the nights filled with peaceful dreamless sleep.

I'd taken her to Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Oslo, Florence, Dublin, Los Angeles, Chicago, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Toronto, Maryland, Delaware, D.C., and about a kajillion other places. Now, I watched my friend's son hug her tight.

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"You can keep her if you want," I said, without thinking. 

My friend looked shocked. "But that's your childhood toy!" she said.

"I know," I said. "But she should be with a kid."

And now she is. He's sleeping with her as I write this. I'm leaving soon. It'll be the first flight without Mary in 31 years.

I think I'm ready now.