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23 September 2020

Personal story: My fear of life outside

Before the pandemic, my agoraphobia hadn't affected me in five years. Now, I once more live in fear of leaving the house. 

By Emily Beater

As a teenager, I refused to leave the house because I thought I wasn’t real. I’d get halfway down the street and the world would morph into a cartoon: harsh, white light flattening the houses into toys, then into television screens. My ­terror was ­obscene, adrenaline kneading the air from my lungs. I screamed desperately, ­indiscriminately, pounding the skin off my fists and into the ground.

When I think of how they started, those attacks of acute unreality, I think of the shopping mall and how I first went mad. I was 14, sucking Pepsi through a straw, breathing too fast under fluorescent lights, the ceiling unloosening itself and melting my mother’s face into the floor. I knew I was going mad, perhaps had always been mad, perhaps had never existed. The doctor who saw me after I deposited myself, shoeless, in his surgery, didn’t exist either – he, too, was a hallucination bobbing at my ear.

The doctor asked me if I got enough sleep. I thought of the nights, of my phone pressing welts into my ear, and of him, a ­handful of pixels, an impression telling me to take off my clothes, keeping me awake until dawn. The next day, I’d walk my body to the school bus, my brain buzzing with the strangeness of a skeleton existing under skin, of humans and the oddness of their hands, ­images of birds split open and slick with oil – and an awful detachment, as if a hand had found my internal thermostat, turning me down.

I stopped going outside. The park was threatening now, and so was the route to school, and the common with its glaring grass. I started to count the things which triggered panic: white skies, strangers’ faces, flowerpots. I developed an extreme attachment to the house, folding myself symbiotically inside it, curling up in its ­smallest room. After my mother had left for work I’d hang blankets over the windows to block out the light, drugging myself on ­reruns of Friends, in the hope of ­hypnotising ­myself out of the horror of how I felt.

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I knew, from my Wikipedia binges, that I had something called agoraphobia: a fear of going outside. What I really wanted to know was how to be normal again, how to drink cheap cider in a field with my friends without regressing into toddler-like terror – knowledge that eluded me. Agoraphobia injected dread into every situation, sucking the safety from shops and gutting playgrounds into hollows of unease. I’d walk with a friend and I’d hear my words, submerged, skittering like shoals of fish, as I tried to parcel out the nouns into normality. My friend’s inevitable question – “Are you OK? Are you OK?” – would always trigger it, that wave of cartoonish unreality.

People say that agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces. But if that were the case, I’d have lived a fairly normal life, simply eliminating parks and long stretches of grass. Agoraphobia is progressive and highly ambitious. It starts out so large you hardly notice, first occupying supermarkets and cinemas (you didn’t need to see that movie, anyway) until it infects the most intimate situations, colonising you street by street, room by room, until you’re pissing in a cup and refusing to use the bathroom.

When two years passed and I still hadn’t left the house, the doctor stopped mumbling about teenage hormones and put me on a waiting list for therapy. I was horrified to discover that to treat my illness I had to expose myself to the very spaces I feared.

At that point, my life was a delicate web of contrivance, each strand circling towards a single purpose – to never again experience that horrifying detachment. If I never left the house, if I grew old and gathered dust and consumed the incomes of my relatives but got to my last breath without feeling that terror, I’d consider myself successful.

I never got well in the way I was supposed to. The therapist explained that I should sit with the scary sensation until it reduced, my brain flattening it to boredom. But I never learned how to untangle my unease from the world: from benches, lawns and street corners. Instead, I stretched my safety net, inch by painful inch, until I was walking to my boyfriend’s house, going back to school, and applying for university; my life still thick with rituals to stave off the sensation.

To go outside, I cloaked every situation in mental reassurances. Onto the expressions of strangers I projected a kindly nurse, ready to stroke me back to sanity. Prams were dangerous, young mothers with faces like fists, enclosed in an instinct to protect their young – I couldn’t risk asking them for help. I pretended to be my own parent, soothing my brain with baby talk: “It’s o-o-k, it’s o-o-k”.

My agoraphobia still came through in the strangest of prejudices: a fear of graffiti, store fronts covered with security grills and hipster ­coffee shops with spiky chairs. I stuck to chain stores, believing their robotic customer service could save me.

When coronavirus hit in January, agoraphobia hadn’t affected me in five years. I’d given birth to a daughter and was busily raising her, blocking out my anxieties with her tiny, toddler needs. But then the shops started to shut, with messages askance in windows as though pasted, hurriedly, by a hand: danger… spread… unforeseen circumstances. Emergency notices found their way out of films, studding the streets with dystopian unease, calling us to keep a two-metre distance. By the time Boris Johnson’s voice came, tinnily, out of the television, telling us to stay at home, I was already too scared to go outside.

For me, agoraphobia wasn’t about the fear of catching Covid-19, but the fear of other people’s fear. Strangers purging ­supermarket shelves, masked retail assistants and rainbows beaming distress signals from windows all merged into my disordered mental perceptions to confirm that the world is a perilous place.

I had come to think of my agoraphobia as a childish immaturity, a youthful indiscretion that I could laugh off as if I were a politician. My rage, when it returned, was exquisite. Therapy hadn’t wired it out of me: that awful, cardboard world could flash up whenever it pleased, scaring me – or worse – my daughter, whose childish tantrums were now downright dangerous, forcing me to stay in the street while my head pounded with panicky questions. My body had made and expelled another human, someone called me “Mu-u-um!”, my face failed to unfurl from its frown. And here, still, was the muscle-memory of terror, the hair- trigger panic, the fear which still moved under my skin, like a clot dislodged.

This article appears in the 23 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent