Sometimes we are oblivious to the serious problems people we know are having. And when we learn about them sometimes we’re shocked. As shocked as some people reading this post, one of my growing up memories, will be.
In high school I won an award and there was an assembly. Sitting on the stage, I looked down at the faces in the audience and there in the third row was my mother. My eyes stung with tears, I was so touched by her being there. I thought of the courage it had taken for her to come alone. Under my breath I whispered, “Good going Mom.”
When you are an agoraphobic you are one of a minuscule portion of the world’s population, and you seem terribly odd because the simple act of leaving your home alone fills you with helpless terror and requires great bravery on your part. And so you are odd, and that is no secret to you. But you try to hide the fact.
You are a person of considerable mystery. Your problem is the least talked about and least understood psychiatric disorder. And the most difficult to treat.
“You’re afraid to leave the house? What do you mean?” (They are stupefied. You really can’t mean that.)“It is very hard for me.” (You are understating.)
“Yes, a person can get hit over the head or robbed these days.”
“Those things don’t scare me in the least. I can take care of myself.”
“Then what are you afraid of?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Very much.” (Because it seems so weird to me.)
“Most of all of the space out there—the immensity of it.”
“But I’ve known you for years and I’ve seen you outside your house many times.”
“But have you noticed that I’m never alone?” (My husband is with me, or my wife, or a close friend—someone I can put all my trust in.)
When you are out alone in that immensity you sweat, you worry, you feel faint, and you have difficulty breathing. At times the tension builds and you feel that any moment you will scream. All that’s being asked of you is that you go alone down the familiar street to the familiar train station and catch a familiar train and go to the doctor, and then return home again in two hours. You go over and over meticulously in your mind the details—the steps–you must carry out before you can open your front door again and set foot into the sanctuary you feel you never should have left. First walk down the street to the station, (That’s not so bad, is it?), then sit in the waiting room (Be ready; you will be afraid), then sit in the train looking out the window, then…Then on the way back, everything in reverse.
The problem is the mind. The mind is the trap. How can you master the mind when there is nothing to master it with but that same mind that is not perfectly well?
It is now time to leave. The door opens—the assault of the open air–and you mutter to yourself, Be strong. Then, hours later when you have completed the dreaded journey and are safely home again, everything in that domain welcomes you back—the refrigerator, the dining room furniture, the light fixtures.
My mother never as an adult saw the interior of a grocery store or a butcher shop, but called in the family orders item by item and had everything delivered, did not shop for clothes for herself or us except by mail order, did not take her children to doctors or dentists, but had them go alone, never walked down one flight of stairs to do the laundry in the basement, avoided crowds and never went to circuses, zoos, ballparks, libraries, playgrounds, beaches, concerts, or museums, and avoided elevators and all other enclosed places.
When you are as she, you often say after sleepless nights of anticipating opening the door and leaving, “I would give anything not to have to go. Can you please come with me?”
“NO (a stern voice), you must go alone. You have to master this thing. You have to do what you don’t want to do. That’s the only solution, the lone treatment. Do what you don’t want to do.”
I’m sure my mother never realized she was sick. My father never expected her to be any different than she was, and never all his life mentioned her affliction, nor did she ever speak of it, nor did we, her children. It was no less a part of her than her arm, and if a person’s arm is deformed, you never bring it up. When my father took her outside and stayed close to her–as though they were attached by a string–no one would have known that were he to leave her side– absentmindedly in a parking lot, for example–she would to some extent have lost her mind.
Yet, she was in love with the world–the glitter of lights and the sunsets and the dawns; the shades and shapes. Her absence from it made it all the more beautiful to her. She marveled at people; how they seemed so blasé and reckless out on the streets–as impervious as rocks.
I think to her the apartment in which she sought refuge and dwelled so happily was a garden glittering with precious stones. In it, keeping her company when everyone was gone, might just as well have been hummingbirds and blue jays and lilies of the valley and Roses of Sharon– bird baths and white columns and caterpillars. Utensils were rubies, chairs diamonds, books emeralds, toys on the floor scattered sapphires.
In that tiny domain she darted like a thrush among the five rooms, lifting, sorting, storing, repairing, pushing, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, wiping, washing, drying, folding, spreading, fluffing, rushing, straightening, puttering, submerging dishes in bubbly water–working, working, working–confident, capable, efficient, masterful–the queen of our lives. She was the center of the family about whom everything orbited and whose sweetness, gentleness, caring, affection, and kindliness she shared equally among us, and which filled every crevice of our home.
Everything she needed to exist contentedly was within reach–a tiny, perfect world—we, her family, walking through rooms, or sitting, or coming in or going out the doors. It was clear that on certain days each moment in that apartment and whatever happened therein filled her with inestimable joy. Then she might have thought:
If all the griefs I am to have
Would only come today,
I am so happy I believe
They’d laugh and run away.
If all the joys I am to have
Would only come today
They could not be so big as this
That happens to me now.
It was very near her thirtieth year that Emily Dickinson deliberately decided never willingly to leave her home again. She had been a prolific letter-writer since childhood, but letters subsequent to that year became more important to her than they are to most people because they were her “letters to the world,” and the replies she received were her sole means of escape from the imprisonment she had chosen.
She was as out-of-touch with the world as my mother. The news from “out there” came second hand to them. It was not something they experienced directly. Dickinson had no interest in the Civil War—the period of her flowering– and no interest in contemporary writers. It is doubtful she read a single poem of the other living American poetic genius, Walt Whitman. Eventually, Dickinson refused to be in the same room as visitors, her isolation now complete.
Were my mother a poet, she too might have written:
The soul selects her own society.
Then shuts the door.
© 2014 David J. Rogers
13 responses to “A Strange and Perplexing Disorder: My Mother and Emily Dickinson”
Beautifully written I never knew that about her and my memory of her is the laughter.
Thanks, Ann. I appreciate the compliment. I remember her laughter too. That’s kind of the point. People who suffer from disorders such as agoraphobia are just regular people. Most people who know them don’t know what they go through.
That was wonderful David. I never had any idea of this. The world outside ourselves is a very complex place. Life, is even more mysterious than we know!
John, thanks for the comment. You’re so right, it is complex. You look at a person and you think you know them, but how much do you really know of what their world is like? I’m so happy to hear from you.
Reblogged this on ksilion and commented:
A moving testimony starring a still poorly understood syndrome Agoraphobia is a phobia corresponding to the fear of public places , open spaces , and by extension, of the crowd.
Thank you for reblogging. Agoraphobia is a devastating illness that is not well-understood by the general public. Most people cannot fathom why a person would be afraid to leave the house. Thank you for bringing my writing to more readers. I hope you come back to my blog again, and I will visit yours.
Thanks for the link to this post, David. I’m quite touched by your words, because at first you could have been talking about me.
However, the enormity of the world, the wide open spaces, none of that bothers me. With some agoraphobics, the fear is public transportation. I don’t like it, but that’s not really the fear. It’s unfamiliar places, people, or even seldom used routes of getting to a familiar place — that’s where I can’t cope.
I can’t even say why I’m afraid. There was no dog attack, no mugging, although throughout life there has been more than enough bullying. I don’t fear the bully, I stand up for myself. (People hate that.) Yet I dread the confrontations, and can’t really say why.
Agoraphobia has many different faces. None of them are understood. Everyone seems to think that all I need to do to solve the problem is “go.” That it would take care of itself, if I “went.”
No, I don’t know why I’m terrified. Or precisely what it is I fear… except that it’s out there, and it’s bad, and I need to shut the door.
Thanks for wanting to share this bit of your memories with me. Hugs.
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Maybe we were once like cats who prefer their own territory.Then as cities were built etc we moved about.But even 50 years ago people didn’t go far from home.I once joked I didn’t want a big TV as it might swallow me and nobody there empathised.I am glad your mother had a loving family around her,She must have felt so sad missing events or being unable to take you out when you were children.You write so beautifully
Thank you, Katherine. Yes, it was very sad, my mother having to live like that, but you are right. Her loving family around her helped.
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I think she must have been very kind like you are and pleased by your writing etc, Warmesr wishes,Kathryn
Thank you, Katherine. Yes, she was kind and very gentle–an exceptional mother. I was lucky.
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