I know what it feels like to be trapped inside your own home because some invisible force has a strange and indomitable power over you. No matter how much you think you can coerce your mind to break from that power, you are always completely defeated. I don’t know exactly when my anxiety began; for as long as I can remember it has always been my companion, a rude intrusion in my life. Though unwelcomed, it has consistently kept me feeling safe. Safe from what exactly, I do not know but that is the feeling that inhabits my mind whenever anxiety keeps me trapped inside my home. Yes, I use the present tense because although this unwelcomed thing does not haunt me as much now, it does make a periodic appearance, reminding me that it has never quite left me alone.
What would I call this companion, this intruder that prevents me from leaving my home because of some irrational fear? A mild case of agoraphobia?
It was the thing that would make itself known to me each summer when being single and a teacher meant that I got the freedom to do anything and go anywhere. The pressure of having such freedom weighed heavily on me each year as people expectantly asked me what my intentions were for the summer. I always felt forced to make up interesting plans so that they wouldn’t impose their thoughts about what a well-spent summer actually is were they to be disappointed with my response. This same intruder would remind me that I didn’t need to make any plans to go anywhere because it would keep me from pursuing them anyway.
Yes, it was the summers when this thing would haunt me the most. On days I had no plans, I was completely content to stay inside either working on my novel or watching movies. My companion did not bother me on those days because it did not need to convince me to stay inside. If I had made specific plans to meet a friend, then my companion again made no appearance. It was on those days that I planned to perhaps aimlessly walk the park to get a bit of fresh air that I would find myself stalling. Perhaps making sure the kitchen was properly cleaned or playing a few games on my phone or reading chapters of a book. I would find myself doing all sorts of things that occupied my time in the home as a way to delay my stepping foot outside the door. Because once I walked out the door, that would mean that I had to actually do what I had intended to do. Don’t ask me why but that frightened me like nothing else ever did.
What if people outside could see that about me? What if they could tell that I was a frightened loser? That I was all alone and had nothing to do? What if someone actually wanted to talk to me and have a conversation and I had nothing to offer? What if I said something stupid because I could not properly think of something smart or clever to contribute? No, no. It’s better to stay inside. That way, I would not have to deal with any embarrassing or awkward moments and I wouldn’t find myself in a situation that I could not handle.
But then the part of me who wanted me to go out and experience the day would say: Just go. What’s the big deal? People go for walks alone all the time. Just go! No one out there cares about your situation. Then the part of me that was guided by the invader would say: But I don’t have a destination. Isn’t it weird just walking around the neighborhood with no destination in mind? No, no, maybe I’ll just stay home. Anyway, I wanted to work on the next chapter of my novel so I better stay inside.
Needless to say, that part of me won—the part of me that was guided by the unwelcomed invader who forced itself into my life to prevent me, for whatever reason, from having any type of memorable experiences. And I remember—I remember thinking to myself and crying: “Something’s wrong. Something is keeping me inside. I don’t understand why I can’t go outside. I don’t understand what’s keeping me here.” Yes, thoughts of hexes and voodoo spells entered my mind. I thought someone must be doing this to me because it is not normal to be afraid to go outside. It was a fear borne out of something that was a complete mystery to me. Why was this happening? Why was I experiencing this? Why was this unwelcomed companion always by my side on days when it was just me?
Sometimes, with nothing to do but a need to leave my home, I’d decide to go shopping at the mall, just as a definite plan to be somewhere. That was the thing. I tried to trick my mind into thinking that a plan was definite just so the unwelcomed intruder wouldn’t shove itself inside my brain to take up all the space that made me think I could actually leave the house. But even the mall wasn’t a good enough plan because the invader knew how much I hated to go shopping. Or did it impose that hatred onto me just so I would not leave my home?
As I mentioned, this intruder rarely makes an appearance in my life anymore. Is it because I now have a physical companion in my husband? There’s no longer any need for me to go out on my own because I divide my time between my husband and my twin sister. And I have a perfect excuse for an aimless walk when I am with my puppy Roxie. Yes, that’s what it is. Having a consistent partner and consistent things to do seems to have made the horrific invader disappear for now.
Here’s my positive perspective: This is the first time in my life where I have actually acknowledged this despicable intruder. I believe in my power of the written word: I expose my mental afflictions through my writing and thus release them onto the page (in this case, my computer screen) where they are metaphorically trapped. Yes, it will one day rear its ugly head again perhaps when I’ve let my guard down, forgetting that this is something that I’ve battled for so many years in my past. When that day does come, I pray I will remember this post. I pray that the release of this thing through my writing will give me the power to know and understand that there is nothing to fear in leaving the comfort of my home. Guarded by the knowledge and recognition of what this thing is, I believe that I finally have the proper mindset I need to face it head on and render it powerless.
Cathy Jean-François worked in book publishing for six years before becoming a New York City public school English teacher. She’s written short stories and created a blog about her experiences as a single woman and a newlywed. Most recently, she’s been working on Cathy’s Cross: A Depressive’s Positive Perspective, which is a blog about her decision to remain positive amidst life’s challenges despite her daily battle with depression. She uses her experience with depression to create her main character’s inner conflict in her novel The Box. You can find Cathy every Saturday morning hosting a room on Clubhouse tackling the very important issue of mental health. When she is not working on lesson plans and grading assignments for her 7th grade and high school students, she is either writing a new blog post or spending time with her husband and their miniature schnauzer Roxie, where they live in Queens, NY.