1973. Queens, New York.
“I’m a grown-up and can take care of myself.” I can’t wait until my parents leave to invite over my best friend Lea.
Mom reaches over to the window above the sink. She closes, locks it, and pulls the curtains together.
“Do you really have to do that? I’m going to suffocate in here,” I say. “It feels like a tomb.”
“Honey, I don’t want anyone to know you’re in here, alone.”
“You should at least keep the curtains open to give the house a ‘someone’s at home’ look.’”
Dad makes an appearance. My parents are going to Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Stanley’s house in Brooklyn to cool off in their pool. I’m sixteen and do not want to be seen anywhere with them.
“Honey,” Mom says, “Come with us. We’ll have a wonderful time.” She bends down and lands a bone-crushing hug to my shoulders.
I try to squirm out of her grasp. “Mommm. Hanging out with adults for six hours is not my idea of fun. Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.”
Usually she says “no” to everything I want and was surprised she gave in this time.
“And don’t forget the emergency numbers listed on the wall next to the phone.”
Exasperated, I roll my eyes. She plants a slobbering kiss on my forehead. “Don’t open the door to anyone, even if you know them. Keep the doors and windows locked and don’t go out. We’ll be home before dark. Call you when we get there. Love you. Be careful.”
Mom opens the door and then hesitates. “And don’t forget to put the chain on.” She grabs her handbag and leaves the house through the side door.
The door slams shut. I listen as the bolts in the double lock snap into place. Quickly, I get up and pull the chain across the slot in the door, before the ghouls come out and get me.
I hear the garage door grumble open. Bagel in hand I rush into the great room, peel back a corner of the cream-colored drapes, and peek out. My dad’s pea-green Honda Civic leaves the driveway and heads down our tree lined street towards Jamaica Avenue.
Without drinking anything my breakfast tastes like plywood.
The house creaks.
Palms sweating, I can barely breathe.
I watch the twelve-year-old Gilbert twins play catch across the street. My eyes scan for criminals lurking about. Although there haven’t been any robberies in our ordinary neighborhood, Jamaica Estates, an upscale community, was hit hard. Burglar alarms, cameras, and Doberman Pinchers became part of the residents’ posh décor.
I go back to the kitchen, pick up the wall phone, and dial Lea’s number. One, two, three, four, five rings. No answer. Lea, where are you? I slam down the phone, toss the bagel into the trash, and pull a pint of marshmallow chocolate-chip ice cream from the freezer.
Mice? We had some a few years ago.
The kitchen is dark, and I reach for the light switch.
“No lights,” Mom said. “You don’t want them to know you’re home.”
I yank my hand away as if burned by fire.
Shaking, I open a cabinet to grab a flashlight. Homeowners in New York are not usually armed with weapons. Baseball bats, yes.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Mice don’t tap.
Clinking noises come from the direction of the bolted door.
My eyes fixed on the door, my head darts to the sink, and then at the window my mom locked this morning.
Pieces of broken glass wink like stars they fall into the sink.
A hairy arm basking in the sun’s glow reaches inside.
I drop like a feather and let go of the flashlight. It rolls to the opposite side of the room and under the table. Folding up like a Chinese fan I wish to be gone. I force my limbs to move across the room to the phone.
Dehydrated and burning up, I can’t breathe.
I should have gone with Mom and Dad.
“Stop! I’m in here,” I shout, then run into my room, adjacent to the kitchen.
Inside, I grab a chair and cram it under the doorknob and call 911 from my pink Princess phone. “Don’t leave me,” I beg the operator after giving her my name and address. She stays on the line for what seems like forever until I hear sirens scream outside my window. An hour later my parents arrive. Inside the house Mom grabs my arms and shakes my ninety-pound frame. She screams as if I had lured the intruder to our home.
1975. Queens, New York.
A few years later the effects of the break-in consumed me. The summer before my junior year in high school I had my first mental breakdown. A bite from a friend’s dog now triggered my fear and obsession with dying of rabies.
Seeing a canine anywhere, small and large, I fled.
Bullied by friends I couldn’t leave the house.
Constant worry about catching germs, washing hands, and wearing gloves to open doors consumed me.
I was obsessed with doubts about the break in. Did it really happen? Maybe I imagined it?
Dad lost patience and was angry with me. My parents took me to a family physician. He prescribed Valium, the go to drug of the 70 and 80s.
I returned to school in the fall. Soon I graduated from high school, got my driver’s license, and went away to college.
1980. Long Island, New York.
With mini breakdowns from working hard to get top grades I spent days inside my dorm afraid to go to class. With sketchy classroom attendance, I convinced my professors to give me make-up exams and opted to write papers for extra-credit. I managed to graduate Cum Laude and earn a Master of Science Degree.
When college ended, I moved into my boyfriend Ed’s apartment on Long Island. Afraid to drive, he took me everywhere I needed to go.
In 1980 mom died from Ovarian Cancer. Then came breakdown number two.
During an office visit a psychiatrist diagnosed agoraphobia, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders. He prescribed antidepressants and other drugs for OCD. It took a while for them to work and there were many changes in medication due to side effects.
That was the last time I went outside the apartment alone for two years. A psychologist agreed to treat me at home.
Soon, Ed had had enough of my self-imposed incarceration and went on a sixteen-day tour to Ireland and Wales. Jealous of all the fun he was going to have I wanted to get back out into the world.
Alone in the apartment, paranoia battled my brain. How will I take care of myself? Should I get treatment in a mental health facility? Will they drug and keep me locked up forever? Visions of my drug-induced self hallucinating, drooling, and brain cell death after electro-shock therapy terrified me.
Psychiatrists and hospital staffers could turn out to be the enemy.
If I came out of this alive, what if future employers, friends, colleagues, and family found out about my hospital stay? The stigma of these diagnoses will become a permanent part of my identity. Immobility, indecision, and moving between reality and fantasy challenged me every day.
I wrote ferociously about my terror in a journal. Ashamed, I ripped it up. It could be used as evidence to commit me, forever.
“Where will you feel the safest while Ed’s away?” the psychologist had asked me.
“Nowhere,” I said.
I decided on outpatient treatment.
There were plenty of challenges. A knock on the door sent me into frenzy.
When my boyfriend can home from his trip, I was determined to leave the apartment. Hypnosis, visualizing myself taking those steps, and deep breathing exercises prepared me for this moment. With my therapist beside me, I stared down the stairs for six months. Heart pounding, body shaking, I made it down to the landing. Walking outside was my next goal.
For three months, I peeked out the window overlooking the street. There was a dog that lived nearby. After hours of looking outside my window and watching, I was obsessed with it.
What if the canine was on the street when I was outside? What if? What if?
I imagined a pack of ferocious, growling canines possessed by demons attacking me.
On my third trip outside, I saw the dog and his pet parent at the end of the block.
“Breathe,” the therapist said. “Slow breaths, in and out.”
In the beginning, I distrusted my ability to know if a canine had bit me or not. I continued to terrorize myself with thoughts of a slow and painful death from rabies.
It would have been much easier if I had given in to my agoraphobia and stayed home. But I fought back.
It took a decade for me to trust myself and realize that not every dog is after me.
I watch people pet dogs in airports, parks, and beaches. A wagging tail usually indicates a happy animal. Still, I don’t pet strange dogs. I’m not afraid of therapy and helping canines.
After years of therapy and anti-depressants, I can manage my anxiety and agoraphobia. Stress is a trigger for my agoraphobia and sometimes I want to run inside a building or back home to safety.
Instead, I stop, take a moment and observe the dog.
I even think some are cute.
1990 – 2019. Phoenix, Arizona.
Thirty-nine years later I am not cured and never will be. Every day fear and anxiety challenge my self-confidence and reality. I continue to scan shopping malls, and streets for loose and leashed dogs.
On vacation, we go to a lot of beaches. Never far from my thoughts I scan the locations for canines. I watch them run along the sand and swim in the ocean.
Barking dogs can send me into a full-blown panic attack. My heart pounds and breathing shallow. I step back, breathe, and observe them.
Obsessing about them is usually a substitute for facing an upcoming stressful situation.
Years ago, I met a wonderful woman. I told her about my dog fears.
She worked in a pet store and offered to help me. While safe inside a private pet room she handed me a calm King Cavalier puppy to hold. I fell in love and wanted to take him home, but we already had a cat and Ed did not want another animal.
As a reminder of this happy encounter a photo of me cuddling the puppy hangs in my office. This experience certainly put a dent in my fears.
I opened my small business in 1990, been a community college instructor since 1990, am an avid traveler, and been married to Ed since 1987. We celebrated our thirty-second anniversary in 2019.
I’m not allowing agoraphobia to win.