The Practice of Agoraphobia: Social Distancing’s Older Sister

Agoraphobia Congress

I have bought several books lately, as a homage to our summer non-vacation life-style.   Yes, we could take a vacation, but is it socially responsible?  Fling off your mask in the living room and read a good book instead. Here is what we need:  a dose of agoraphobia to help us stay home.  Is agoraphobia the older sister of social distancing?

And that brings me, not completely off-topic, to  an agoraphobic friend who died in her forties.  (One reason Google sucks:  when you look up your friends, you have the misfortune to discover they have died. The obituary  said, “She was survived by her cat, Natasha.”)

Oh no, no, no, no. That is so sad. She wanted a husband (or live-in lover, which we thought more romantic) and a family.  Well, I’m a cat lady too, with an indulgent husband.

What do you do when a friend disappears?  We were still in school when she moved away.  We wrote letters for a few years, then lost touch.  She wrote amusing, witty missives, but went off on tangents about how she had lost a lot of weight and been voted Homecoming Queen.

I knew the latter was a fantasy, so I ignored it. She was overweight, but everyone liked her, and no one cared about her weight.  And yet her fantasy reminded me of a very sad short story by Jean Stafford, “The Echo and the Nemesis.”  It dwells on a fat young woman’s fantasies and self-hatred.

At Heidelberg University, a highly intelligent, obese young woman, Ramona Dunn, globs onto a slender fellow American student, diffident Sue Ledbetter. Ramona invites Sue to her room for huge servings of cake and cookies.  While eating, Ramona talks constantly about the accomplishments of her family, especially her slim, charming, talented twin sister, Martha. And then at the end of the story, Sue realizes that there is no twin sister–that the girl in the photo of Martha is Ramona when she was slim.  Ironcially, as we get older and fatter, people turn this premise upside down and think the slim woman in our old photos IS our twin sister!

When my friend visited, she was still fat, not the Homecoming queen–so much better than that kind of person!–and still the same warm, witty friend. But there was something new: she was unable to leave the house. She would not even step out into the back yard.  She refused to visit old friends.  She refused to receive old friends.  She refused to attend a class I was taking from a friend of her mother.

I have known some incredibly intelligent people who have snapped or had some kind of breakdown.  If they’re lucky, they get over it. The conditions can often be controlled.  But my friend seemed different. She was not the impulsive girl at the rock concert who took LSD and had to go to the medical tent for help.  She had common sense. She took no drugs.  She was normal–but she couldn’t go outside.

And I must have disappointed her–going out the door as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Now that I’m older, I view agoraphobia as a possible survival skill.  Will agoraphobics survive while more active people become infected with the virus during the pandemic?  Perhaps every human quality is for something.  Or have I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City too many times?

Peace, hope, and stay well!

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