At church with my family, I had my first encounter. I’m not sure if this particular incident triggered the fear or if it was simply the first time having experienced it. I was only four years old, after all.
I believe it was Christmas Eve. After the service, holding one of my parents’ hands, I walked with my family into the lobby of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in DeWitt, Michigan. It was also my preschool – a place I was familiar with. Being there with a bunch of adults walking around me was different than being there with a bunch of kids. Walking into the enclosed coat room as tall people rifled through the racks for their outer garments, I suddenly became afraid. I saw my dad’s legs and grabbed on tight but when I looked up, I didn’t recognize the thin man with the dark bearded face. I started to cry and strong familiar arms quickly swooped me up into safety. End memory.
The Shy Girl
Most of my life, “shy” was part of my identity. I took it as an insult, probably because it clouded over who I truly was – a people loving extrovert. I get energized when around close family and friends in familiar environments. However, most people don’t get to experience the real me because the cloak of shyness forbids me from living it out.
This truth became most apparent to me when I went off to college. I had spent most of my life in the same tiny town going to school with the same small class of peers. I chose a small private college with a student body of a mere 1,600. This felt enormous compared to my high school of about 350. I arrived a week before classes started to train with my Cross Country team. Familiarity.
When the rest of the students arrived on campus, the reality that I wasn’t just at summer camp hit me. I kept to myself a lot. I was friendly. I was thankful for a high school friend living down the hall. Something familiar.
About a month into being on the cross country team, I started to hit my stride. I was one of the better runners – a total surprise to me despite my high school success. On the bus to a meet one Saturday, I was talking with some of the girls and found myself getting into my comfort zone. I started talking animately when all of a sudden one of the senior girls exclaimed, “Where did you come from?” I pulled back and searched for meaning, “What?”
“Where’s the quiet shy Beth that’s been on our team the last month?”
I don’t know, I guess I just finally got comfortable enough with them to be myself. They were now familiar.
I’m a talker, always have been. I’m energetic and animated when I talk. I’m part Italian, which means the more excited I get – for better or for worse – the greater the volume and animation of my talking. So much so that the words, “Stop talking,” and “Shut up,” and especially, “Stop yelling,” are frequent in my life. I’ve even learned in my adult-life that I can be very personable and a good conversationalist which has helped me professionally on many occasions. But there’s a definite on-off switch to that person…and people who know me well know that when the switch is off, something is wrong.
I didn’t know the reason behind it until a few years ago. I was suffering greatly from clinical depression while attending a huge conference for the ministry I worked with. This meant daily going into a huge stadium full of thousands of people for worship, speakers, and prayer. An anvil weighed on my chest and I couldn’t take a deep breath. Heart racing, hot and sweaty and suffocating. Panic. Fight or flight kicked in and I just had to get out. I would up and leave suddenly, trying my best to hold back the tears.
I started to convince my friends that we needed to sit by a door, me on the isle. If it became too much and I just had to get out, I would leave no matter what it took. A co-worker once saw me in my flight mode and tried to help. I couldn’t talk and tried to walk away. She grabbed my arm and I yelled, “Just let me go!” I went off by myself and hyperventilated until I finally calmed down – lightheaded and exhausted.
It happened several more times over the course of that week. Once, while in line at a sandwich shop. Why do people have to stand so close to me in line? The lady behind me got angry, “move up!” she growled. I left and called a friend to come rescue me. Again at the ministry-wide carnival. In a sea of wonderful loving people, I found myself going off alone. I just had to get away from people – people whom I usually loved spending time with. People who normally would fill my love tank and energize my being just drained me of all my strength.
I went to the store, bought a canvas, paint, brushes. In the times where I just couldn’t take it anymore, I would go off by myself – not wanting to talk to anyone – under a tree and paint.
“Agoraphobia,” the psychiatrist told me once I started getting help for my illness. The greek word meaning literally, “fear of the marketplace.” I started to learn how to cope. I plan my grocery shopping around when the quietest times at the store are. I arrive at church early or after the service has started and everyone is already seated, then I leave early or wait until most people have exited. Volunteering with the youth at church, you’ll almost always find me in the back of the room, near a door, or with a path in sight in case I need to leave.
I get so nervous when going to new places by myself that I either just don’t go and stay where I can find the familiar, or I make sure someone is with me. No matter what, I do not sit with my back to the door when eating at a restaurant or in a similar space. I don’t care how awkward it may be to ask someone to switch seats with me.
Being married has been the best thing for my agoraphobia. I have someone to walk into scary situations with me. My husband is a calming presence. I have a hand to hold. He knows my, “I’m anxious” squeeze and will comfort me. He talks me through my panic attacks or just rubs my back and prays until it passes. Then he holds me after it’s over and I’m too exhausted for anything else. Being married means I can live my life despite my obstacle. Instead of not going places, I have someone who can go with me. Or, if I have to go alone, he gives me a pep talk and walks me to the door on my way out. I feel a little less like a freak.
However, I didn’t meet my husband until a couple years after I first learned about my agoraphobia. I did a lot of coping on my own, with medication, and with prayer. In fact, I think if it weren’t for my faith, I may have completely stopped living my life. My fear would have imprisoned me to my house. While having Andrew by my side is a huge benefit to being married, I know that wherever I go, I have the protection of Jesus. I think that’s one of the reasons why one of my favorite songs, “On Eagle’s Wings” based on Psalm 91 and Isaiah 40:31 always meant so much to me.
Until recently, I kept my fear a secret. A fear of heights, a fear of small places, a fear of spiders – these all seem like “normal” fears. A fear of people? How humiliating! I recently realized this fear of mine is not likely to leave me. I also realized that it’s almost more awkward to not tell people and have them question why I’m acting all weird than to just be open about it. In fact, as I’ve started to be more open about it, I’ve found I’m not alone. Being around people who know about my challenges allows me to meet the familiar wherever I go and gives me greater ability to cope.
Whatever your fear or anxiety, I hope you know you aren’t alone and you aren’t a freak. I hope you find someone who can relate to your fear. I hope you seek out ways to help you cope in a healthy way. If you don’t know where to start, feel free to contact me.