I Never Thought A Black Woman Like Me Could Struggle With Agoraphobia

By Kellee Nicole

Wikimedia Commons
How I became imprisoned in the Cave of Islation — and how I finally escaped.

I n October of last year, I left my home for the first time in over a year.

It was a breezy day, mid-60s, and the sun was shining. Going on this short drive would take me one step closer to my dream life as a healthy, paid writer living (comfortably) in a large metropolitan area. As my mother backed out of our driveway, with me as a passenger for the first time in a long time, I noticed moist fall foliage dispersed across the quiet street. This trip would not seem like much to many — but it was monumental to me psychologically. The doctor’s office we visited was closed, but after over a month of failed planning, I’d finally left my ‘hood and my Cave of Isolation. I was thrilled.

The last time I’d left my home with such a bright outlook on life was to move to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania two months after graduating from my local high school, almost a decade prior. I was overly ambitious then, having written in a college essay — also intended as a page in my future autobiography — about my dreams to someday accept an award as an international human rights lawyer for my work on a team that was finally eradicating child slavery. Besides being the portal to making these dreams come true, I also hoped college would help me put behind a traumatic, abusive high school relationship I’d endured for four years in my rural South Carolina town.

Credit: Wildersee

Despite my high hopes, however, my Penn education was disjointed from the get-go, partially due to various health problems — both physical and mental. Thanks to teen dramas (like DeGrassi), I’d suspected for a few years that I had clinical depression. This would be confirmed in college, along with a number of other mental-health issues. My reproductive health was, and remains, similarly chaotic: I learned, in the beginning of my college career, that childbirth had the potential to kill me.

And although I was privileged to have access to a comprehensive mental health facility on campus, a number of ingrained misperceptions almost claimed my life. I’d grown up in a community where getting help for mental illness was stigmatized, and had been raised to think one could simply “pray away” mental-health issues, and that suffering and pain were caused by a “lack of faith in God” or “not enough tithing.” It would take years to unlearn this damaging philosophy.

A number of ingrained misperceptions almost claimed my life.

Further, I assumed mental health worked similarly to physical health: When I sprained my ankle after a bad fall in cheerleading, my caretakers gave me clear advice and guidelines on what to do and how long it would take until I could cheer again. I thought mental-health treatment was also a temporary thing. This, combined with the manifestations of my illnesses, was a potentially deadly mindset. When I felt “good,” like when I was experiencing a manic episode, I would skip appointments and medications, because I was convinced I’d been “cured.”

Bouts of feeling like a character in a video game with unlimited lives — a reality I felt so strongly about that I commemorated it with a Super Mario invincibility tattoo on my back — only made my crashes back down to reality, straight through the floor to the basement of depression, even more intense.

kellee star
Tattoo inspired by the Invincibility Star from Super Mario 64

I had two serious suicide attempts at Penn, followed by two mental-health leaves of absence. During these breaks, I purposely didn’t return to my hometown. I knew that receiving treatment was one of my conditions to be able to return, and there were virtually no trusted doctors in my area. I also knew that were very few opportunities to get the job I’d need to secure, and that returning back home was Social Suicide.

And yet, out of options, I left Penn for the final time after the fall semester 2010 and headed home with an eye to finishing my degree from there. This endeavor would worsen my already failing mental state, and I decided to transfer. I landed at Charleston Southern University in 2012, where I was diagnosed with two of my current mental issues — Bipolar I Disorder and PTSD — and discovered a field of study that I’m still passionate about. However, the drugs I was prescribed worsened my condition, causing me to have to move back home in 2013.

And so began my descent into the Cave of Isolation.

My descent would quicken in July of 2014 after a reproductive health appointment. After approximately seven years of gynos simply treating my symptoms, I was finally presented with a permanent solution to issues that had been worsening my entire adulthood. I left the office that day planning to go to the hospital in the following weeks. But as a result of challenging logistics and getting kicked off my insurance when I turned 26, it never happened. I found myself back in a deep bout of depression, overwhelmed by the bad timing and bad luck.

Locked in my room, safe under my covers, with only my laptop and sparse wireless to keep me company, I had time to think of everything that had gone awry: the traumatic death of a relative; the violation of my privacy and boundaries physically, online, and IRL; and my ever-declining reproductive, mental, and physical health.

This is how my self-imprisonment really began.

I’d only heard of agoraphobia from crime and medical dramas, with a dash of high school literature mixed in. Those who struggle with it — typically older white men — were often called recluses and were presented as being too scared or paranoid to leave their residence, either out of fear of physical harm or because they thought someone would rob them of their riches while they were out. I didn’t think a “person like me” — a relatively young, Black woman — could struggle with something like that.

There’s something hauntingly poetic about how I isolated myself from society. Being confined to the Southeast, where travel is difficult, was one layer, and being confined in my insular hometown was another. I was also trapped inside my home. Then inside my room. And most of all, inside my head. It was Agoraphobic Inception — and at one point, I didn’t believe it would ever end.

There’s something hauntingly poetic about how I isolated myself from society.

In the beginning of my time in The Cave, I just wanted to be left alone with my laptop and unhealthy thoughts. I stopped communicating — returning texts, calls, emails, and messages — with all except one of my best friends, who was too sporadic to even notice I was “missing.” It was relatively easy for me to isolate myself because none of my friends were local, or even lived in the same state. The only person I had regular contact with was my mother and fictional characters of media on my laptop and phone. If we had Internet connection, I observed, but didn’t interact on, social media.

There were so many horrible, self-defeating thoughts running through my head on a daily basis:

“They were right about you, you know? You never deserved to get into that Ivy and now you’re the failure they all knew you would be. They’re all laughing at you while having high-paying jobs and using ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ as verbs. Just save yourself and give up now.”

“You’re poor because you’re worthless. Why don’t you just save your family the money spent taking care of you and end it all now?”

“Your second college was a lot less demanding and you failed there, too? Why do you even bother waking up every day?”

“No one loves you. No one has ever loved you. No one will ever love you.”

It would take months before I actually acknowledged that I had not left the house — and this realization only confirmed that I was, as I’d been telling myself, a failure.

Things came to a head last summer when my mother asked me to run to the store for her. It was a common request and wouldn’t be an issue for most considerate daughters with drivers’ licenses, but the question alone elicited so much dread, that I laughed like she’d told a joke, and simply replied, “Nah.” The next week she finally said, after 10 months of me having not left the property of her home, “We gotta get you outta this house.”

“I know,” I replied, acknowledging it was weird, but knowing I really wasn’t capable of going anywhere yet.

It took a family emergency for me to finally “snap out of it.” As the relative received medical treatment, I discovered an online medical service that was accommodating to an uninsured agoraphobic and attempted to begin my own recovery.

Looking back, I realize that being isolated has made me a better friend: I’m still not entirely used to talking or typing to anything that isn’t my diary, so I’m a better active listener. With so much time to self-reflect (and read social media), I have less patience for people contributing to my marginalization and more patience for friends and others like me. Somewhat selfishly, I “require” my friends to video chat me regularly. For a long time, I didn’t think I existed outside of my own mind, so visually seeing them and confirming that they see me has been imperative to my progress.

Since leaving my house in October, I’ve gone out a handful of times, usually for doctor’s appointments. I even “escaped” for over a week and did Normal People Stuff: driving, shopping, socializing. I’ve learned that my debilitating symptoms greatly decrease the farther (both mentally and physically) I am from my Cave of Isolation. The fear is no longer of the outside, but that I’ll never be able to permanently leave.

Penn Football 2010-KelleeNicole-TheEstablishment

Though unemployed and uninsured, I have a realistic game plan, one that accounts for setbacks, to return to being a Functioning Adult so that I can follow my dreams. Functioning Adult, to me, is being able to eat and sleep regularly, and secure and retain employment, as well as “have fun.” I realize that having the physical appearance of a healthy person is both a privilege and a setback: I don’t look sick enough to have people cower for fear of infection, but because no one can see my illness, it’s easy to assume that I’m just faking it. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, both externally and internally, “Just get over it!” or “Don’t let that stop you!” or “Fight harder!”

As a cheerleader, I was tasked with rooting for my teams with compassion. On a failed defensive stand, after yelling “Let’s Go Defense!” repeatedly, we did not respond with a “You didn’t try hard enough!” chant or a “Just think positive!” cheer; we compassionately rebounded to cheer even harder on their next possession. Now, for once, I have a team of “cheerleaders” rooting for me. With their support, and the fresh memory of that first car ride, I am more hopeful than ever that my residence in the Cave of Isolation is ending.

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