The only safe place was home. Home, I could control everything. There were no dangers. Nor pressures. There was always the worry when I went out that there’d be an issue, and I’d have to rush home. It was a tremendous burden to carry, and the weight of it filled me with expectation that something would happen, which it then did. At least at home if anything happened, I was already where I needed to be.
At first, I had trouble going anywhere – even the mailbox. I’d feel flighty, and would want to rush back inside. Eventually, I got comfortable with that distance. Later, my cousins – who lived around the corner – would come over, and when they left I’d walk them to the end of my street, just as I had always done in the past. It was a walk of two minutes. But in making it my heart thumped and my breath grew short. If they paused to chat, I’d talk with them, but inside I was screaming to get back to safety. When they left, I’d hurry home, even breaking into a sprint when I was out of eyeshot.
One time, I was meant to go to my cousin Chris’s twenty-first, a walk of about ten minutes I’d made unthinkingly countless times in the past. I was fine throughout the day, but the nearer it got to the time to leave, the worse I felt. But I had to go. If I didn’t, what would people say? So I braced myself. I’d do this, and once I was there, I could drink until the discomfit was washed away in inebriation – it wasn’t a great plan, but it was better than no plan.
As I walked there, my breath shortened and my arms and legs grew heavy. When I arrived, I could barely stand, everything felt so heavy, and my balance had me stumbling into chairs. I said my hellos, apologised I couldn’t stay as I was feeling sick, said my goodbyes (my mum later telling everybody I had the flu), then hurried home. Fifteen minutes later, I felt normal again. It was like it had never happened.
That became the pattern. There were only a handful of places I grew comfortable enough to visit without major distress: the GP’s clinic and Dr Jarasinghe’s consulting rooms, and both only because doctors were on call should anything happen. But if it was somewhere like the supermarket – only a couple of minutes away by car – it was always a race: me against the agoraphobia.
Next, I incorporated the video library and book library into my sphere of comfort. The local video library was about four kilometres away. The book library was just across the road from it. They were places I’d been dozens and dozens of times in another life. Sometimes, before all this, I’d walk to either.
The first few times I went back there, it was a race: get there, get my stuff, get out. Gradually, though, I acclimated … at least somewhat. I was never entirely relaxed; the panic lurked in the back of my head, prodding me the way a bully might prod a potential victim, but I could keep it at enough of a distance to do my thing, even if there was always a sense of unease that had the potential to explode at any moment.
The Indoor Cricket Centre was a bigger challenge. I was no longer part of the team. My friends knew I’d been sick, but – bar Stan – none of them knew with what. They thought it was with an inner ear condition, which was how everything had started, (if that itself hadn’t been anxiety) and kept playing, while I stayed in my little back room.
I told Dr Jarasinghe I was worried about going to the Indoor Cricket Centre. He ran me through a meditative exercise where I imagined driving to the Centre, going in, and playing. It was meant to desensitize me.
It didn’t work.
I could never shake the anxiousness the way I could going to the libraries. Maybe it was because of my collapse there. Or maybe it was because with the libraries, I could leave whenever I wanted – I retained that small sense of control. At Indoor Cricket, there was a social obligation in being with my friends. I couldn’t just storm out – although I knew I would if I had to. What would they think, though? Again, my upbringing placed paramount importance on other people’s perceptions.
As for playing again, forget it. Exertion led to panting, which led to hyperventilation. No point setting that off. Playing also meant I was stuck there for the duration of a game. I couldn’t exactly flee if I was meant to be fielding, or if I was batting. I was anchored there until the game finished. That responsibility stirred the panic.
I couldn’t be anywhere I couldn’t leave the moment I needed to.
So I stayed in my little world: GP, Dr Jarasinghe, video library, book library – all minutes from home.
And all safe.