I asked for requests/suggestions to write about in celebration of Blognari reaching ten thousand unique page views. One of the first requests I received was from a friend of mine. I have to warn you, this blog isn't going to be as carefree as my usual fare. I may try to make light here and there or add a little comedy because honestly comedy makes everything easier to talk or write about, and probably easier to read, but the subject isn't a great one for me. Not because I am afraid of what you guys will think or anything like that, but because it was a negative time in my life (and no one likes reliving those) and it's just not easy to explain and takes a very long time to really hash out properly.
I mean, there's obviously a happy ending, but at the time it was a pretty hopeless situation.
I had a rough go of it in 2001 and not many people, even those closest to me, know what the hell happened when I basically disappeared for three years. I existed by and large on the internet during this period and, despite how things are now, back then very few of my real life friends had the internet and those who did rarely ever used it. Crazy to imagine that, I know. So to them, I essentially ceased to exist at all.
I want to clarify something though, because that's another thing that's changed drastically in recent years: online friends. I say my real life friends didn't see me for three years, as if the online friends I made were somehow less real because they were online and not down the street. Let me just say, no. To me they've always been very real, and appreciated, even back then when things were super segregated between online and 'real' life. The idea of having actual friends who lived perhaps thousands of miles away from you was absurd, in public opinion though, especially if you had never met them face-to-face and knew them solely from the internet. Heaven forbid you plan to actually meet them one day, then you were just considered all sorts of crazy. Funny how much that's changed. Now it's stranger if you never meet.
But on that I digress, times were different. Setting set. Enough said.
I've always been considered this pillar of emotional stability. Very logical and brave and able to overcome a lot of bullshit. This particular year however was comprised almost entirely out of it. To the point that near the end I'd just been completely overwhelmed. Something had to give -- and it didn't.
In a very short period of time I lost one of my oldest friends to suicide and lost my best friend to her own insecurities, and my health was rapidly failing me.
I was in the hospital more than I was at home and our attendance officer at school was especially caustic and vindictive about it. To make it worse, no matter how many official medical excuses I delivered from my physicians she always wrote me in as truant and aside from the legal trouble this caused, I ate all of my lunches in detention and spent much of my spare time after school serving after-hours (which is like 4 hours of detention after school where you aren't allowed to talk or do your homework because you're supposed to sit and think about what a bad child you are). Due to my vertigo I wasn't allowed to get a driver's license so I relied on my friends to give me a ride home. My friends all had jobs though so if I wasn't leaving school at 2:45 with them, they couldn't help me out. This meant I had to walk home every day, five miles, by myself. Whether it was 90 degrees or -15. Rain or shine. So when I finally did get home I had no time to do my homework or hang out with friends.
My academic life was struggling, my social life was struggling, and I felt like grade A shit everyday on top of it. When I was 12 I contracted a rare virus from an animal at the zoo. Yeah, I know. That sounds like some sci-fi horror flick material, but it's true. I spent the entire summer after my 6th grade graduation in the hospital. My liver was failing. I got better, eventually, but my liver was left inflamed and putting pressure on it could cause it to rupture and abruptly kill me. It only works at 70% capacity. It was an interesting time in my 12 year old life.
Every now and then it'd flare back up and I'd become desperately sick. Not the virus, really, so much as my liver which was bad at being a liver would fail to filter something out and I'd be poisoned, effectively. This is what we thought was happening in 2001, but it turned out that this time it wasn't just my liver. It was Toxic Shock Syndrome brought on by an acute, yet chronic case of tonsillitis. How you can have both acute and chronic anything is a mystery to everyone, it seems, but there it was. Happening to me. I'd once again won the health-lotto. I had not one but two emergency surgeries to save my life and spent two weeks in the hospital. The amount of tissue they had to remove from my neck meant I not only couldn't swallow but that I also couldn't speak. I had to relearn how to do both. It was messy and embarrassing and painful.
I only had one visitor in the hospital aside from my mother and it was my boyfriend. Who only came to break up with me. My plethora of friends, as you can assume by the 'chronic' part of 'chronic tonsillitis', had all basically given up trying because I was always too sick to go out. They still cared, they were just young and had other shit going on. Which I know now, but it didn't make it less difficult back then when I was alone in the hospital after almost dying.
Once I had finally recovered I would go out every now and again, though I'd been cautioned against it because my immune system had crashed from the medication they had to fill me with to reduce the inflammation enough to operate on me. So if my friends were sick or had recently been sick or anyone they knew was sick and I went out with them, it was basically a guarantee that I too would soon be sick. This put stress on my relationships because people understand being sick pretty well. They do not understand staying sick especially if you don't appear symptomatic. A lot of times they acted like I was just making up excuses because I didn't want to hang out, and would be angry with me. So much so I'd ignore my medical advice and go out with them anyway. And then wind up in the ER again because I'd spike a 103 degree fever several days later. I couldn't just get sick. I had to get sick-sick.
I tried very hard to keep up but I couldn't. My health just wasn't up to it anymore. And no one could comprehend that. It was very humbling and isolating.
Then there was this wealthy boy, my age, who was stalking me and had been for over a year by this point. No one seemed to want to do anything about it. He was a friend of a friend I'd met one time, and then he wouldn't leave me alone. He'd make aggresive advances anytime we were occupying the same building, to the point I'd have to literally fight him off. He would wait outside of my school, despite the fact that he attended school in a totally different city, and then follow me home. Where he would sit on my porch and yell at me to let him in for hours until my parents got home. Every day.
He would call my house at all hours of the day and night. If I didn't answer he'd leave 45 minute long answering machine messages about how I was an emotional vampire, a terrible person, nothing without him, and so on and so forth. If I accidentlaly answered the phone I'd be stuck on it for hours and hours listening to much the same. If I hung up, he'd call right back. Our phone basically existed in two states: ringing or active (either me or the answering machine recording). Which is probably why I find phones so repulsive even now. If I could avoid them entirely, I would. I had no interest in the guy and never claimed to. I actually explicitly told him he had no chance the day we met... and yet, here we were. Every day.
My friends would tease me at first, not realizing the extent of it. He'd sometimes show up in the middle of the school day outside of my classes. His parents were of absolutely no help and were of the belief I must've done something inappropriate. And even though the police had forcibly removed him from my house numerous times, they weren't much help either until he finally tried to force his way inside and they had to arrest him because there were witnesses. Then rather than prosecute the rich boy they just removed all of my contact information from public record, and left it on me and my family to change residence and make sure he didn't get the new information. We didn't move quickly enough, apparently.
Related or not, after returning home from a concert with one of my friends, I was attacked in the safety of my own back yard. Just several feet from my own front door, where both my parents slept just a shout away, by a complete stranger with a knife. At least I think it was a complete stranger. It was dark and he had a hoodie on with the hood up so maybe it wasn't. But to think it was someone I knew would have killed me, so I stuck with stranger. Had my dog not scared the person away, I may not be here to type this right now. It was the last straw. My brain just couldn't deal with anyone anymore. Having to deal with the police, who are supposed to help but didn't -- again, only made me feel worse. I withdrew. Completely.
If I couldn't feel safe in my own backyard and the people who were supposed to protect me either couldn't or wouldn't, what was I supposed to think? In the rare case I could safely leave my house I always got gravely sick days afterward and even when I wasn't sick I felt lousy all the time. And no one understood or seemed to have any sympathy about it. So when we finally moved and no one could find me that I didn't want to... I stopped going out. At first I tried counseling about the phenomenally crap hand I'd been dealt in the last year because I knew the reaction to withdraw wasn't healthy but my psychologist was, in layman's terms, terrible at her fucking job. She only reaffirmed my belief that I should just not bother anymore.
So I didn't.
At first friends who had my address would stop by to hang out, but I
would hide from them and pretend I wasn't home, so that I didn't have to
deal with them and their incessant desire to 'go out.' I didn't want to leave my safe zone and I knew through experience that they wouldn't take no for an
answer. If I let them in they would force me to leave, either by actual force or by guilt tripping me into coming along, thinking it was for my own good to get out of the house. It wasn't helpful though. So I just avoided them. I still loved them dearly and wanted to see them, I just didn't want to go out and they always insisted. So I resigned not to see them either.
The changing times were ideal for becoming a recluse, I found. I did all of my shopping through the internet and it was all delivered to my front door. I never had to go any further than my mailbox. It was a very peaceful time in my life. There were no expectations of me. I could wear whatever I wanted, didn't feel the pressure to wear make-up or do my hair, and my activities were entirely up to me. I had no one else to please. All of my favorite hobbies were perfect for the life of a recluse it turned out: art, reading, writing, crafts, and gaming. Thanks to the internet (once again) I wasn't starved for human interaction, either.
As it continued to go on however leaving the house actually began to frighten me. The change from "I don't want to go out," to, "I cannot go out," was so gradual that I have no idea at which point it actually happened. I had this bubble where safety was paramount and leaving it was terrifying. Walking any further than the end of my driveway would give me such anxiety I would hurry back into the house and lock the doors behind me.
When you're a recluse you have a lot of time to think. To study, to learn. This is both a boon and a curse. Because amongst the many wonderful things you discover, you also discover all of the terrible things and you have nothing but time to sit and think. About what you've learned, about your entire life up until that point, and so on.
In my case I realized my life before I became a hermit was largely bad. I had a lot of friends and was very outgoing and there were fun times, yes, but where were these people when I needed them? Not here, clearly. I grew up in an abusive household where violence from my step father was a daily occurrence. If it wasn't violence against us it was verbal and emotional abuse toward my mother. This went on for years and years and really drove home the point that it wasn't worth it. When she divorced and eventually remarried, lo and behold, it was more of the same. The one marriage she had that was good ended due to alcoholism. I was happy alone. I was better off.
As weeks stretched into months and months to years however, I recognized deep down I wanted and deserved more. That I shouldn't let others dictate my life. While I was happy enough on my own, I knew I was giving up all the dreams I had as a girl. That wasn't fair, I should've been outraged. I wasn't, but I knew I should've been. I had placated myself into accepting this way of life as okay. I was settling because I was comfortable. What was I waiting for? I bought myself a tiny hour glass pendant filled with diamond sand to remind me that my time here was limited and to make the best of it.
I spent a lot of time studying psychology and taking online courses. To the point where I became a better psychologist to myself than the actual accredited psychologist I originally had. Which my next psychologist would profess to me over the phone, because I couldn't make it to in-person meetings. I was agoraphobic and the only way to truly work this out was to go outside. But I had to be ready, and I wasn't. No one understood my physical illness which had glaring obvious signs and symptoms, how could I expect them to understand something as invisible as agoraphobia? I couldn't, I knew. And it felt like another set back.
By this point all of my friends had moved on, and I rarely heard from anyone outside of the internet. Going outside was a horrifying thought to me. I tried to start small, taking walks around the block, but I rarely made it down the street before running back and locking the door behind me. I managed to make it to a movie once, but I puked twice from anxiety before going outside and was woefully uncomfortable the entire time (my stomach was in knots) and only really relaxed on the car ride back, knowing I'd be home soon. I invited the friend who'd taken me in, but they had plans to go out for the evening, so we naturally parted ways. They were oblivious to what a huge undertaking just walking through the door to get in their car had been.
No one knew how bad it was except my mother, and even she likely wasn't sure if it was how lousy I felt from being sick so much or an actual fear of going outside.
Many people say something inspiring here like, "my friends came to the rescue!" or "my family had my back!" But ultimately what actually helped me was a daytime television show called Starting Over. Which seems so ridiculous to confess, but there you have it. I didn't watch much TV as a recluse. I only had basic cable. I kept it on for background noise while I slept usually (long before the days I was deaf) and one time I woke up and this show was on. I don't know what made me start watching it, but I kept watching it.
This show was basically The Real World if you replaced all of the contestants with psych patients. One woman in particular stuck with me. She was going through something similar after the death of her fiance and watching her go through it helped me in some strangely fundamental way internalizing it, or talking it out with a professional couldn't. Which probably makes sense. Many times there will be support groups for people with your affliction, whether it be cancer or depression, but there's not really a realistic way to have an agoraphobia support group.
Instead I watched this woman struggle on the television with the very same feelings I was struggling with when you stepped through the threshold into the world that had wronged you. She would do great and then have major set backs and at one point was even almost asked to leave because she was just refusing to give and on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
So when she was 'cured' (a term I use very loosely) and graduated from the show I decided, alright, let's fucking do this. And I went outside.
Yeah, I just got up, went out and stood at the end of my drive way. Then I ebbed into the road and stood at the edge of traffic as it drove by. Like a boss. My heart was beating like an angry drum. I then hurried back inside and locked the doors, but I felt like Wonder Woman.
The next day I went into the backyard and walked to the end of the fence. The day after that I went exploring in the woods behind my house. Sure just a dozen feet or so, where I found a calm little stream, but still. A week later I braved a walk around the block. Then I invited my mom out to dinner. On the way home, I said we should swing by the store so I could grab something. She looked at me like I suggested we ride a hot air balloon to Mars. But she didn't question me, she just pulled into the parking lot of the store and went along.
When I got home I felt awesome, like I could change the world single handedly. It was amazing. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't like I was miraculously better. Every time I left the house I felt like I was going to die some awful death, but once I actually got out into the world and saw I was actually going to be okay, I felt fantastic. Even for just short stretches of time to do something as mundane as buying a pint of ice cream. There were days I would try and couldn't, sure, but the days I could. Oh, the adventures.
The more I got out the less anxiety I felt about leaving the house. My safe zone was growing outward. Whereas before it only included my driveway, it now included the block, the grocery store, a local diner, and the movie theater. I was steadily making it out more than I was staying in. Eventually my safe zone included much of the city I lived in. Then I went on a road trip to Michigan, something I hadn't done in years, first due to my health then due to the agoraphobia. After that things continued improving. Eventually I met a boy (who turned out to be a huge douchebag but hey, it happens) and I moved away from my safe zone. I didn't go out much but I could go out when I wanted. Without hesitation.
While my health still wasn't great (I would soon be diagnosed with several chronic illnesses of which there's no cure), preventing a normal job, I volunteered my time with mental help hotlines and suicide prevention programs. Using my personal experiences and what I'd learn as a recluse to help other people overcome their turmoils. Eventually I started my own business, so I didn't have to deal with a boss who would fire me due to attendance issues because of my health. PC sales and repair. I was successful.
Now, many many years later, I live 3000 miles away from my safe zone. I met a man (who isn't a douchebag) and got we a place together. I started school. We got engaged and started a family. I have a son! Back in those 3 years I never would have thought any of this possible. I convinced myself that I was okay with being alone. I had given up on what I wanted in life. I'm living proof though that even if you've given up -- you can change your mind. You can do whatever the hell you want. You just have to really, really want it and be ready to make the commitment.
Will you still think me a paragon of emotional stability after reading this? Maybe. Maybe not. It's really none of my business. But I do hope if you're struggling with anything, be it physical or mental, this strikes a chord and you realize that even though most people won't admit they've ever struggled let alone talk about it, and you feel really isolated -- you are not alone. And you can overcome it, when you're ready.