Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"That's not a phobia"

When I first lived in New York City, it was not the city it is now. It had just gone bankrupt (see infamous image above). The mental hospitals had just let out their long-term patients and the streets were filled with muttering and screaming people. The subways were close to terrifying. In some neighborhoods, one could see guns sticking out of the top of men's jeans. The gutters were littered with used needles. On the up side, it was cheap to live there, believe it or not.

I lived on the 6th floor of a tenement and had trouble sleeping at night. I was scared, pure and simple. I had at least three locks and a steel rod against my door. I also kept a big steel rod between my bed and the wall (though I couldn't imagine hitting anyone with it). The windows to the fire escapes had metal bars, but these didn't seem secure enough to me. I didn't just have trouble sleeping at night. I pretty much didn't do it. I slept during the day, and some evenings would feel so much fear that I'd call my father. I don't recall what advice he gave me, but whatever it was it didn't help. I was constantly sleep deprived and the minute it became dark out my anxiety would grow until I imagined all sorts of horrors. The odd thing is that I felt pretty safe out on the street. I could handle the street. I knew how to walk fast, keep my eyes averted, act tough, and deflect trouble. But, in my apartment I felt vulnerable. Sometimes when I'd had enough, I'd sleep at friends' apartments. Just a bit of company would make my fear go away.

I couldn't stand living like this. I thought my fear was disproportionate to reality. I wanted to rid myself of it; I didn't want a phobia running my life. So, I did some legwork (this was before the internet) and found a good center for the treatment of phobias. The kicker? They didn't think I had one. I called over and over again, trying to convince somebody to consider treating me. But, I was always met with the same argument: my fear was not irrational.

Was it that dangerous to live in a tenement in New York? Other people slept through the night. When I offered up that observation to a few people, they countered that I simply saw things as they were, which was obviously pretty desperate. In retrospect, this whole thing sounds completely crazy, from my behavior to other peoples' responses. How could a mental health professional profess to say that living in abject fear, fear so severe that I waited until the sun came up to close my eyes, was normal?

Those days felt pre-apocalyptic. There was no hope and no help. How that city of the late 1970's morphed into the glittery clean center of the universe it is now is almost hard to believe. If one had asked back then what would happen, the prediction would probably be that New York would wind up like Detroit is now. That was the way things were headed, except that it was a city full of possibilities and creativity. Sorry, New York, but Detroit was far scarier.

Now that I think of it, visiting Detroit was a precursor to me losing my phobia. I spent a summer on tour, visiting cities all across this country and Canada, and when I came back, New York seemed a-okay. I never did a thing to help cure my crazy fears. They simply stopped. I lived in an apartment with a security system and one day I just turned it off for I preferred to be able to leave a window open now and again.

What's the lesson in this? None. It's just a story.

Addendum: Seeing that the paper cost 15 cents makes me feel very, very old.


jmcleod76 said...

Wow ... how much of a jerk would it make me to casually mention that I wasn't born yet when that paper was published?

BitterGrace said...

It's okay, J. We seniors won't hold your youth against you.

I wonder how many other women live the same way you did, Julie? I say women, because let's face it, we live with fear in our daily lives much more than men do. People ask me all the time if I am afraid living here alone, and it doesn't seem like a strange question, even though it should, and it would be a strange question directed at a man. I wonder if the clinic would have treated your phobia if you had been male.