Agoraphobia literally translates as “fear of the market,” which actually sounds quite silly. Why would one be scared of Ralphs or Albertsons? But in actuality, the “market” it refers to is just fear of crowds. Fear of being around a lot of people at one time. Kind of like claustrophobia, only for people. For a large portion of my life, I had what I like to call self-induced agoraphobia. I hated being in, around or near crowds. This fear was heightened when I started college. I had a lot of classes in one building that often had large numbers of students gathered outside of it when class was just starting or had just gotten out. I was so utterly paralyzed at having to walk by this crowd that I would save any phone calls I needed to make that day until the exact point I needed to walk through that group of people and rush to the safety of the crowd-free building and classroom. To a lot of people this probably sounds insane but let me elaborate…
I mentioned in an earlier post that I used to always sit in the back of the classroom in school so no one could sit behind me and I wouldn’t have to constantly worry that someone was talking about me or judging me behind my back. My avoidance of crowds such as those outside of Beckman Hall stemmed from a similar fear. I’ve always been acutely aware of the fact that I appear different to people on the outside and acutely aware of the limp I have. This knowledge is what made me sure that every time I walked past a big group of my peers, someone would remark to their friends about the way I was walking. In my mind, I could hear people saying “what’s wrong with her?” or worse “what a freak, look at the way she walks.” Did I ever actually hear anyone say any of these things? Not that I can remember. What I do remember though is the very intense hush that would often come over the group as I walked through it or past it. It’s weird how sometimes silence can seemingly say so much more than talking can.
It just so happens that I work now for the college I went to and I still walk into that exact building and by groups of students standing outside of it. The difference is, those students are now about a decade younger than me. Even today, I still feel my heart start to pound a little and my hands start to shake as I approach the large gray building on the outskirts of campus.
I had a realization the other day when I walked in though. There wasn’t a big group standing outside or anything, in fact, there was no one, but all of a sudden it just hit me. I would say about 9 out of 10 people that see me limp or see me walk don’t know or have the slightest clue why I’m walking like that and a lot of them probably think I just hurt my foot or my leg (this is a question I get most often from people who do actually say something to me about it). So what does that mean you ask? Well amazingly, this eased a lot of my agoraphobia. All these years I had been afraid because I assumed everyone knew that I was handicapped or knew that something had to be seriously wrong with me. So when I would think in my mind that people must be thinking I’m a “freak” or laughing at me, I was basing that off the premise that these people knew I was disabled or even had muscular dystrophy. And I’m sure people have said negative things behind my back at some point in my life (some in high school yelled them at me) but for the most part, I think if people are saying anything it’s “I wonder what’s wrong with that girl’s legs or feet?” which is really pretty harmless when you think about it. Of course I wish people were thinking “wow, that girl is really pretty” and maybe some of them are but I find solace in knowing that most of what I considered to be the “worst” people could say was mostly a fabrication in my own mind. I think in a lot of ways, I thought the worst of what other people could say on my own so that they couldn’t get to it first. It’s really not giving any of those people much credit either is it? I mean yes, people can be mean and nasty…I think we all are well aware of that. People are scared of what they don’t know or don’t understand.
But I’m glad that at least I can say now, over 5 years later, I’m almost completely home free of my agoraphobia. Most times I can walk confidently through a crowd and though I still wonder if people are commenting on the way I walk, instead of putting words into their mouths or assuming the worst, I just think “So what if they are? I know who I am and I know I’m more than a limp, so I don’t care either way.”