In Western cultures, agoraphobia can be particularly “debilitating because social and interpersonal skills are the primary traits that allow the acquisition of resources,” according to the first volume of Cultural Sociology of Mental Illness. In other words, making a living has historically been difficult for agoraphobes, although that could be changing.
To the severely agoraphobic, the housebound, telecommuting life may sound like a dream. While some sufferers unable to work outside the home may be eligible to receive disability benefits, full-time telecommuting remains an attractive option: It opens the door to something much more closely resembling a normal life.
But it’s less intuitive to think that someone might become a full-blown agoraphobe after he or she starts working from home.
After graduating from college two years ago, I landed a job as an editor for a mobile news startup, which meant I could work from anywhere with nothing but a laptop and Internet connection. “You’re so lucky,” everyone said when they learned I worked from home, and I agreed. I didn’t need to pack a lunch every day, or worry about commuting costs. Pajamas and no makeup made for an easy uniform in the mornings. My desk was often just a couch.
Just before getting hired, I suffered my first-ever panic attack while on a plane flying back home to Los Angeles from Boston. Twenty minutes after takeoff, I hovered outside the bathroom, weak and dizzy, having thrown up from sheer terror.
Panic attacks are fairly common and do not necessarily lead to agoraphobia. With the release of the DSM-5, agoraphobia was unlinked from panic disorder, in which sufferers experience sudden and unexpected attacks. Anxiety researchers now view agoraphobia as a separate disorder.
Working from home was wonderful, convenient, and money-saving, but as time went on, my small anxieties devolved into something more destructive. I’d obsess over uncomfortable yet fleeting bodily sensations, growing convinced that every twinge of my gut or gnawing headache signaled something ominous. I later learned that this is what’s called “anxiety sensitivity,” and is experienced by those who are particularly attuned to the subtlest of changes in their body. Soon, my self-talk often went something like this: What if I go to the store and faint in front of everyone? What if I get food poisoning at the restaurant? What if I can’t escape? What if I go insane and die? In my purse, I always carried ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol chews, Xanax, acidophilus pills, and water, just in case.
The symptoms were always the same: guts churning, icicles for fingers, my skin at once numb and on fire, head disoriented. Once, while I was having a panic attack on a road trip, I begged my friend to let me roll down the window, even as we whipped down the freeway, our ears shuddering from the wind. Later that night I caught sight of my reflection in the bathroom mirror—the blood vessels in my eyes had burst from hyperventilation.