Friday, April 17, 2015

The online wanderings of an agoraphobic

A picture I had posted on Facebook of my sitting with a vacant look evoked some over-the-top comments: good, confident, perfect, super, awesome, youthful. The euphoria was bizarre even by the standards of Facebook. And it was threatening to invite more excitement and mindless comments. I thought it was time I intervened and restrained the “fan club,” and I did so with my explanation drawing a couple of mindless likes.

At functions -- the photograph was taken at a special event -- I am far from being confident. Depending upon the crowd, the noise levels and the amount of socializing, among other things, my feelings, often in combination, range from a sense of stupidity to one of being lost. The photograph was indeed superb in the sense that it superbly pictured a feeling of being lost.

Not all FB users follow the Facebook “norm” of describing any stupid thing as awesome. A small minority does indeed think and say its piece. One of them said after reading my explanation that I was agoraphobic.


My immediate reaction was to try to get my tongue round the word. Though the word was unfamiliar, long years of training and practice as a teacher of English with a certain degree of sensitivity to the spoken word led me to pronounce it /ˌæɡ.ə.rəˈʊ.bi.ə/, and it sounded Greek. Not satisfied, I pronounced it with the primary stress on the fourth syllable and the secondary one on the second (/ə.ˌɡəʊ.rəˈʊ.bi.ə/), and it sounded Sanskrit.

After this exercise in pronunciation, I turned to the meaning. Though the second element in the word made sense to me, the first one didn’t. I looked up the word in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.  ‘Abnormal fear of being in open spaces,’ it said.  This didn’t make any sense because I knew I didn’t have that fear. Next I consulted the Macmillan English Dictionary which gave the following meaning: ‘a fear of going outside and being in public places.’  This didn't make much sense either, and so I looked up the word in the Collins Cobuild Dictionary.  ‘Agoraphobia,’ it said, ‘is the fear of open spaces or of going outside your home.’  This only deepened the mystery.

Fortunately, we live in a world where the dictionary is not the final arbiter of meaning. So, I turned to the Internet.

The Internet gave a treasure trove of information about agoraphobia.  One of the websites hit the nail on the head.  All dictionary definitions, it said, are ‘incomplete and misleading.  Agoraphobics are not necessarily afraid of open spaces.  Rather, they are afraid of having panicky feelings.  For many, they happen at home, in houses of worship, or in crowded supermarkets, places that are certainly not "open".  In fact, agoraphobia is a condition which develops when a person begins to avoid spaces or situations associated with anxiety.  Typical "phobic situations" might include driving, shopping, crowded places, travelling, standing in line, being alone, meetings and social gatherings.’

After visiting a dozen websites to find out about the patterns of this avoidant behaviour, going into several web rings to educate myself about the American and European descriptions of this fear, and browsing a couple of webzines reporting case studies, I was clear about the meaning of agoraphobia. What was even more clear was the feeling that I was a chronic agoraphobic: I seemed to have all the symptoms listed on the web pages.

I now remembered that I suffered from claustrophobia ("abnormal fear of being in an enclosed space"), and the thought that a claustrophobic could not be an agoraphobic as well cheered me up.  But my happiness was short-lived as the Oxford experts whom I consulted next ( explained that, in both agoraphobia and claustrophobia, the fear is about the loss of the self and not of the spaces.  In one, the loss is via dissipation into the vast and unfriendly world, and, in the other, via constriction.  Both phobias represent a narcissistic relationship to space.

For good measure, the AskOxford web page listed several other phobias, such as allurophobia (fear of cats), arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and amaxophobia (fear of riding in vehicles).  As I read the symptoms, I discovered that I had all of them and that I was born with some of them.  The only two phobias I seemed to be free of were the fear of speaking and the fear of writing!

When I logged off, I was as depressed as Jerome in Three Men in a Boat, when he discovered, after reading a pharmacopoeia in the British Museum, that he was suffering from one hundred and seven fatal diseases.  


  1. Thanks for the list of phobias, sir! This article will help me to add new words to the stock of my vocabulary.

    1. Yes, but relatively useless words -- words you may never have to use.