Agoraphobia literally translates as "fear of the market," which actually sounds quite silly. Why would someone be scared of Ralphs or Albertsons? In actuality, the "market" refers to crowds and the fear of being around a lot of people at one time. 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, especially 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. I did this so I looked “important” or didn’t have to hear any of the whispers I thought they were murmuring to each other. To a lot of people this may sound insane, so let me elaborate ...
For almost the entirety of my school career, I would sit in the back of the classroom 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 the business school at my university 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, that they would laugh and point. Did I ever actually hear anyone say any of these things? Not that I can remember. I did have a neighbor in college who called me anorexic because of how skinny I was, and I can’t deny that a very intense hush often would come over groups of people as I walked through it or by them. It's weird how sometimes silence can seemingly say so much more than talking.
It just so happens that in addition to my full-time job, I work part time now for my university, 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, but I still feel my heart start to pound a little and my hands start to shake as I approach the large gray building.
I had a realization the other day when I was on campus though. There wasn't a big group standing outside or anything. In fact, there was no one standing anywhere, but all of a sudden it just hit me. I would say about nine 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. 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 and would act accordingly. So when I would think in my mind that people must be thinking I'm “weird" or laughing at me, I was basing that off of the premise that these people knew I was disabled or even had muscular dystrophy.
Even worse, I was putting words into their mouths and negative ones at that. 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 thinking anything it's "I wonder what's wrong with that girl's legs or feet?" which is really pretty harmless. 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 ... I think we all are well aware of that. People are scared of what they don't know or don't understand. But by assuming that all of these strangers were using all of this energy to say or think bad things about me, I wasn’t even giving them a chance. I had written them off before I even got to know them or they got to know me.
I’m glad to say that now, more than five years later, I'm almost completely free of my agoraphobia. I’m 10 times more outgoing that I ever was, and instead of writing people off or putting an automatic separation between me and them, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Most times, I can walk confidently through a crowd too, and though I may still wonder if people are commenting on the way I walk sometimes, 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 or my outward appearance, so I don't care either way."