Sheesh, are you tired of hearing about Frozen yet? I know I am. My three year old isn’t as obsessed as most three-year-olds are, but, well, she’s three, so I’ve seen this movie like fourteen times. Somewhere around viewing twelve or thirteen, it occurred to me that Elsa and I have a lot in common.
Ever since my trip to India and my descent into a bona fide panic disorder, I’ve struggled off and on with some pretty severe agoraphobia. When I first started researching the term, I was skeptical. I can’t possibly have agoraphobia, I thought. Doesn’t agoraphobia mean you’re afraid of wide open spaces? It’s the opposite of claustrophobia, right? Not at all, actually. I had no idea what agoraphobia was when I was experiencing all its debilitating symptoms — but if Frozen had been around circa 2009, I would have definitely had a better understanding. The similarities between struggling with agoraphobia and Elsa’s struggle with her magical ice powers is stunning.
If you’re one of the two dozen people on this planet who hasn’t seen Frozen, the basic premise is this: Elsa and Anna are sister-princesses who live in a castle (real original, Disney). Elsa, for whatever reason, has magical powers where she can conjure up snow and shoot it out of her fingertips (think Spiderman and his ability to shoot spidey-webs). Elsa can control this power to an extent, but accidentally blasts Anna in the head with a snowball, almost killing her. After that, she’s (understandably) reluctant to use her powers at all, and isolates herself from her sister by hiding in her room. As she gets older, her snow-powers become harder to manage and are triggered by stress. She resigns herself to a life inside her castle in an attempt to control her powers.
In so many ways, Elsa’s snow powers are similar to anxiety attacks. Agoraphobics suffer from debilitating panic attacks, which are sometimes so severe that they become incapacitating — heaving, sobbing, hyperventilating attacks of pure terror. Agoraphobia in so many ways is really just a fear of having a huge, embarrassing panic attack in public — Hence why a lot of agoraphobics are notorious for never leaving the house. Myself, I had a paralyzing fear of travel. After the kidney stone debacle, I became obsessed with the prospect of having to pee and not being able to get to a toilet in time. This resulted in frequent anxiety attacks, especially when I had to travel long distances. Riding the el or the metra? Forget it. Traveling passenger on a long car ride on the highway? I would rather chew my arm off. What if I had to pee and we couldn’t immediately stop??? It consumed my thoughts. When I did have to travel, I’d routinely have to pull into a nearby CVS and quietly cry — I was so sure I’d either pee my pants, or be so anxious about peeing my pants I’d have a humiliating freak-out and humiliate myself in front of everyone. Eventually, it became easier to just never leave the house. I could always make it to the bathroom in time when all I did was sit on the couch all day. I didn’t have to worry about losing my shit in front of a stranger (figuratively and literally) and bawling in public. Home was comfortable; home was safe.
Like Elsa’s powers, my panic attacks were triggered by stress, difficult to control, and extremely public. So when Elsa cowered in her room while her sister crooned “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” through her bedroom door, my heart ached. Yes, Anna, she wants to build a snowman with you. She really does. She doesn’t stay in her room because she wants to — she stays in there because she can’t control herself anywhere else. She’s being held hostage, and she hates it — but it’s the only way she can control something that’s so painfully uncontrollable.
Anna represents our non-mentally-ill society writ large — confused, trying to be understanding, but painfully oblivious. Throughout the movie, Anna peppers her sister with obnoxious questions that belie her ignorance of Elsa’s struggle: Can’t you just fix Arrendale? Can’t you stop the snow? Why do you shut the world out? What are you hiding from? Isn’t it obvious, Anna? She’s afraid that if she goes outside she’ll shart snow everywhere and humiliate herself. And she does.
I avoided most social interaction when I was in the throes of my PTSD. One of the hardest things to endure were comments from well-meaning people who didn’t understand what it was like to have a crippling anxiety disorder. My favorite gem? Just don’t think about it. Why do you think about things that make you anxious? If you know someone with horrible anxiety and you’re tempted to ask them this question, do me a favor. Stop eating. Don’t eat for an entire day. Then when you’re scavenging the fridge for something to gorge, just don’t be hungry. Stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about sandwiches? Doesn’t that just make it worse? Knock it off!
I don’t blame anybody for not knowing what panic disorders feel like, by the way. Why would they? I sure didn’t, until I was plunged into one. But sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. Or, in some cases, how can I help?
Or, in all cases, would you like some wine? Yes. Yes I would. A lot of it.
Shame was another huge component of my agoraphobia. There are combat veterans who react with more composure than I did. Had I been in combat? No. Had I survived a rape? Hell no. I had gotten a kidney stone and hadn’t peed for 72 hours — and now I was a sobbing, hysterical mess at the thought of it. Obviously, this was not something I was excited to admit. I imagined having a panic attack in public and having people rush up to me — oh my gosh, what’s the matter?! — and having to explain to them, nonsensically, about being afraid of peeing my pants, about all the shiz that had gone down in India. Nobody would even remotely understand. They would think I was nuts. Maybe they would even laugh at me, who knew? That was more than I could bear. So, I kept my anxiety attacks a secret. Can you imagine a worse pain? Struggling in silence for months and months — and then having someone laugh at you?
So I would go through stretches of time where I would convince myself that I didn’t have a problem. Panic attacks? What are those? I’m good. I’m fine. No anxiety here. Of course, this never ended well. And telling myself I didn’t have anxiety didn’t make it so.
I feel awful for Elsa when I watch this movie. Her struggles must have been a thousand times more terrible than mine — after all, my panic attacks only ever hurt myself. But the social isolation? The embarrassment? The shame of not being able to control your body? The well-meaning confusion of everyone around you? Oh man. I get that. I get it.
Okay, this isn’t a perfect analogy. Elsa’s ice powers start off as a gift, of sorts, a talent — definitely a fun party trick, until it gets out of control and starts hurting people. That obviously doesn’t apply to panic attacks or agoraphobia. There’s nothing fun about hyperventilating in a Chicago gas station because you couldn’t get the bathroom key fast enough.
Agoraphobia is a curse — something unwanted and thrust upon you. Something that affects you every minute of the day. But after months and months of therapy, doctors visits, and medications, I think — at least for the moment — that I’ve gotten a hold on it. Agoraphobia still rears its ugly head often, but I haven’t had a bona fide panic attack in a few years. To extend the Frozen metaphor just a little further, I’m harnessing this curse, finding a way to use it and make it work for me — I’m writing about my panic, instead of letting it envelop my life.
It will always, always be here.
But I’m not a prisoner anymore.