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What Happens When A Comedian Has Agoraphobia

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In my first meeting with Dr. Morrison, the family shrink, I described my symptoms as he nodded intently and took careful notes.

"I feel sad all the time," I said, looking at the sky-blue wallpaper and the dark-blue rug. "But more than sad, I feel hopeless. It's kind of embarrassing because my life is really, really good.

I sleep all the time. I'm afraid to leave the house. I wake up and I just hear this . . ." I paused for a moment. He looked up.

"I'd really prefer not to be in an institution," I said suddenly. "I've seen movies and everything and I'm not, like, a danger to other people."

Dr. Morrison looked at me over his glasses. "Sara, things are very different now than they used to be. It's quite difficult to have someone placed in an in-patient facility against her will, particularly when she is an adult. In fact, we try to avoid that unless it is absolutely necessary for the person's safety and well-being. I have heard nothing so far that indicates to me you could benefit from that kind of care."

I sighed with relief.

"Girl, Interrupted just kind of freaked me out," I said.

"Well, this isn't Girl, Interrupted," he said.

"So if I tell you this thing, are you going to change your mind?"

"I suppose it depends, but I can almost guarantee you that my answer will be no."

I looked at the slate-blue lampshade behind him and 'fessed up.

"Um . Well, I really hate eating, lately."

"What kind of eating? Eating breakfast? Eating lunch? Eating in front of other people?"

"Just, um . . . pretty much any kind where you put food in your mouth and then chew and swallow. Chewing and swallowing sort of freak me out."

He paused in the way that shrinks sometimes do. I hate that pause, because I never know what I'm supposed to do. Cry? Break eye contact? Say something else? I'm Italian. We don't do silence, except where murder is concerned.

"And also I have panic attacks," I added quickly. "And I'm afraid of cars and buses and trains and planes. I mean, I rode in a car today but I really didn't want to. And when I get anxious I have to use the bathroom. A lot."

He looked at me again.

"What?" I said defensively.

"I think it's safe to say you're on the wrong medication."

I left his office with a brand-new prescription, a couple of new breathing exercises, an appointment for later in the week, and the reassurance that I was going to be "just fine."

"But you'll get fine faster if you start eating regular meals again," he said. "Start small and go slowly."

"That's great!" my mother chirped when I relayed Dr. Morrison's pronouncement. "You wanna stop at the grocery store on the way home?"

"I don't think I'm up for that yet, Mom."

"How 'bout you make a list for us and we'll add it to our own shopping list." It wasn't really a question.

"Okay," I mumbled, and slunk low into the seat. I had to do some deep breathing when I pictured the harsh fluorescent lights and Technicolor packages in the supermarket.

At home, exhausted from the car ride, I went straight to my room. Before I fell into a soothing slumber, I dutifully made a list.

Food for Sara
Cheerios
Crackers
Peanut butter

"That's it?" Dad asked. "What kind of milk do you want with the Cheerios?"

"I just like them dry," I said, and hid under the covers. Dry Cheerios had been my snack of choice in day care when I was a toddler. Peanut butter on crackers had been a close second.

My parents returned from the supermarket with regular and multigrain Cheerios, Triscuits, Carr's Water Crackers, Wheat Thins, chunky Skippy peanut butter, creamy Skippy peanut butter, a case of Canada Dry ginger ale, Smuckers raspberry jelly, a vat of baby carrots, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, whole-wheat bread, raisin-cinnamon swirl bread, skim milk, 1% milk, butter, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, eggs, apples, bananas, Eggo waffles, maple syrup, Kix, Cap'n Crunch (a rare and beloved delicacy in my youth), Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix, and a jumbo pack of maxi pads.

"I don't know your cycle anymore," Mom explained cheerily, dropping the pads on the kitchen table.

Things went on in this manner for about a week -- Mom and Dad brought home more and more food, and it piled up, untouched. The fruits and vegetables and meats rotted. I did indulge in bananas, handfuls of dried Cheerios, and cups of water and ginger ale, though.

One night when I sat up watching television, avoiding bed. Getting up in the morning was so hard, and I spent so long talking myself through the daily routine. I started to feel more alive in mid-afternoon. I would practice walking outside around the perimeter of my mother's garden. Once, my parents stood on either side of me, each one holding a hand, and the three of us walked to the edge of the driveway and then down the street.

By the time my parents went to bed each night, I felt almost normal again. Then I was forced to confront the nasty reality that I would need to crawl into bed and sleep and get up in the morning and battle the demons all over again.

Thank God my old friend TV was there to help me. I don't know if it was fate or chance that I accidentally reversed the numbers for Comedy Central one night and ended up on some channel high in the basic cable hinterlands. But I do know that what I saw instantly fascinated me.

A loud, jumpy man with a headset was extolling the virtues of a machine that he said would change the way everyone ate, forever. It would make you healthy. It was fast and affordable and convenient. And it made things that were delicious.

I don't remember the name, although it was something like Zap-It Smoosh-It Smash-It Liquidification Smoothie System 3010. It was a blender. A really big, really shiny, really futuristic blender. It cost $250 in only four easy installments, and was guaranteed to last for 60 years!

There was something hypnotically soothing about the close-up shots of the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, pineapple juice, and ice being zapped into liquid. The pitchman hoisted the machine's removable pitcher above a lovely big tumbler and tipped it. The smoothie glopped out of the pitcher magnificently until it thickly settled to the bottom of the fancy glass. The mushy pile looked like baby food for grown-ups. I padded off to bed, cradled my stuffed giraffe in my arms, and slept the blissful sleep of a grown-up baby.

When I woke up, I got out of bed extra early and walked into the kitchen, where my parents were scrambling to get ready for work. They both broke into smiles. Dr. Morrison and I had recently devised a checklist of daily goals for me to attempt. At the top of the list was "Get out of bed before noon." The other goals included "Take your medicine," "Go for a walk," "Call a friend," "Take a car ride," and "Write in your journal." I always hit at least four of the six daily goals, but "Get out of bed before noon" had never been one of them, until today.

"Well, look who's up with the rest of the world!" my dad said. "You want a bowl of dry Cheerios?" My mom was already pouring one for me.

"Thanks," I said. "Do we have a blender?"

My parents looked temporarily confused. We possessed a great number of cooking implements. We just didn't know what they were for, or how to use them, or why on earth our friends and family had thought to give them to us. We'd never had cause to blend anything. A typical dinner consisted of Boston Market chicken with takeout cups of mashed potatoes.

"Steven!" my mother called to my brother. "Do we have a blender?"

"How the hell would I know?" came a tortured response from the next room.

"Watch your tone," said my father.

My mother began rummaging through the lower cabinets.

"When was the last time we used a blender?" she wondered aloud, clanging pots and pans together.

"Never," said my father. "The last time was never."

"Aha!" she shouted in delight, pulling something out. "We have this!"

"That's a food processor," I said.

"Is that different from a blender?" she asked.

"It's on a different infomercial," I said. "We might just have to go buy one."

"Good chance for you to get out of the house, Ra," my dad said.

Early that evening, my mother and I drove across town to Bed, Bath and Beyond, where a clearance table greeted us as soon as we entered the store. I immediately grabbed the blender of my dreams. The saleswoman tried to interest us in a variety of fancier, more expensive models, but she was too late. I had fallen in love with the ice-crush function and the $30 clearance sale price. Five minutes later, it was mine.

As we walked to the parking lots, my mother asked, "So what are you going to make first?"

I stopped and thought of the enthusiastic man on TV, blending all those fruits into a frothy little vat of liquid health.

"Smoothies," I said.

Once home, I set about creating the kind of alchemical culinary masterpiece I'd witnessed on that infomercial: ice, bananas, skim milk, peanut butter.

My first attempt was unsuccessful. There are a lot of reasons I could cite, but the primary one is that I didn't put the lid on the blender before turning it on. This resulted in a lacto-peanut-banana splatter show that resembled certain moments in the worst porn I've ever viewed.

My second attempt went far better. I cautiously dipped a spoon into the mixture and sampled it. It tasted like a milkshake, but healthier. I poured myself a glass, sat down at the kitchen table, and toasted my own creativity. I downed it quickly, surprised at how hungry I suddenly was. I poured another glass and stuck a straw in it, slurping it up with all the delight of a (very simple) child.

When I was done, I felt sated for the first time in a long time. It didn't even occur to me that I'd eaten real food, with real calories, real vitamins, real minerals, real fats, real proteins, real sugars, and real nutrition. If you could drink it, I thought, it wasn't food.

Over the next few weeks, I invented fine culinary delights every day in my parents' kitchen.

The strange thing was that as I drank more of these liquid concoctions, I got my taste back for their solid counterparts. Soon enough, it was easy to down a peanut butter sandwich accompanied by a glass of skim milk. I learned that you could spread ripe avocado on that same toast, then top it off with a tomato, and the whole thing was pretty delicious. Every day brought a tasty new discovery, or a happy rediscovery. My efforts were tentative, but promising. Because I took tiny bites and chewed so cautiously, I savored my food in a way I never had time to do before.

"Food is actually pretty awesome," I told Dr. Morrison.

"Most people seem to enjoy it," he replied. "The Prozac is helping, then?"

I leaned forward. "Totally. Sometimes I put it in my smoothie. It adds this really interesting texture. Peanut butter, milk, bananas, and emotional well-being."

He blinked.

"I'm just joking with you," I said.

He actually laughed at that one. I really liked the way it sounded. His laughter was near-tangible proof that I'd said and done something right in that moment. For a moment, I felt all warm and glowy inside. I decided I could get used to that kind of feeling.

Then he asked, "So how is the driving coming along?"

"Driving?" I repeated. "Oh, I don't think so."

"You sound like you're doing pretty well. Have you thought about just practicing driving around your neighborhood?"

On to the next adventure.

This post was adapted from "Agorafabulous: Dispatches From My Bedroom" by Sara Benincasa.