Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A book review: Agorafabulous, by Sara Benincasa

Sarah Benincasae is a stand-up comedian, writer, blogger, and podcast host plus she has a one-woman show, titled appropriately enough Agorafabulous. She is also agoraphobic, and if you have a hard time putting those facts together in one person, so do I. I am agoraphobic, but I prefer alternate terrms such as "recovering agoraphobic" or, even better, anxiety disorder. Early in the book, Benincasa defines agoraphobia up to a point: "agora" from the Greek for market place; "phobia" from the Greek for fear. It is indeed a fear of the market place, of crowds. But it becomes fear of fear. If you have a panic attack, say, driving a car, you aren't about to drive a car again for fear of that heart-pounding, breathless fight-or-flight reaction, the sure conviction that you're dying. "Fear built on fear," she writes, "begets all kinds of little falsehoods."
Benincasa lists the things that, at her worst, she was afraid of: leaving home, having a wet head, driving, being a passenger in a car, New York City, Lincoln and Holland tunnels, flying (Oh, do I know that one!), taking the bus or subway, vomiting, sex, being pregnant, having an abortion, and God. She reached her low point in her senior year in college when she was literally afraid to leave her bed, foregoing needs for food and personal hygiene (take that one where you will). Through parental intervention, therapy and meds, she clawed her way back to a normal life, though she followed several blind alleys before she ends up finding her life work--as a comedian. It's the classic story: you have to reach the low point before you can begin to recover.   
Much of the book is devoted to her recovery and the blind alleys--a commune run by an enraged spiritual guru, a stint at a community-service oriented college in North Carolina, a teaching spell in Texas, a try at graduate school. Recover she does, and I am happy for her, though she admits late in the book that anxiety can rear its ugly head at any time you don't expect it. What I had a problem with in this book is attitude, though it's a strange thing for an agoraphobic to have and a most natural one for a stand-up comedian. It's not the constant use of the F-word--or maybe it is; after all I"m of a far different generation. But more than that she turns this debilitating condition into the subject of comedy. That works well for her, but not for the misunderstood thousands of people in our society who suffer from varioius forms of anxiety and are often told by well-meaning family, friends and colleagues: "Get over it." The book jacket describes the content as "hilarious" and I find that a poor choice of words. Anxiety is rarely hilarious.
Near the end of the book, Benincasa gets into a conversation with a New York cabbie who had a panic attack the day before.He thought he was dying of a heart attack and went to the emergency room. He wanted reassurance that the doctors were right, and Benincasa talked to him about the fear, the voices in your head, the shame, "about recovery, management, setback. And pills." She thinks she convinced him that panic attacks were real and the doctors has diagnosed him correctly. It's her moment of compassion, and I applaud her for it.
If someone ever tells you they can't drive on the highway, go up an escalator or walk across a huge empty parking lot alone, listen to them. Their fears are very real. I know, because those are some of the things I don't do to this day. Like Benincasa, I'm very lucky. My anxiety was never as severe as hers, though at one point I had a hard time leaving home. Through therapy, education, a few meds, and a lot of good luck, I've conquered most of it. I live a full happy life and have had a successful writing career, with occasional reminders. But I never joke about anxiety--or agoraphobia.
Sara Benincasa's memoir is Agorafabulous: Dispatches from My Bedroom (William Morrow and Co.).

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