For a while in my mid-teens I was very afraid and spent a lot of time inside, alone. That should be the dictionary definition of agoraphobia, not ‘an abnormal fear of being in crowds, public places, or open areas, sometimes accompanied by anxiety attacks.’ But there you go. Inevitably I’m asked ‘What were you so afraid of?’ but I didn’t know how to answer then and I don’t know how to answer now, half my life later. The only way I can articulate it is actually hopelessly inarticulate: I was afraid of everything that could happen. So I stayed inside where I felt safe.
On paper, three years doesn’t look like much, but think about everything you can achieve in three years, everything you did achieve in the last three years. Now imagine none of it happened and, instead, you spent that time inside. 36 months; 1,095 days; a summer and a winter Olympic Games; three NYE parties; the gestation, birth and subsequent birthdays of a two year old child; a university degree. Three long, hopeless years that broke my mother’s heart.
To pass the time, I’d complete my week of schoolwork in a day, then ease a novel from the packed shelves of our family bookcase. Stuffed with the tattered remains of my dad’s degree in English literature and my mum’s in public policy, it held hundreds of stories and opinions and adventures from the outside world.
I lay at the front door with my cheek on the old turquoise carpet, the inch of timber at my back all that separated me from what I wanted and what I feared. The inch of paper in my hands the only way I could get out. I tore through Conrad and the brothers Durrell, Thomas Hardy, Evelyn Waugh, the sisters Bronte, Dickens and Austen, Wilde and Orwell, Eliot and Thackeray. Then I crossed the Atlantic in my paper boat and got to know Heller and Twain and Melville and Fitzgerald, Plath, Hemingway, Bellow and Salinger. And Angelou. I found myself in their stories; across time and all over the world, I could see myself on the other side of the door.
It was time and love and books that helped me to eventually leave the house. And now, 15 years later, I close the door behind me every morning and I go to work and every day something different reminds me of how far I’ve come. Today I take myself to lunch, alone; today’s reminder is the passing of Maya Angelou. At Cipro Pizza al Taglio in Alexandria, where I am never disappointed, I order two pizzas ($12 each) because I want to and I can. The prawn, zucchini and garlic combination is a meeting between the garden and the sea – fresh, salty and a taste of spring. The potato, leek, three cheese and speck slice is warm and soft and subtle; it’s comforting in the way that only double carbs can be. The bready crust on each pizza tears easily under my knife and tastes of olive oil and the oven. As I work away at my lunch I try to remember the four lines from Dr Angelou’s most famous poem that will always make me cry for who I used to be:
The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
Far away from my old house, outside in the world amongst everything I want and everything I fear, I raise my glass of the city’s best house made lemonade ($3.50) to Maya Angelou. For teaching me to be brave and bold and to try and do some good while I figure the rest out. For keeping me company on the floor at the front door, and over lunch. For inspiring me write it all down.