This day was different. This day I woke up, stared at the ceiling, and was gripped by the certain knowledge that, if I left the apartment, something terrible would happen. I did not know what the terrible event was, only that it would occur, and with a fury. One might reasonably ask how I could have “known” such a thing, without any clear evidence. Well, one of the benefits of having debilitating anxiety is that you know certain facts that no one else in the entire world knows. You gain a hyperawareness, a sort of sixth sense, and a new world is revealed to you, festering and smoldering just beneath the surface of what the rest of the poor, benighted populace sees.
Comedian, writer, and radio personality Sara Benincasa is agoraphobic. At one point when she was in college in Boston, her agoraphobia became so bad that she barely left her apartment and was using Le Creuset cereal bowls as toilets because she was afraid of using the bathroom. If you’ve ever wondered if you’ve got a mild case of agoraphobia, or maybe just time to time feelings of it, you’ve probably got nothing on her.
I picked it up because I was curious about someone’s clear, confessional take on living with agoraphobia, like Kat Kinsman did for generalized anxiety in Hi, Anxiety. Plus I recognized Benincasa’s name from seeing it flash by (years ago) on Sirius XM when she had a show on Cosmo Radio (they had the BEST morning show way back when, I don’t know if it’s still on. But I digress.)
I didn’t like that, despite the title and subtitle, it seemed relatively little of the book beyond that initial related experience was actually about agoraphobia. These essay-ish chapters are not actually dispatches from her bedroom, that’s basically only one chapter, albeit a character-establishing one so we know what challenges she’s working with in life. The rest of the book is a series of embellished-for-dramatic-effect stories about having panic attacks during a high school trip to Italy, working for a control freak spiritual guru, and teaching with Americorps in Texas.
It’s more a light look at her life while struggling with mental illness in general, of which agoraphobia is one aspect. While I applaud anyone writing so frankly and accessibly about that as a topic, the book seemed to be a journey through Benincasa’s teens and twenties with some modest effort to view it all through the lens of these problems. I learned way too much about her various jobs, and some of the reproduced dialogues were cringeworthy, clearly tweaked in an attempt to make them funnier that just ended up feeling forced.
It has its hilarious moments, mostly thanks to some observational gems like when she describes a screaming anti-Planned Parenthood protestor outside of Manhattan’s Margaret Sanger Center as sounding “like a demonically possessed grandfather clock.”
And some of her stories are very inspiring – she’s found the right ways, after many wrong turns and tries, to manage her illnesses, and after an equal number of wrong turns and tries, she figured out what she wanted to do with her life, what worked to her strengths, and then she did it. That’s impressive.
But ultimately, it was too much wandering through specific scenes in her life and anecdotes that read as boring – not particularly related to her troubles or how she overcame them, just boring stories from someone else’s life. I wasn’t sure what I should take from them. She strikes me, even through this, as someone capable of much more and better, so it disappointed considering that.
But for some light humor alongside some inspiration in seeing how much someone who was at one point completely debilitated with panic can accomplish, it certainly has a few illuminating elements.
Agorafabulous! Dispatches From My Bedroom
by Sara Benincasa
published 2012 by William Morrow (W.W. Norton)