My 56-yer-old dad was in one wing of a San Jose hospital with terminal lung cancer; mom in the other wing with a shattered ankle, awaiting an artificial one. I borrowed airline money, hopped the redeye flight from Minneapolis, then scurried back and forth between the two wings once I landed.
For the next three months in 1973, I helped care for both of them at home. In those days, doctors in their wisdom didn't tell a terminal patient the truth; that fell to me, the day before dad died, when he asked me if he was going to get better. I told him the truth, and I guess he gave up the fight: he went to the hospital and died next day.
After he passed, I stuck around another month until mom was stable, then left her to the care of my sister and brother. I drove dad's van back to Minnesota to take up my life where I had dropped everything.
A year later, I had given up the laidback longhair life and taken a job under some pressure: haircut, suit, tie, the whole shebang. After work one day, I hopped into my beetle, and dropped my car keys. When I reached down to retrieve them, I started to shake uncontrollably. I began to sweat, and could hardly breathe.I had absolutely no idea what was wrong (it was the first panic attack I had ever had). Frantic, I checked a local emergency clinic, but they were no help. I stayed home the next day, and the day after that. My boss called to see what was wrong. When I told him, he advised me to get back to work immediately, or I'd get worse. (I didn't realize it at the time, but that was exactly the right advice.)
My doctor had no idea what my problem was. It took about four years before I hung a label on that nervous malady. In a newspaper article, the description of agoraphobia Fear of the marketplace named an antagonist I could begin to deal with.
While I struggled, however, if I could find a reason to avoid leaving my house, I would. If I did have to leave it, I would make a tightly-planned schedule, so I'd run multiple errands per trip. Biofeedback, drugs, etc., nothing seemed to help. I was at least able to leave my house; pity the poor woman I saw on TV that hadn't left hers in 20 years.
In my lost 17 years, I had driven to California and back for a honeymoon, moved to Indiana to work on a magazine, attended trade shows in Dallas and Chicago, started a magazine of my own, given speeches, had a radio talk show, played golf, forcing myself past panic, day after day.
Then, after 17 years of fear, I was divorced. It became crystal clear to me that if I continued to let panic control me, I would end up a hermit.
Soon I'll talk about how I've (mostly) gotten beyond that panicky feeling.