Saturday, November 24, 2012

Agoraphobia, Astronomy, and Healing Affliction With Passion

Photo by Art Rosc

          Once upon a time I was agoraphobic.  For years I had a terror of strange spaces.  I was limited to my house, my yard, my car, and my place of work.  If I attempted to break this tight little orbit, I got sick.  My stomach churned, my heart raced, my breathing grew difficult.  At the time I didn't know the term "Panic Attack."  My symptoms were classic; trying to go anywhere outside my tiny race track brought on a general collapse.  I had no social life, I did nothing but read, watch TV and watch the animals that visited the hillside behind the house.
          One day I was out in the yard in the deepening twilight of an autumn day.  I had a pair of binoculars in my hands for watching a herd of deer who came to feed on the ripening pear trees at the top of the hill.  It was almost dark and I had an impulse to turn the binoculars towards the sky.
          I was stunned.   The binoculars showed thousands more stars than could be seen with the naked eye.  It was visually confusing but so beautiful that I instantly fell in love with the night sky.
         I spent the next several hours scanning across the heavens, trying to locate familiar stars in familiar constellations.  Not that I knew many constellations.  I knew The Big Dipper (which is only part of a constellation), I knew Orion and I knew Cassiopeia  because of its distinctive "M" shape.
          I saw things through the binoculars that I couldn't name.  I saw clusters of stars that looked like back-lit luminous cotton. I was lost, in the topographic sense.  The big bright stars took on a new relation to one another because of all the intervening stars that were less bright.
          There was the end star in the Big Dipper.  I could find that star.  But it was difficult to maneuver to the next star in the line without first taking my eye off the binoculars, locating my target, then carefully measuring my angle of movement.  Otherwise the sheer abundance of stars was confusing. I learned, that night, that the second to last star in the Dipper's handle is actually a double star, the pair known as Mizar and Alcor.  They can be seen as double with the naked eye in a reasonably dark location.
There's a legend that the Ottoman army checked the eyes of its soldiers by discerning whether or not they could separate Mizar from Alcor.
          I was lucky to live in a dark suburb sixty miles from San Francisco.  There were no streetlights.  In late summer the Milky Way can be seen with its glowing fleece and its lanes of darkness and dust.
          It breaks my heart to think of the billions of people who will go from cradle to grave without seeing a dark sky, without seeing The Milky Way in all its majesty.  People who will live without giving the night sky a passing thought.  To me, a life without awareness of the sky's beauty is like an amputation of the soul.  You're cut off from your ancestors, from the thousands of generations who measured their lives by the movements of the heavens.
          I'm not a scientific person.  I have no math skills, no understanding of chemistry.  I slept through those classes when I was in school.  But I was determined to give myself some training in astronomy.  I learned to read sky charts and I subscribed to magazines.  I joined a club.
          I needed to see a darker sky.  I needed to go places more than a hundred miles from a large city.  There is a substantial difference in what's visible from a sky that isn't compromised by light pollution.
          The problem was that I was agoraphobic.  The idea of getting into a car and driving to a new place hundreds or even thousands of miles from home made me break into a cold sweat. I have since realized that my agoraphobia was but a subset of phobic responses to a larger meta-phobia that I call Neophobia: Fear Of New Experiences.
Photo by Art Rosch
          This is a common posture for people with PTSD.  I consider that almost everyone has some kind of PTSD, that PTSD is another name for the experience called "Life".
          There are, however, people who have more severe life  traumas, longer lasting and more intensely painful body memories. I qualify for this troubled group.
          My life has been difficult.  No more needs to be said. The point of this little article is the way I pitted a powerful passion against an equally powerful terror.
          I was corresponding with people who had been to places like Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego State Park.  They measured the sky darkness and clarity by referring to the dimmest star visible to the naked eye.  Stars are rated by magnitude, with the lower numbers indicating greater brightness.  This system was first used by the Greeks around 150 B.C.  It hasn't changed very much since that time, which is remarkable.  That's one of the appealing things about astronomy; much of its lore connects to ancient cultures without the intervening technology altering its nomenclature or mythology.
          Let's describe a star of Magnitude 1 as a star visible even in a well lit suburb of a major city. The star Sirius, the brightest naked eye star in the sky (excepting the sun), is a magnitude -1.4.  That is Negative One Point Four. The brighter stars go into negative numbers.  A bright full moon is Mag -12.6. The sun is magnitude -26.8.  The stars where I lived were visible up to about magnitude 3.  That wasn't good enough.  My friends in the Mojave Desert were describing skies rated at Magnitude 6!  In practical terms that would describe a sky so rich in stars that the outlines of well known constellations would almost vanish in the profusion of surrounding stars.
          I was yearning to experience dark, beautiful skies.  At the same time I was terrified to leave my yard.  I could barely cross the street.  But I wanted to go to the high desert, down to the Mojave and cross into Arizona, where the cities are distant and the sky is dark and the colors of the stars sort themselves into distinct categories of white, red, yellow, green and blue.
          I struggled, I procrastinated, I beheld my fear like a chain and a set of padlocks, and I was angry with myself.  Everyone goes places!  Millions of people jump into cars, get into airplanes, leap from coast to coast, continent to continent without giving such travel a second thought.
          I was barely capable of making the twelve mile drive to my place of work, to my solitary manual labor position as a janitor for a large commercial property.
          I had an acquaintance who spent a lot of time in Yosemite Valley.  She was planning a drive from the Bay Area in two weeks.  I asked if I could come along.  I explained my situation, my phobia.  She was willing to help.
          The big terrors that we harbor in our fantasies usually turn out to be less taxing than the grief we've given ourselves in anticipation of the event.
          On the appointed day, I got into my friend's Honda, carrying my binoculars, a book of star charts and two changes of clothes.
          As we drove up Highway 80 I sat in the front seat as rigid as setting concrete.  I was desperately ill for the first sixty miles.  An hour-long panic attack savaged me like a hungry wolf.  I felt as if I would never be able to get back, to get home once I had left.  Then I  had the sensation of hitting a giant rubber band.  It stretched and stretched, urging me to reverse my direction, to turn back. 
          I had deliberately trapped myself by this arrangement.  I couldn't tell my friend to cancel her trip because I was phobic, because I was, basically, a great big scaredy cat.
[        I knew I had to break through the rubber band. 
          I was so sick with fright that we had to stop on the side of the road three times so I could puke.  My friend was beautifully patient and supportive.
          Just beyond Sacramento, about eighty miles from home, I puked one last time and the rubber band broke.  The pressure vanished.
          I was free.  I could go.  I was still scared but I could go to see the sky from Glacier Point, from an altitude above five thousand feet, from a place where the sky's clarity is utterly pristine. 
          Nobody really wants to face their deepest fears.  We would prefer to get through life dodging and weaving, minimizing our risk.  But some fears are debiitating.  My phobia was preventing me from pursuing a love affair with the sky.
My phobia was crushing my life, and if this was the only way to deal with it, pitting terror against passion, then so be it. 
          Passion won the contest of psychic forces.  Since my breakout to Yosemite, I've traveled thousands of miles, lugging telescopes, cameras, attending star parties and living a wider and more satisfying life.

Photo by Art Rosch

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