For three years, Libby Kendall rarely went to bed. She was too busy.
Her days were spent washing, ironing and straightening up the house. She attended all the school functions of her three young daughters. Dinner had to be ready the moment her husband walked through the door. Between chores, she took brief naps. By 8 p.m. she was on the job at a Prince George's County bank, where she stamped checks until 4 in the morning.
Kendall ignored the headaches and stomach troubles that occurred with increasing frequency but the frenzied pace finally took its toll. Driving to work one evening, she found herself caught in a traffic jam. Suddenly, a sense of panic shot through her. It was unlike anything she had ever felt.
"It started like a trembling. My heart accelerated and my vision blurred. . . . I felt trapped," recalls the 46-year-old Riverdale resident. What Kendall did not realize at the time was that she was feeling as trapped by her daily routine as by her car.
Her body was staging a revolt.
Kendall made it to work that night 10 years ago but the attacks of panic continued. When the fears grew too severe, she gave up driving, which meant she had to give up her job.
Until a year ago, Kendall thought no one else could be as incapacitated by fear as she was. She was surprised to discover that her condition had a name: agoraphobia. A Greek word meaning "fear of the marketplace," and often referred to as the homebound syndrome, agoraphobia afflicts an estimated 2 million Americans in varying degrees and often occurs in more than one family member. Two-thirds of the sufferers are women.
For the first two years after she left her job, Kendall rarely went far from her living room couch, and refused to walk more than half a block from her house by herself. She agreed to go shopping for groceries if another family member accompanied her.
Doctors who treated Kendall gave her medication, including tranquilizers, to make her feel more comfortable but did little to relieve her condition.
She attended a number of therapy groups, but it was not until she discovered a Prince George's County's counseling group for agoraphobics that she felt there was hope for her to return to a normal life. New Ventures, a nonprofit social services organization headquartered in the Bowie City Hall, started an agoraphobia self-help group last October. But because it is the fear of going far from home that torments agoraphobics, a group began to meet in Riverdale in March.
Since then, Kendall says, she has become increasingly confident that she can recover.
Betty Silon, the group's counselor, cites two reasons Kendall gained the confidence to spend a weekend at Chesapeake Bay with her husband this summer for the first time in a decade, while Susan Coles, another Riverdale participant, was able to sit through a church service without panicking for the first time in more than a year.
First, the participants help each other set their goals as well as attain them. Relying on each other for support, group members take field trips to restaurants, bowling alleys or airports as part of the effort to overcome their fears.
Also, the program is open-ended, which eliminates the pressure to "be cured" after a designated number of weeks. New Ventures participants, many of whom are therapy program veterans, say they gain confidence more easily when they know they can remain with the group as long as they wish.
This fall the weekly sessions are expected to cost $60 a month.
Although members of the group are affected by agoraphobia in different ways, sufferers share at least one affliction: "They are living in a constant state of anticipation which becomes more debilitating than the actual panic attack," Silon said.
Patti Marcus recalled during a recent meeting of the group how she agonized over whether to attend her 10th year high school reunion. She wanted to go, but in the end, her fears about meeting the expectations of her former classmates kept her at home.
"If I could have been Bo Derek, I could have walked in there, no problem," said the Greenbelt resident, a statistician's assistant for the Department of Agriculture in Beltsville.
Although she strives to keep her home spotless, Marcus said she has not invited anyone over in years because she fears visitors will find it less than perfect. She frequently ignores the ringing of the telephone or the doorbell for fear that it could be someone who would want to come inside.
"I want to be the best. If I can't be the best, I end up being the worst," she said.
Silon told the women that their feelings of inferiority could be traced to the way their lives have revolved around pleasing men, specifically fathers, employers and husbands.
"We generalize the whole role of men to be people who are bigger and stronger," she said.
Agorapobia, she said, is more common among women because men are under more pressure to leave home to go to work and rarely can take refuge inside the house even if they want to do so.
Four women and a man attended the recent Riverdale session. In addition, Alyce Beckham brought her 15-year-old daughter Nancy in the hope that the teen-ager would better understand her mother's condition. Silon encourages participants to bring family members to the sessions.
Kendall recalled feeling inadequate while watching television commercials in which women come through the door after working all day and appear happy to cook dinner for their families.
"I wondered why I wasn't smiling with a pan in my hand," she said, adding that at the time she believed her feelings of inadequacy might disappear if she took more vitamins.
Judy DeNardo, another group leader, is a former agoraphobic. She recalls that when she got got married she decided to dedicate her life to taking care of the house, not because it made her happy but because she was afraid to leave. She said she used to wax the pipes on her water heater and iron her family's socks in order to be "the perfect wife."
"I looked around for more things to do at home to keep myself from having . . . scary thoughts," she said.
Her unhappiness continued to build, largely because she believed no one else could understand her problem. "I felt like I was dying," she added, recalling that she went to a priest to have last rites administered to her.
Several years ago DeNardo saw a television program on agoraphobia and decided there might be hope for her recovery. She joined a self-help group and began reading articles and books about the condition. She said she now suffers symptoms only occasionally.
She said she wants to spread information about the condition so that sufferers will not feel they are alone.
"I don't feel a stigma with it. . . . It's a phobia."
Although Alyce Beckham says she still has a long way to go, her confidence has begun to grow since she joined the group.
"Everything I do is a real struggle. . . . But I'm better. I know I'm better," she said.
She tries hard to be optimistic about her future. "I want to be independent," she said. "I hate to see other people living when I can't."