Mind Fields: Agoraphobia and Astronomy

Mind Fields

I Conquered My Terror Of Open Spaces with Astronomy

Once upon a time I was severely 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. At the time I didn’t know the term “Panic Attack” but I had all the classic symptoms. My stomach churned, my heart raced, and I had to fight for every breath. If I tried going anywhere outside my tiny race track I got so tied into knots that I was completely paralyzed. I had no social life, I did nothing but read, watch TV and observe the animals that visited the hillside behind the house.

One day I was out in the yard in the deepening twilight. 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. My Sky Vocabulary was pathetic. I knew The Big Dipper (which is only part of a constellation), I knew Orion and I knew Cassiopeia, because of its distinctive sideways “W” 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. If I chose to examine a single star in an obvious constellation I could find it.

I could locate the end star in the Big Dipper. 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 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. There is a vast population of human beings 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.  It’s as if one is cut off from one’s 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. Now I became a student. I was determined to give myself some training in astronomy. I raided the library for celestial material. I learned to read sky charts and I subscribed to magazines. I joined a club.

I needed to see a darker sky. It became an insistent organic hunger. I felt compelled to go places more than a hundred miles from a large city. There is a substantial difference in what’s visible from a washed out sky and one that isn’t compromised by light pollution. I HAD to be under that dark sky!

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.

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 trauma, longer lasting and more intensely painful body memories. I qualify for this troubled group. I’m wandering a bit, here, but that’s all right. This is about reviving in myself the ability to wander. The point of this little article is the way I pitted a powerful passion against an equally powerful terror.

I was corresponding with sky observers who had been to places like Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego State Park. These are DARK places. On clear moonless nights the sky opens like a new love affair! Stars are rated by magnitude, with the lower numbers indicating greater brightness. 

Let’s describe a star of Magnitude 1 as a star visible even in a well lit 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. If you stand in the middle of Times Square you might see thirty stars. I could see several thousand stars in my unlit suburb. One way that astronomers describe sky clarity in terms of visible magnitude. I was living under a Magnitude 3 sky. My friends in the Mojave Desert were under a Magnitude 6 sky! In practical terms that would describe a sky so rich in stars that the outlines of well known constellations 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.

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 explained my phobia and asked if I could come along. 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, 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 home. 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 debilitating. 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 life of stellar enjoyment. What can I add? Go ahead: elope with your terrors! Go! The things you fear are never as bad as you think they will be. In fact, they seldom happen at all. You’ve wasted years dwelling in a phobia when you could be living a free unfettered life.


Arthur Rosch is a novelist, musician, photographer and poet. His works are funny, memorable and often compelling. One reviewer said “He’s wicked and feisty, but when he gets you by the guts, he never lets go.” Listeners to his music have compared him to Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Randy Newman or Mose Allison.

These comparisons are flattering but deceptive. Rosch is a stylist, a complete original. His material ranges from sly wit to gripping political commentary.

Arthur was born in the heart of Illinois and grew up in the western suburbs of St. Louis. In his teens he discovered his creative potential while hoping to please a girl. Though she left the scene, Arthur’s creativity stayed behind. In his early twenties he moved to San Francisco and took part in the thriving arts scene. His first literary sale was to Playboy Magazine. The piece went on to receive Playboy’s “Best Story of the Year” award. Arthur also has writing credits in Exquisite Corpse, Shutterbug, eDigital, and Cat Fancy Magazine. He has written five novels, a memoir and a large collection of poetry. His autobiographical novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man won the Honorable Mention award from Writer’s Digest in 2016.

More of his work can be found at www.artrosch.com

Photos at https://500px.com/p/artsdigiphoto?view=photos


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3 Comments on “Mind Fields: Agoraphobia and Astronomy”

  1. beth says:

    how wonderful

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Art, I am glad for you that you discovered the joy and magic of investigating the sky. My father had a telescope when I was a girl and he would make us four girls line up and we would have a look at each and every star, planet or other heavenly object he took an interest in. I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I should have because it took me away from my books. I am also glad you had such a supportive friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. artrosch says:

    It was my dad, too, who first showed me the moon’s craters. It’s hard to catch a glimpse these days of a truly dark sky. Alas, alas. Thank goodness you guys are there or I might vanish into the mighty glare of my total obscurity. I look through all the stuff I’ve posted here. Sometimes I don’t even have the originals. I have to come here to get copies of my own pieces.

    Liked by 1 person

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