Agoraphobia Kept Me Inside. Real Estate Listings Helped Me Escape.
While my anxiety disorder had me trapped, Redfin allowed me to imagine all the places I could go
In 2013, I developed agoraphobia with panic disorder. I was living in California at the time, but was still able to move to Minnesota in 2014 with a guy I’d been dating for a year and a half. Once I settled in the Midwest, my symptoms worsened to the point where I couldn’t drive on the freeway or in the left lane, take elevators, stand in lines, fly, or go to the grocery store. If I traveled more than five miles from home, I’d have a panic attack. I still haven’t seen the ocean in five years.
I was in a constant state of fight or flight that sequestered me in my home on the worst days. To ease my symptoms, I disassociated from my ever-narrowing life by binge drinking and browsing real estate online from my couch in Minneapolis.
In these fugue states, I spent hours tumbling down the Redfin rabbit hole. I’d “tour” homes in different cities — a Nevada City Victorian, a converted lighthouse off the coast of Washington — and fantasize about leaving my wine-drenched life behind. I’d wonder: Could that rambler in Nashville make me whole again? What about that loft in Boston with exposed brick walls?
My biggest obsession was moving to New Orleans. I’d lust after variegated shotguns and “explore” Big Easy neighborhoods via Google Maps, picturing myself smoking a cigarette on my porch and waving to tourists. Even though I’d never been, I could easily list off each neighborhood and its respective characteristics (The oaks of the Garden District! The potholes of the Tremé!) as though I’d lived there for years.
In 2016, I applied to Tulane University and got in. I wanted to study social work in the city that exemplified resilience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to ask New Orleans herself: How do you recover after a flood knocks your levees down? How do you peel back the weeds that have grown so tall in the wake of a hurricane that they engulf entire neighborhoods as king snakes and rattlesnakes slither through the vegetation?
Comparing my personal anguish to that of a hurricane that left more than 204,000 homes destroyed and at least 1,836 people dead feels selfish. It wasn’t a matter of comparison, though. I just wanted to escape the personal hell I’d built up in Minnesota and find my old self again in a city with the opposite climate. I wanted to quietly wander the streets — some revitalized, others neglected due to racial segregation — and see how you’re supposed to reassemble in the wake of a natural disaster. I wanted to trace the still-standing walls with my fingertips; not in a desperate attempt to stabilize myself, but to absorb the lessons of buildings that stood tall amidst the rubble. I wanted to ask: Who are you, and how did you survive?
I didn’t go to Tulane. I’ve still never been to New Orleans.
My obsession with real estate started at a young age, probably seven or eight. I’d pick up free real estate magazines at local restaurants and spend hours browsing properties. I know this all sounds incredibly precocious; why would a second-grader care about square footage or roof age? Not to get all Freudian, but I think it has something to do with my parents.
I was a mistake conceived in a lake — yes, I’m serious — and my mother decided that, at the age of 32, she was fighting a proverbial biological clock. My mom and dad never married and separated when I was two. Since then, I’ve shuttled from location to location. In my 29 years, I’ve lived in close to 30 places in California and Minnesota. To this day, I can pack for a weeklong trip in less than five minutes. I’m constantly chasing that elusive feeling of home, and when I was young, that meant flipping through classifieds. I don’t think I ever wanted my parents to get back together. If anything, I wanted to fall asleep and wake up in the same bed every day for more than a week at a time. In my childish, underdeveloped brain, it seemed like I could achieve this task by finding a new home.
Perhaps I want the inertia of my life, which seems to be barreling towards a black hole, to cease long enough so I can find a sense of home.
When I developed agoraphobia that left me feeling unwelcome in my own skin, my search for the perfect property intensified. It was no longer just about finding a home to fix my family; it became a way to escape. A good day meant walking the dog around the block in my sweatpants and waiting until 4:30 p.m. to drink. And oh, did I drink. I drank and I drank until I could step away from my own body and feel small rushes of dopamine every time I looked at new real estate listings.
I set up endless searches on Redfin. I figured if I mustered up the courage to move back to California, I’d find a house with at least three bedrooms in the redwoods. I’d rent out the rooms, as well as additional structures like tiny houses and old rusty trailers along the property, to supplement my mortgage. I’d rely on communal living to afford the astronomical cost of living.
I pictured maybe finding an expansive adobe home in the Santa Fe desert. I’d wear all gauzy white linen that mimicked the gentle airflow of my home. I’d study Georgia O’Keeffe’s art in the dry afternoon sun, forgetting the all-consuming sensation of a panic attack.
I also imagined staying right in Minneapolis, leaving my relationship, and downsizing to a 400-square-foot studio. I created endless shopping lists on Ikea to furnish a small home; just me, the dog, and a small, collapsible dining table on the edge of downtown.
More than anything, as Tom Waits said, I wished I was in New Orleans. In reality, I was sitting on a Craigslist couch in a 100-year-old Minneapolis home. During my final months of drinking I became a walking cliché; I’d blast Tom Waits, weep, and gulp down goblets of wine.
Eventually, I ended my relationship and got sober. With time and countless therapy sessions, my agoraphobia lessened. While I’m able to drive on the freeway now, the furthest I’ve traveled from my home in the past few years is 336 miles. I still can’t fly, so I continue to try on different lives with a filtered Redfin search based on the minimum square footage I’d potentially need. Every time I log on, I wonder: What if I could pack up my life and break the magnetic pull that keeps me perpetually close to home? Will fixing up that ancient Victorian make me whole again?
And more than anything, New Orleans still calls to me. Maybe it’s the smoky romanticism of the city; from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to Anne Rice’s The Feast of All Saints, countless books have chronicled the convoluted history of the Crescent City. As Joan Didion said in South and West, “In New Orleans they have mastered the art of the motionless.”
Perhaps I want to be motionless. Perhaps I want the inertia of my life, which seems to be barreling toward a black hole, to cease long enough so I can find a sense of home. Maybe, just maybe, I can breathe again if it’s the hot, sticky air of the Gulf Coast.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll become motionless in a 100-year-old New Orleans shotgun someday.