Vital Signs

Hell Is Other People

Robin N—wasn't sure what was wrong. The suburban Milwaukee mother of three had experienced a pang upon turning 35, but these "pangs" seemed to be intensifying as the months passed. Sometimes, they took the form of paralyzing depression; other times, of anxiety verging on panic. She found herself fearful of going out in public or of seeing other people.

The simplest little things secured to trigger these attacks: being cut off in traffic; someone hugging her bumper and appearing to curse at her; a salesclerk's rudeness; a woman previously friendly who seemed to ignore her at the grocery store; the hostile "vibes" on a crowded street; a TV news story on yet another horrifying violent crime; a lunch date forgotten, with only lukewarm, late apologies; an unreturned phone call; a sneering putdown of stay-at-home mothers on "Rosie."

If several of these events occurred in a single day, Robin would begin to feel out of control: heart pounding, short of breath, flushed and desperate. Her first thought was that menopause had arrived a little early. But her doctor ruled that out on the basis of hormone tests and suggested that Robin start taking one of the new generation of SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) such as Paxil, Luvox, or Zoloft. He explained that she had developed agoraphobia, which was now highly treatable, thanks to these new wonder drugs.

Today, two...

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