Island Bound

For many, Martha's Vineyard is a place of joyful refuge, an escape from the off-island world. As a boy growing up on the Vineyard, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the summer visitors. They began to appear in June and arrived in torrents in July, delivered to us by ferries that made the short passage from Cape Cod. They were evidence of a world that I did not know and could not be a part of. At summer's end the visitors departed. I'd watch as the large white vessels heaved slowly away from the dock. I'd wait until they were nothing more than a dot on the sea. With them went the exuberance of summer and the promise of the world it represented.

In the following weeks the light would pull out of the sky, and the wind would swing around to the north, blowing hard and cold. It would remain that way for months to come. Shops and restaurants closed. Summer houses were boarded up. And we settled in for a long and often lonely season. I, for one, was not going anywhere. The circumstances of my family would not allow it.

Think about not leaving your home for a week or two. Try to imagine not traveling beyond the borders of your town for, say, five or six months. You might start to climb the walls. You might begin to feel a little crazy. After a while, you might just become a little crazy. Sometimes I think my mother has. And I don't blame her, because it hasn't been just a month or a year since she last traveled from her lifelong home of Martha's Vineyard. It's been 35 years.

A literal definition of agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces. In reality, it's an anxiety about being in situations that you can't get out of, that you can't control. Getting stuck in a line of traffic. Traveling by boat or airplane. And, in my mother's case, being alone. For her, the fear is not that the plane will crash or the boat will sink. It's that once she's on board, she won't be able to get off. She won't be able to escape. So that's what it becomes: a life lived to avoid the fear.

Traumatized by the fear of being alone, my mother responded by preventing my sisters and me throughout our childhoods from leaving the island.

Look up Martha's Vineyard and you'll get the vital stats: 23 miles long, 9 miles wide, 7 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Population in winter: 15,000. In summer: 100,000. The sandy beaches, rolling hills, and small-town charm make for a nice place to live.

But the island can wreak havoc with your mind — especially during those long winter months when the days are empty and windswept, when everything pretty much closes down. Especially if you were, as my mother was, a young girl growing up in the 1940s and '50s on an isolated, oceanside farm. Hers was a family of bookish and reclusive farmers who had a reputation in town for being smart, but odd and prone to depression and other afflictions of the mind.

“I was predisposed to this,” my mother says.

These are words that have haunted me for a long, long while.

In high school, my mother was voted “most vivacious” by the senior class. A black-and-white photo shows her with a snowball in hand, her arm cocked. She smiles beautifully for the camera. Her dark hair is short and stylish. Her eyes sparkle.

She had dreams of New York City and a life in the theater.

It wasn't until the age of 30 — married with three small children — that my mother had her first panic attack. It found her while she was driving alone on a quiet road edged with pine trees, only about a mile from our house. It came unannounced and took her by the throat. I was three.

Agoraphobia can be a progressive illness. First, she could not leave the island. Next, she could not drive alone. She was soon confined to our hometown, Edgartown, and could drive only during the day. And then two things happened to make the situation even worse, and they changed all of our lives in a devastating way.

The first occurred when my mother felt that she could no longer be alone under any circumstance. Not for a day, an hour, a minute. And so, over the next 35 years, someone — a family member or sometimes a friend — has always been with her. For more than 12,000 days. Twelve thousand discussions and fights about Who's going to stay with Mom? Who's going to “babysit” her?

“That's when my world ended,” my mother tells me. “I didn't have myself. I couldn't count on myself anymore.”

When the phobia grew so voracious it couldn't be satisfied, my mother felt that it was not enough for her to stay close to our house to fend off panic attacks. She needed my father, my sisters, and me to stay close to her as well. From that point forward we were not allowed to leave the island or, sometimes, even leave the house. We did not travel for any reason — school trips, vacations, medical purposes. Nothing.

We lived in a house that was cedar-shingled and tucked in a grove of pine trees near the island's south shore. Across the street was my grandmother's farm, where my mother had grown up.

She had dreamed of Broadway but had made it only as far as next door.

When they were first married, my mother asked my father to move off island. He resisted. She begged. He thought what they had was good enough. He was nearly 20 years her senior, and that was the end of the discussion.

Like a lot of islanders, my father is resourceful and good with his hands. A World War II veteran, he has, over the years, worked as a harbormaster, a harpooner of swordfish, a dock builder, a county commissioner, and a pilot. Like his father, he knows the winds and tides well. He has always found his way home safely from the sea. But he is restless and has never been entirely at home in our family. He is a good man with a bad temper. When the agoraphobia presented itself, he responded with confusion — followed by anger and threats.

My father is a man who had seen the world — and liked being part of it. I've wondered why he never left my mother. I think he stayed out of both love and guilt.

When I was 12, I woke to hear my mother screaming in the snow. I pushed aside a curtain and looked out my second-story window. My mother was standing in her nightgown in the driveway behind my father's Jeep. Her small frame was hunched slightly, angled away from the wind. She had a cigarette in her left hand; her right was wrapped around her stomach like a gunfighter who'd just been gut-shot.

My father was at the wheel, gunning the engine in threatening bursts. I saw him in profile, handsome and furious. His arm pivoted from the driver's side window and came down hard against the door.

“Jesus Christ, Allouise, get out of the goddamn way.”

He was worried about a friend in the storm and wanted to go check on him.

She wailed like an animal caught in a trap. But what I remember most were her bare feet. It hurt to look at them. Small blocks of flesh going from red to purple. She lifted one off the frozen ground and then the other. The wind howled and curled the snow around her body, so for a moment she seemed to be spinning with it. And away from us.

As I watched, I secretly rooted for him. Just throw it into reverse and she'll have to move. Just do it.

But he didn't. She stayed in the driveway until she was sure he wouldn't leave. Eventually, after he killed the engine, she walked back to the house. I stayed at the window and watched him for a while. I could see his head tilted forward and his big hands draped over the top of the wheel.

My mother always knew that having the phobia was not her fault. But she couldn't convince the rest of us. It was easy to blame her. To hate her as well as love her.

My mother required “safe people” in her phobic world, those with whom she felt most comfortable. My father, an aunt, and my sisters were among them. I was never in that group. I was not “safe.” From an early age I sensed what it would mean to be needed and used that way.

I made myself unreliable.

On occasion, I'd walk out the door and leave her alone, knowing she would suffer a terrifying panic attack. I was never proud of this, but the alternative — at least to me — was worse.

I still have a letter on my wall from the United States Marine Corps testifying to the fact that I tried to flee. I was seeking freedom with the few and the proud. In three paragraphs, however, a Captain Curt Murray explained to me the impossibility of my request. “Since you are 11,” he wrote, “you won't be able to be a Marine for a while.”

In 1983, when I was 18, I left the island for the first time. I experienced enormous joy in seeing a world I had known only through stories and pictures. Among other things, I “discovered” at 70 miles per hour what a rotary is. I wondered at the beauty and synchronicity of a traffic light. I marveled at the Boston skyline. I rode an escalator for the first time but didn't know how to work an elevator and was too embarrassed to ask, so I usually used the stairs. I went to 43 states and hitchhiked through California. I traveled from Mexico to Canada to Ireland to Poland. I lived in Vermont, Boston, and New York, where I worked in film production — a lifelong dream.

I sent postcards and letters home from most of the places I went. My mother still has them. It's strange that once I had gone, once I had finally left, she was happy for me. I had escaped. Strangely, I felt guilty for having left my family behind.

“I wanted so much for you kids, like every parent does. I wanted you to be happy and whole. How do you say you're sorry? How do you make up for it, for all those years?” my mother asks.

But there were many good things, too. With her help, our school projects were always colorful and unique. She let us keep stray dogs and cats. She sang songs and told stories. And she listened. You could tell her anything. She did what she could, which turned out to be quite a lot.

My mother has spent years in psychotherapy, and her children can now come and go from her house. But she cannot: She still can't be alone. My father, now retired, is her safe person. One of my sisters lives on the island but likes to keep her distance. Another sister, who lives near Boston, visits with her own children. My mother spoils and dotes on them.

I asked her once how having agoraphobia has influenced her point of view of the world.

“It's like when a blind person can hear really well,” she said. “I'm in tune to the smallest things that most people would never see. I've been looking at the same things for 35 years. I know with my eyes closed what the sun looks like against the neighbor's shingles each hour and minute of the day. I can recognize cars by the sound and tell you who it is before you see them. But, mostly, I can feel myself here. I can feel every minute of being here.”

I now live far from the ocean. In the summer I will visit my parents. Leaning against the rail of the boat, I will see the island as a thin line on the horizon. And I know that from where my mother waits, the ferry will look like a dot on the sea. I'll ask my father to take the beach road home. I'll look to my left and find the Atlantic curling into the shore. It has always been my favorite view.