Q&A: The “Agorafabulous” Sara Benincasa

Sara Benincasa, who you may remember as The Frisky’s hilarious “Gossip Girl” recapper, is a host on Sirius’ Cosmo Radio, a Sarah Palin impersonator, and a comedian currently performing her one-woman show in New York City. “Agorafabulous” is all about Sara’s experiences with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that, at one point, kept her confined to her bedroom. I talked to Sara about her disorder and why she decided to write a comedy show about her experience. The Frisky: So Sara, what’s so funny about agoraphobia?

Sara Benincasa: Well, it’s sort of inherently hilarious to be afraid to leave one’s house. I mean, who gets scared to do that? But the fact is, I used to be freaked out about leaving the house and, at one point, I was even afraid to leave my room. Looking back, I guess there’s something inherently ridiculous about that. If comedy is tragedy plus time, it’s OK to laugh at it now.

The Frisky: How did your agoraphobia start?

SB: I started having panic attacks and feeling agoraphobic in isolated instances when I was very young. I remember being scared of large crowds of people and wanting to hide in my room all the time.

The Frisky: Like the mall?

SB: Actually, the mall never freaked me out! It’s because I’m from New Jersey. The mall is my place of peace. I find it very Zen. It is my spiritual home. But actually, I used to get freaked out at concerts, even at large family parties, and it progressed as I got older. Planes always scared me, the bus freaked me out, and eventually it became debilitating.

The Frisky: What does it feel like you’re scared of?

SB: There’s this fear of crowds, of being out of my comfort zone. I get scared of feeling sick and never feeling better again. I’m scared of being trapped. Essentially, it’s about a lack of control. But by staying in my room I could maintain some control. I could hide and read a book or take a nap and shut out everything else.

The Frisky: Did that seem odd?

SB: Since I was a nerdy kid, it fit the stereotype that I embodied. But as I got older and discovered boys and the joys of high school popularity, it started to seem odd that sometimes I was afraid to get on the school bus or fly somewhere cool. I would come up with endless excuses for why I couldn’t go on field trips. I put serious thought into the excuses. I got good at lying, which is key to comedy so it was all a training ground, I guess!

The Frisky: And then you went on a school trip on a plane, right?

SB: Yeah, when I was 18, I went to Sicily on a school trip and I ended up in the ER because I had a seemingly endless string of panic attacks the moment the plane touched down. Finally, during a rest stop at a filling station, everything started to tilt in front of me and I dropped down to the pavement in full view of 40 bitchy New Jersey teenagers and two pissed-off chaperons.

The Frisky: Oh God. What does that kind of mega panic attack feel like?

SB: Your heart starts to beat really fast and blood flow is diverted from other systems in your body to respiratory and cardio land so that you can breathe quickly and run like hell if you need to. Basically, your body reacts as if you are being chased by some giant bear in the woods in the year 500 AD. It’s called Fight or Flight Syndrome. Your pupils dilate to let more light in so you feel a bit disoriented and some people experience tingly palms, sweating, lots of tight breathing up in your chest, not down in your belly. Your leg muscles tense so you can spring into action.

The Frisky: How did your classmates and chaperons react?

SB: My chaperons didn’t know what a panic attack was, despite the fact that they were guidance counselors. And the kids just thought I was f**king insane. I pretty much agreed with them. I thought I was going to die or that I was so crazy, I’d be put in an institution. So I told them I needed help and that I needed to see a doctor. So we went to the ER — this is in Sicily remember — where the hottest doctor in the world took care of me. This chick was, I swear to God, Sophia Loren 40 years younger, with amazing boobs and three-inch heels. Cleavage! On a doctor! She was a fox, a total babe.

The Frisky: What did Dr. Sophia do for you?

SB: She looked at me and told the nurses to give me a sedative, which was amazing. I’d been on Paxil since I was 16, but I had never had a sedative before and this s**t was the jam. In a minute and a half my heart rate went down, my breathing slowed, and my muscles reacted. It was the best thing ever — I’m lucky I didn’t turn into some crazy addict! Sicilian witchcraft medication.

The Frisky: Did they send you back home to the U.S.?

SB: Nope, but I did get rewarded for being crazy. I was given permission to do whatever I wanted for the rest of the trip! The other girls were so mad. My friend Lisa and I would just shop and hang out. We got to stay in the biggest room, got to skip out on the day trip to Pompeii, all that other crap, which just enraged the other girls on the trip.

The Frisky: And when you did go home…?

SB: My parents felt so bad about the whole thing, that I got babied and treated really nicely. I went to a therapist and kept taking Paxil, because we thought, “Well, we just need to increase the dose.” I wasn’t an informed health-care consumer. I thought that Paxil was the ONLY drug for people “like me” and that if it didn’t work I was doomed. It wasn’t working for me, but I swallowed the pill each morning and just kept praying that it would start to work.

The Frisky: Were your doctors calling it agoraphobia at this point?

SB: No, at that point it was panic attacks. What happens is that, well, at least in my case, often someone with panic attacks starts to associate the places in which he/she has panic attacks with said panic attacks, and then starts to avoid those places. This is how agoraphobia develops for many sufferers.

The Frisky: Did things ever start to get better after Sicily?

SB: When I was 19, I did a semester abroad in the Netherlands and I fine the whole time! For 3.5 months of my life, I felt this magical freedom where I didn’t have any panic attacks. Not even once. I was just so happy. I couldn’t believe I was in this place that looked like fairy tales. There I could be weird and all the other artsy weirdos just accepted me. They all had problems too. I felt at home and safe with them and I wasn’t afraid to say “I feel scared” because other people did too. I didn’t need to panic, because I didn’t need to hide it. I think a lot of the panic comes from the fear of being found out.

The Frisky: After you got home from the Netherlands, when did the s**t really hit the fan?

SB: When I was 21, I was going to college in Boston, living in a tiny studio. I had come home from the Netherlands and the family stress was still there, the social stress was still there, and everything wasn’t magical and special anymore. It was normal again. I had this slow descent starting in December 2000 and over the course of 2001. It wasn’t because I was sad that I wasn’t on my fancy study-abroad trip. It was because I had gotten a taste of what it felt like to be “normal” and then when I came home, the panic attacks started again. I was so disappointed because I had thought maybe I was cured. So over the course of 2001, I got more and more scared. I went to visit this boy I loved in Portland, but ended up coming home after one day because I was terrified of everything. Back in Boston, I got a job at a hair salon, but would never show up for work because I was afraid to leave my house.

The Frisky: Were you eating?

SB: I stopped eating much and I lost a bunch of weight. Food gave me energy and I didn’t want energy. I wanted to blot it all out. I would sleep a lot and not go to class. I got so thin and I just wanted to disappear. I loved getting smaller because I wanted there to be less of me in the world. I stopped leaving the house; I stopped showering because for some reason I was afraid of having a wet head. Eventually I started pissing in cereal bowls in my room, which was entertaining. By which I mean, terrible.

The Frisky: When did your parents find out?

SB: My friend Katherine eventually called them and they called me and asked how I was doing. I lied and said I was fine and then they asked me what I’d had for dinner. I was like, “Uh…uh…” and they said, “Have you been eating enough lately?” That’s when I broke and was like, “No.” And they asked, “Is anything else going on?” I was like, “THESE PEOPLE ARE PSYCHIC!” It didn’t occur to me that my friends would have called or the school would have called. They asked, “Have you been going to class?” and I was like, “YOU ARE MADE OF MAGIC!” Anyway, I spilled and admitted everything except the pissing in cereal bowls part. They found that out when they saw me talk about it in a YouTube video. Anyway, my mom drove up that night and took me home. The entire drive home I made her play “Satellite” by the Dave Matthews Band over and over again for four hours, because repetition was comforting to me at that point. Seriously, four hours. Same jam.

The Frisky: How did going home help?

SB: Well, I went on Prozac and was seeing a shrink. I practiced things like walking down the driveway, holding my mom and dad’s hand and then walking back. And then walking around the neighborhood and walking back, and eventually practicing getting in the car and riding in the car and eating food. Plus, I did this really cool meditation program, designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, learning how to deal with anxiety through deep breathing. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the best.

The Frisky: So why did you decide to do a comedy show about your agoraphobia?

SB: Well, I figured maybe it would help other people out if they could see how crazy I used to be and that I’m doing pretty well right now. I also thought that it might be rich territory for mining laughs from all the weird s**t.

The Frisky: Do you have to work at finding all of it funny?

SB: Some of it is a little bit of work. But it’s so absurd and gross, that most of it is easy to laugh at. The show is really a celebration of accepting your own flaws and working to improve yourself. It’s been fun and it’s been really creatively rewarding. I’ve gotten some nice emails and letters from people who saw the show or saw clips online and related to it. That was my goal. When I was really suffering and losing my s**t, I felt lonely. Being able to show others that they’re not alone proves that I made the correct choice in not offing myself. Of course things were tough on and off for the next few years, and I still struggle sometimes, but I’m not going to off myself. I’m pretty psyched about being alive.

See Sara Benincasa’s one-woman show “Agorafabulous” every Saturday night in August at NYC’s The Pit. For more details and clips of the show, visit her website.