COVID Stunted Social Interaction. That's Been a Boon to This Agoraphobe

Oct 30, 2020

Veronica Morris, with her service dog Hestia, has battled agoraphobia and social anxiety so severe, there were days she could not even go out to get the mail. But in a world in which a pandemic has rewritten public interactions, her mental health is thriving.
Credit Provided by Veronica Morris

In the middle of an interview on Zoom, nature called on Hestia Morris to be let into the yard. Veronica Morris took her, trilling a sing-song hellooo to a neighbor under a perfect, cobalt Rock Hill sky.

How ordinary it all would be for anyone who isn’t Veronica Morris. But for this particular service-dog mom, stepping out into the yard without thinking anything of it is not always a guarantee. Morris is an agoraphobe whose condition is so severe, she is considered disabled.

“It’s not like ‘Oh, I don’t feel like leaving my house’ or ‘I don’t feel like going out,’” she says.

Rather, her symptoms – intense dread, jackhammer pulse, debilitating distress – sometimes keep her from going out front just to get the mail. Add to that her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by severe childhood bullying, bipolar disorder, and minor brain damage – the scar from a suicide attempt around 2005 – and it gets easier to understand why Veronica Morris is thriving during a pandemic that’s keeping so many people home.

“I am looking forward to the pandemic ending,” she says. “Mostly because I don’t like people dying and getting sick. But I’m also dreading the pandemic ending because then I know I’m going to have all these requirements placed on me again.”

Morris is talking about social interactions, of course. Pre-pandemic, she had to contend with crowds – including kids who have tried to ride her larger service dogs like ponies, she says – and gatherings that would put her in a terrible cycle. For every day she went out in public, she would spend one or two days recovering at home.

And recovery for her not a matter of taking a nap and watching the soaps. It’s more like recovering from extreme fatigue or a physical illness; there is no mental energy to do much anything for quite a while. In turn, not much gets done around the house, and Morris says she was getting to a point of considering what she might have to do to break out of the cycle she was in.

When the pandemic shuttered businesses and forced everyone to stay in the house, however, Morris says she started to notice that she wanted to read again. And cook. And take walks with Hestia – things she could not do so easily before. She was able to get more things done and see her mental health improve because she didn’t have to spend half of every week recovering from having been in public.

Almost eight months into the pandemic, when Morris and I have our Zoom interview, a casual observer would likely not realize that Morris was a person dealing with any kind of anxiety disorders. She is easy to laugh, upbeat, and remarkably open about who she is.

And if she is worried about returning to the old normal, where hugs and handshakes and get-togethers with friends were part of the social fabric, she feels she is in a better position to control how she interacts with others. The pandemic, she says, has “leveled the playing field” so that everyone has had to be afraid of stepping outside. She’s hoping the experience, shared by most everyone in the world, will make people more accepting of her desire to, say, stick with virtual get-togethers, rather than meeting up for coffee in-person.

In other words, she’s learning to stand up for herself and say no – a big step, she says, for someone who never had the ability to do that before a pandemic that made us all think twice about being in the company of others.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan. And follow for South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio, or on Facebook.