Writing A Way Out Of The Blue

8 October 2018 Rijn Collins

Writing A Way Out Of The Blue

Out of the blue

After two years of being unable to leave the house, it was strangers from around the world who help Rijn Collins step outside again. 

I almost missed it. I was juggling coffee and a book, and only looked up through the train window for a split second. There it was, the house that had been both my home and my prison for two years, whirling past under a blue Burnley sky.

I was 18 when I moved in with my first boyfriend into the cornflower-coloured miner’s cottage in what had been a working-class suburb of inner Melbourne. We hung grunge posters on the wall and brewed our own beer. It was the early 90s, and I was embracing my first taste of independence as an adult. My freedom was indulgent, liberating, utterly exciting. It was also, as I quickly found out, fleeting.

The first panic attack came in the supermarket; the second, on the tram. Always fretful as a child, I’d felt the need to count all the numberplates I saw or my family’s car would crash, and I would be solely responsible. I’d hoped those flutters of anxiety and dread would be left behind in shedding the skin of childhood. It didn’t work out that way. My adult skin tugged and tore; it was never an easy fit.

When the anxiety began to develop into agoraphobia, I didn’t realise what was happening. The outside world was becoming too bright for me, the panic attacks frequent. I found myself cowering in the supermarket, cans slipping from my trembling hands as all eyes, it seemed, watched my flight. I would slam my front door, eyes wide, heart hammering. When it happened again and again, I opened my front door less and less. Eventually, I barely opened it at all.

I spent two years inside. That house became my world. My housemates would stumble down the front path at 2am after a gig, full of shiraz and stories. I listened, aching to join them, but no longer knowing how.

I acquired penpals instead, dozens of them. I placed ads in zines and wrote letters on golden joss paper with shaky black handwriting. I filled envelopes with mixed tapes of feminist punk and stories of my life before the door shut. The only intimacy I allowed came through my mailbox. I pulled from envelopes tales of anarchist squats in Rotterdam, lesbian bars in Venezuela and freshly healing tattoos in Philadelphia. My letters were 20 pages long, packed with questions about a world I no longer had access to. The answers were my lifeline; all these years later I still know exactly where in the closet they’re stored.

My illness lifted the way it had descended: slowly, almost imperceptibly, in stops and starts. A supportive psychiatrist and medication helped me to open the door again, while a need to know the world beckoned me out. It was a long, challenging process. A part-time job came first, then part-time university. I finished a degree in linguistics and languages, and moved to a house on the other side of the city, as far away from Burnley as I could.

I made sure each and every penpal had my new address. The agoraphobia had diminished, but the letters hadn’t – the joy of pulling an envelope from my letterbox never dulled. More than two decades later I’m still in touch with many of those who’d supported me as I nudged my front door open, offering me encouragement and invitations. Scattered with coffee stains and cat hairs, each page is reminiscent of support from people who’d never met me, yet had utter faith in my recovery in a way I lacked at the time. 

Last year I found myself unexpectedly catching up with one of them. A story of mine had made the finals of a writing competition in New York and, to my amazement, the organisers offered to fly me over there for the ceremony. My piece was about a taxidermy flamingo that comes to life in a Chinatown alleyway, complete with surly attitude and a Tom Waits growl. The ABC had bought it and my wonderful producer had turned it into an audio story for Radio National. My tale was odd and fantastical. It was not likely to win. I went anyway.

Pulling the trip together in 10 days made my anxiety surge. Erica, my penpal of almost 20 years, offered me her couch in Philadelphia and a magnum of champagne when I won. She was as sure and supportive of me as ever. And she was right. The win itself was a blur: a rooftop bar, fireworks and The New York Times. I tried to make sense of it on the Amtrak to Philly. When Erica picked me up from the train station I was dazed and delighted in equal measure. We hurried towards each other with arms outstretched, tattoos held high, laughing before our bodies even met.

I remember soaring Philadelphia buildings behind us as we hugged, the sunshine warm on my face. It was freedom, a world and decades away from the view during my long time as a hostage: chimney stacks against a blue Burnley sky.

Rijn Collins is a writer whose work can be found at rijncollins.com. In 2016 she won an inaugural Sarah Award for International Audio Fiction in New York.

Illustration: Daniel Gray-Barnett