Less than 30 seconds. That was all it took to change Dr. Amanda Robertson’s life forever. One moment of madness during a Morning Live interview wiped out 15 years of ceaseless toil that had seen her rise to the top of her chosen field. Now it was all gone; her professional reputation was destroyed and her career was over.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned in one. That old adage had taken on stark relevance for Amanda in the days following her spectacular on-screen meltdown. It summed things up perfectly. Plenty of celebrities had done far worse than suffer a panic attack on live television and come away unscathed, but Amanda’s situation was different for two reasons. Firstly, she was a renowned mental health expert and bestselling author specializing in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders. The irony of a top shrink cracking up on camera was too good for the media to ignore. She had become a national news story in the days since.
As bad as that was, she may have been able to find a way back were it not for the second reason: her panic attack, rather than an isolated incident, marked the sudden onset of a social anxiety disorder which was only getting worse. Just the thought of leaving her bedroom left her sick with dread. Amanda had become utterly incapable of functioning in a world in which she once had thrived, all because of a condition she was meant to be expert in treating.
Physician, heal thyself. Only, it wasn’t that simple. All of Amanda’s theoretical knowledge proved useless when applied to herself. She needed professional help and she couldn’t get it in LA, or anywhere in the country for that matter. She had to get away from the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight to heal.
That was how, in early April 2019, Dr. Amanda Robertson found herself a patient at Half-Moon Clinic in Cape Town, South Africa.
Amanda had been assured that the clinic would provide the best possible care and, an entire continent and half a world away from home, she would have the luxury of anonymity. In theory.
In reality, while the countless councilors, therapists, and doctors she saw during her three-week stay gave no appearance of recognizing her, Amanda saw through the charade. Copies of her numerous books adorned their shelves; a mocking reminder of her spectacular fall from grace. They had to know who she was and perhaps that was why none dared venture a firm diagnosis: they were awed by her reputation.
Her symptoms were managed with liberal doses of Valium and she was advised that ongoing therapy and patience were the only solutions. This frustrated Amanda immensely because, while she knew from experience there was no quick fix for conditions like hers, she’d been secretly hoping for one all the same.
Equally frustrating was the fact that she was unable to make full use of the therapeutic program on offer since any interaction with more than a single person at a time led invariably to another panic attack. She couldn’t attend the group therapy sessions, yoga, guided meditation, or art classes. She was unable even to eat in the communal dining area, taking her meals alone in her room instead, where she spent all of her time when not being assessed by another clueless doctor.
As the end of her 21-day stay at the clinic drew near, Amanda had made no progress towards recovery. If anything, she was getting worse.
Salvation came in the form of an unexpected visit two days before Amanda’s scheduled discharge. Heinrich Hoffman - chubby, bespectacled, and prematurely balding - looked exactly like the academic he purported to be. He was a psychology graduate student currently doing his doctoral thesis at UCT.
Rather than skirting the issue, Hoffman began by openly acknowledging that he was well aware of Amanda’s reputation and was a big admirer of her work. Just as she feared he was going to ask for an autograph, he got down to business. “Dr. Robertson – “
“Okay. Amanda. I’m here because I think I can help you. I’ve heard about your condition and it happens to concern my particular area of expertise.”
“And what area might that be, Mr. Hoffman?” Amanda asked skeptically.
“The treatment of severe phobic disorders, of course. That’s the subject of my thesis. I believe I can cure you. If you’re willing, that is.”
More than willing, she was desperate. In less than 48 hours she would be released into society and she was far from ready. Amanda nodded eagerly and gestured for him to continue.
“Before I get into the specifics, allow me to explain a little about my take on the nature of phobias. I believe they are nothing more than an accident of human physiology - a luxury of modern society if you will.”
“Are you saying I’m just spoiled?”
“In a sense, yes,” he laughed good-naturedly, “although I hesitate to put it so bluntly, myself. Think about it, Amanda. Our ancient ancestors didn’t suffer from phobias because a life of constant danger and struggle for survival didn’t allow for them. A caveman who was afraid of the dark, for instance, wouldn’t have lasted too long, now would he?”
This time Amanda laughed along with him; his good humor was infectious, not to mention a refreshing change from the dour doctors she’d been dealing with up until then.
Hoffman continued, “The relatively recent appearance of phobias can be attributed to the lack of any genuine source of danger in our day-to-day lives. Oh, we still have plenty to fear – terrorism, global warming, losing a job – but these are all intangible; nothing that can be physically addressed. So, in response, the ever-inventive reptilian brain manufactures tangible fears to fill the void. Do you follow?”
“Yes. So you’re saying this is just something I’ve made up?”
“Not at all. The source of the fear – social interaction in your case – may be irrational as far as it goes, but the fear itself is very real. Your brain’s panic response is simply being triggered erroneously. Which brings me to the treatment – “
“Hang on,” Amanda interjected, fully engaged now. “How did this happen to me? And why now?”
“Both good questions, Amanda, and the short answer is that without intensive psychoanalysis no one can know for sure. But that’s not immediately relevant.”
“No. If you break your leg, for example, you would certainly want to reflect on the circumstances that led to the unfortunate event in hopes of preventing a future reoccurrence but, at the time of breaking, the more pressing concern would be to get the injured limb seen to, not so? It’s the same here. In time you may discover why this has happened to you but for the moment, the most important thing is how to fix it.”
“And you can really do that?”
“I think so, yes. My methods are rather unconventional, but – “
Amanda cut him off once more, knowing what was coming. “You’re talking about immersion therapy?”
Immersion therapy, based on little more than pseudoscience, involved the extended exposure of the phobic individual to the source of their fear. The only problem was it didn’t work. The sensory overload was more likely to further traumatize the patient and had even been known to lead to sudden death. If that was going to be Hoffman’s suggestion, he was wasting both of their time. Briefly hopeful, Amanda sunk into despondence once more.
His response, however, surprised her. “Not at all, Amanda. In fact, immersion therapy is the exact opposite of what I’m about to propose.”
Amanda listened, rapt, as Hoffman explained exactly how he was going to cure her.
The old farmhouse was as picturesque as the rural surroundings, and, more importantly, completely cut off from the outside world. This was to be the place of Heinrich Hoffman’s unique treatment. He’d made all the arrangements himself.
The idea, he had said, was as simple as it would be effective. Building on his theory that phobias are a luxury, he’d likened his idea to the method one would use to correct the behavior of a spoiled child: deprive them of the luxuries they take for granted.
He’d cited the case study of a man who’d suffered from a debilitating fear of peanut butter (yes, Hoffman had laughingly assured her, that was a real phobia). When starved for several days, the man had become so desperate for sustenance that he was willing to eat anything, even the benign sandwich spread which had once been the source of his terror.
Just like that, the problem was solved. Amanda’s treatment would be much the same.
She was to isolate herself from the source of her fear – the outside world – until it ceased to terrify her. When asked how long that might be, Hoffman had said it was impossible to tell. The process would be gradual but, after enough time in complete isolation, Amanda would begin to feel a desperate longing for human contact. Then, and only then, would she be ready to return to civilization.
In the meantime, she was not to have any contact with another human being, nor was she allowed any connection to the outside world, which included television, radio, internet, and cellphone. For the treatment to work, her isolation had to be total. The farmhouse in the rural Eastern Cape had been in Hoffman’s family for generations, and he had generously made it available to Amanda to use for as long as she required. He had also taken care of other practicalities, like arranging for weekly food deliveries to be deposited at the bottom of the winding dirt driveway, so Amanda didn’t have to come into contact with the deliverymen.
For the rest, she was utterly alone. And so she would remain until her social phobia had ceased to exist.
While this new way of life took some getting used to, the initial months were blissful for Amanda. Alone, at last, she was properly at peace for the first time since her disastrous Morning Live breakdown. As best she knew, there wasn't another soul around for miles. It occurred to her that the entire human race could vanish off the face of the Earth and she’d be none the wiser. The thought was darkly appealing.
She missed TV at first, along with her phone and the internet – she hated being out of the loop – but that soon passed, replaced by relief from having those social umbilici neatly severed. Amanda passed the days exercising (something she hadn’t done since college - first brisk walking and then running), reading (only fiction and nothing contemporary), listening to music (strictly classical), writing, and reflecting. She spent considerable time on the latter and so came to view her situation from a new perspective. Her life of constant academic pursuit, and the fame that had come along with her rising reputation, had essentially cut her off from herself. She’d lost touch with why she became a doctor in the first place and her breakdown was perhaps her mind's way of telling her to slow down, to take stock.
Amanda realized that the transformative process she was undergoing would make her a better psychologist. She became enthused with the idea of making a professional comeback and using her own experience to help others.
She had only one bad moment in those early days, and it came at the end of the first month.
One evening while having dinner, Amanda heard a sound that sent her into familiar paroxysms of terror: a knock at the front door. When she managed to gather up the courage to investigate, she discovered there was no one there. She scolded herself for jumping at shadows and tried to laugh it off, but the incident nevertheless served as a clear indication that she had a long way yet to go in her recovery. With time she learned the old door had a habit of creaking and groaning to itself, especially as Winter’s chill set in. The phantom knocking became a familiar sound over the following months, but it never entirely ceased to stoke the embers of her dread.
As the brave new year of 2020 dawned unbeknownst to Amanda (she had neither clock nor calendar with which to mark the passage of the days and did so entirely by the rising and setting of the sun), she gradually began to notice the changes Hoffman had predicted. Over the next four months, her fear of the outside world turned first to indifference and then a deepening desire to end her self-imposed isolation and venture forth once more into society. She began to crave human contact.
This profound shift was brought fully home to Amanda one morning while she was enjoying her first cup of coffee out on the veranda. She noticed a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. This spectacular sight – symbolic of her own transformation – filled her with wonder. It also brought with it a vague melancholic longing which puzzled her until she realized its source: she wanted desperately to share what she’d witnessed with another person. Hoffman had been right. Her metamorphosis was nearing completion.
The final proof of Amanda’s preparedness for departure came on the one-year anniversary of her stay in isolation. One evening, with Autumn once more giving way to Winter, she was alerted again by the old, familiar knocking at the front door. For the first time, the sound inspired not terror, but rather excited anticipation. The prospect of an unexpected visitor was thrilling. It was then that Amanda realized her treatment was finally complete. There was nothing more to be gained from continued isolation, and her professional intuition told her that continued denial of freedom would be profoundly detrimental to her newly mended psyche.
Amanda was ready to leave at last. She made hasty preparations to depart at first light the following morning.
As dawn broke in all its golden splendor on that late April morning, Amanda piloted the old Jeep that had been in the garage down the winding driveway and out into the world - her first foray off the property since her arrival a year ago.
As she drove, she noticed the streets were curiously empty. This didn’t trouble her – she assumed it natural for such a sparsely populated rural place – but, rather, made her all the more determined to seek out signs of life. She ventured onto what appeared to be a national road, her desire for human contact surging to near overwhelming levels.
Amanda passed a sign reading: Umtata 60 Km. She didn’t know how far that was in miles, but it hardly mattered. She would drive until she saw another human being and when she did, she resolved on the spot, she’d run up and embrace the stranger without hesitation.
Officer Joe Dlamini hated working roadblocks. It sucked, big time, as his teenage son would say. But, since the implementation of the nationwide lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic at the end of March, he’d been assigned permanently to the dreary duty on the outskirts of Umtata.
His three-day-old stubble itched, but when he tried to scratch his face, his fingers encountered the unyielding fabric of his surgical mask. Bloody nuisance. But the wearing of such protective equipment had become mandatory, as had the prohibition against social contact. Watching his colleagues arrayed along the roadside, each separated by the stated 2 meters, Joe reflected how once they would have been laughing and joking among themselves, backslapping, high-fiving, sharing a smoke and discussing the chances of Pirates ever winning the league again (slim to none, all would agree).
Not so now. How quickly things had changed. Case in point: two somber gentlemen dressed in the ominous gray suits of the new National Lockdown Enforcement Directorate, formed specifically to deal with violators of the new regulations, stood ready nearby. Government agents operating outside a major population center was unheard of. Or had been, up until recently.
Officer Dlamini wasn’t expecting trouble. Only trucks were allowed passage on national roads, and even they’d been scarce lately. It would be another quiet day. The sight of the old Jeep as it crested the horizon and approached the roadblock put paid to that notion. Joe tensed up. He knew that anyone out for a drive had to be either crazy or a criminal (or both). He was ready for anything.
But not for what happened next.
The lone driver, a woman, exploded out of the vehicle and ran directly towards him, laughing hysterically. Joe froze, unable to move even as the woman reached him and wrapped him in a fierce hug.
When at last his paralysis broke, Joe shoved her away and hit the deck just as his fellow patrolmen took the woman down in a hail of rubber bullets.
He dusted himself off and grunted in disgust. He’d have to spend two weeks in quarantine now as a precaution. He was consoled by the fact that the crazy woman would be locked up for far longer. After such a blatant violation of the stringent new rules, it’d be years before she got out of prison.
The two burly NLED men slapped a pair of handcuffs on her and led her away to a black unmarked van. She begged them through tears of bewilderment to explain what was happening, but the only response she received was a terse, “You know what you did.”
Joe Dlamini felt no sympathy. There was no excuse for her inexplicable actions. The woman was definitely insane. Her soul-piercing wail, which could be heard even over the siren as the van pulled away, testified to the fact.