Monophobia can also grow out of separation anxiety, a fear of being separated from one’s loved ones that most children experience to some degree. (Witness the first day of kindergarten at just about any school in the country to see an example.) “You think of it as a childhood disorder,” says Anne Marie Albano, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. “But in fact, we see in our young adult population kids who have had a separation anxiety disorder and haven’t been treated. At the point when they are supposed to go off to college, it rears its ugly head.” Michelle Craske, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, says that even those without a history of separation anxiety can develop a fear of being away from loved ones later in life. Often, patients experience something painful while apart from family and friends and begin to worry that if they leave again, something else terrible will happen.
Karen Pickett, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, suffered from monophobia for about 25 years, beginning in her 20s. Pickett traces the roots of her anxiety back to her childhood, when her parents divorced. “My dad took off for a long time and my mom got involved with her new life,” she says. “No one was around to help me. Looking back I see that [my monophobia] was a fear of repeating what I experienced as a child.”
By her late 20s, Pickett was a housebound agoraphobe, suffering panic attacks at the very thought of being in public without someone there to help her. And the problem got worse from there. “I went from needing to stay home to feel safe to not being able to stay home by myself,” she says. “If my boyfriend was not staying with me, I would drive to the nearest hospital and sleep in my car. Hospitals came to represent a security that someone would help me if I felt like I was going to die.”
Today, thanks to medication and therapy, Pickett considers herself recovered. (In fact, she became so interested in the process of kicking her anxiety that she earned a master’s degree in psychotherapy.) Still, she says, “I read about people backpacking [on their own] through Europe. I don’t think I could do that.” For years, she wouldn’t travel at all without her then boyfriend.
Pickett’s boyfriend was what therapists refer to as her “safety person.” Often, says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in Santa Monica, depending on a safety person can mask one’s fears of being alone. “People can go through life always making plans, or they’re married, or they’ll dip from one relationship to another,” she says.
Tarnie Fulloon, a physical therapist in Altadena, California, whose monophobia was related to anxiety disorder, depended on her husband to ease her anxiety. She would feel panicky for days before he left on business trips, and after his departure, she would insist on staying with friends or inviting a pal to spend the night. “I was afraid I might have a panic attack; I might suffocate; someone might come in and attack me; we’d have an earthquake, and I wouldn’t be able to get out,” she says.