Judging by the paparazzi photos in weekly celebrity rags, today’s young stars have something against solitude. Paris, Britney, Jessica et al seem to spend every moment surrounded by an always evolving gaggle of friends and employees—whether they’re shopping on Robertson, partying in Vegas or making a Starbucks run. When did Hollywood’s catchphrase go from “I vant to be alone” to “I won’t leave my house without my assistant, my mom, my hairdresser and my three Chihuahuas?” It’s easy to mock such entourages, but recent reports have led some to wonder whether something more serious than social butterfly–ism is at play. Could this addiction to company be pathological?
Take Lindsay Lohan. Nearly every week, the tabs accuse her of bedding a different guy, from movie stars to fellow patients in rehab. In defense, she told a reporter earlier this year that “being an actress is lonely, and I never want to be alone. I hate sleeping alone.” In August an unnamed friend backed up her story, telling People magazine that Lohan “refuses to sleep alone. She’ll make her friends stay the night.”
Paris Hilton is another example. When she discussed her recent jail stint on Larry King Live, Hilton revealed that it wasn’t confinement but the fact that there was no one else with her in her cell that bothered her. “That was really, you know, hard for me in the beginning, to be so alone,” she said.
Extreme fear of being alone is, it turns out, a legitimate psychological condition. Called monophobia, the fear must interrupt or inhibit the patient’s daily routine in order to be considered pathological. It’s not enough to cringe at the thought of eating alone in a restaurant; monophobes panic at the idea of performing the mundane tasks of everyday living solo—driving, shopping, riding the subway.
Whether Hilton and Lohan actually suffer from monophobia is not something any therapist can judge solely on the basis of tabloid reports. Alec Pollard, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, points out that there are a host of other reasons one might crave constant companionship. “I think what drives most celebrities is the pursuit of attention, as opposed to the fear of being alone,” he says. “It’s more addictive than anxiety-driven.”
True monophobia, on the other hand, is generally “tied,” in Pollard’s words, to an anxiety-related psychological problem. Some patients with panic disorder develop monophobia because they are afraid of having a panic attack when no one is around to help. Agoraphobes might believe that if they venture out alone, they will be caught in a harmful situation that they can’t escape on their own. Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder might fear, say, forgetting to turn the oven off if left by themselves.
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.
Even when her husband was in town, Fulloon was on edge. “When he’d leave for work, I would get a little panicky and would look for my neighbor to make sure she was home,” she says. Fulloon underwent therapy and is now able to be on her own comfortably, though because she experienced her first major panic attack in an elevator, she still avoids riding in one alone.
For some monophobes, antianxiety drugs or mood stabilizers can help. But most doctors recommend trying a cognitive behavioral approach first, including weaning the monophobe from her safety person. One day, for example, a patient’s husband might sit in the backseat of the car while she drives. The next, he might drive in a car behind hers, until finally she is able to go it alone. The safety person must learn how to “encourage independence and not feed into the depending,” Albano says. Doctors will also help the patient articulate her specific fears about being alone. The patient can then be taught coping mechanisms.
And as for young Hollywood’s entourage addicts, Pollard says that if these company-craving starlets truly fear being alone, they’re, well, hardly alone in their fear. “We have become less tolerant as a society of solitude,” he says, noting that these days we’re almost never really out of touch. “If all of a sudden we lost our computers, cell phones and BlackBerries, we might all have panic attacks—but we’d do it as a group.”
Britney Spears: INFphoto.com