Updated: Apr 12
My Agoraphobic journey.
I was your average “twenty-something” woman, a bright University student, living the typical student life. Enjoying the moment. Grabbing opportunities. Outwardly confident and quite carefree.
And there it was, my first panic attack hit me like a brick in the face, and sucked the breath, literally and physically, from my lungs.
That was the defining moment my mental health started to decline. And it was really quite an insignificant moment. Nothing special, no big dramatic or harrowing life event. (Although years of poor lifestyle choices, stress & partying I guess had something to do with the build-up).
‘’I need to get out of here right now!...... but I can’t’’
Sitting in the courtroom, in the heat, I had a sudden sense that something was wrong. I looked around at everyone else in the room, nobody else seemed alarmed.
In fact, everything and everyone seemed calm, as if a slow-motion scene were playing out right in front of my eyes. But in contrast, my heart was racing, my hands were sweaty. I felt lightheaded and the voices in the room became faint & fuzzy. My blood rushing in my ears was damn loud!
My thoughts . . . . oh god my thoughts were all over the place, I couldn’t focus. Was I dying? Did I need to ask for help? Was I going to faint? Am I breathing? I put my hand to my chest, is this a heart attack? But my heart was still beating, way too fast. Ok try to focus, I need to get out. Damn! I can’t escape. Please no! Make this stop!! What is happening to me? I can’t leave, I am in a hearing! Nobody stands or leaves until we are dismissed.
For a few seconds, I zoned back into the room to hear the Magistrate summing up. I told myself to hold on until I could escape. A messy, heightened, electrical frenzy on the inside, cool as a cucumber on the outside. Until finally, the Magistrate stood, and we were all given the go-ahead to leave.
Of course, the sense of relief I felt when I was able to exit the Courthouse into the fresh air later became the very thing that anchored me into the cycle of fear, panic, escape, relief & avoid. I didn’t understand that being trapped in that cycle would take the very essence of ‘me’ with it.
‘’Agoraphobia doesn’t just happen. It builds.
One situation at a time.”
As the panic attacks continued the anxiety grew from occasional to persistent, causing me to run away from fear, rather than facing these situations. Each episode would build an additional barrier to overcome, I retreated further away from conquering my fear, believing this was the safe and only option.
I’m a professional, a social worker, with a career, climbing ladders and putting on a professional appearance, but outside that persona, I had lost so many things:
Travelling outside of my safe zone
Attending social events
Meeting new people
Shopping at the supermarket
Going out for leisure walks
Concerts, Festivals, Girls weekends
Simple trips to the cinema etc.
I lost myself, the person who had fun. I spent most of my time controlling each day and sticking to as many safe routines as possible. Avoiding anything that had the potential to throw me into a state of fear or nervousness. Any events which caused me uncertainty gave me sleepless nights sometimes months prior to the occasion. The safest place I found was sitting motionless on the sofa. I held onto some of these habits along with general anxiety and agoraphobia for almost 20 years. Hidden from all but a handful of people close to me.
‘’Talk to someone you trust’’
I understood some of the psychology of my situation, but I wasn’t confident of finding the right person. I suppose that’s why it took so long to reach out, I didn’t trust anyone to help. But, later in life, some unusual circumstances led me to Karen, a therapist, with years of experience and a no-bs approach. She ‘got’ me, and we formed a respectful and easy connection, she changed everything. Within a few months, I dared to look straight into the eyes of the woman I used to be and re-connect with her. I became human again. It takes time and is scary, but it can happen.
Humans are meant to be free, to roam around and explore. Having anxiety with agoraphobia feels like being a tree, rooted in the same spot due to the safety of the known environment. And the longer you stay in the same mindset, the deeper the roots will anchor you in place.
Anxiety UK describes Agoraphobia as:
‘’A very complex phobia usually manifesting itself as a collection of inter-linked conditions.
For example, many agoraphobics also fear being left alone (monophobia), dislike being in any situation where they feel trapped (exhibiting claustrophobia type tendencies) and fear travelling away from their ‘safe’ place, usually the home. Some agoraphobics find they can travel more easily if they have a trusted friend or family member accompanying them, however, this can quickly lead to dependency on their carer.
The severity of agoraphobia varies enormously between sufferers from those who are housebound, even room-bound, to those who can travel specific distances within a defined boundary. It is not a fear of open spaces as many people think.’’