I wake up. I can tell it’s a bad day already. It’s the fifth bad day this week.
Sitting up I feel dizzy, heart racing. I’m about to have a panic attack. The room spins, I can’t see, I feel like I’m going to throw up. No, I know I am going to throw up. Running down the stairs, I’m lucky not to fall down, as I can’t see a thing properly. Yet I make it just in time.
This is my morning routine on a bad day. The cramps kick in. It feels like someone’s stabbing me in the gut, whilst my heart pounds so hard it feels like it might pop out. Then the overwhelming sadness sets in. Why am I even trying?
My housemate calls up to me to let me know I’m going to be late. So I grab some clothes and shove some foundation on to cover up the bags under my eyes, the result of my love/hate relationship with sleep. Stumbling down the stairs, the nausea and the dizziness haven’t gone, I’m just dealing with it.
Yet I get to the door and freeze.
As I reach for the door handle, something in me snaps. Standing there, times begins to slowly pass me by. A fear. A paralysing fear. So intense it’s taken over my entire body. I begin to shake, tears roll down my cheeks and the idea of going outside, suddenly scares me sh*tless. The worst thing is I have no idea what is causing this sheer sense of panic.
As someone who has experienced night terrors on and off for many years, I thought I knew fear. I thought nothing could scare me anymore. I’ve been in enough dangerous situations to understand it. Or so I thought.
This fear was different. I’ve never been so scared in my life. It also left me feeling pathetic, because I simply couldn’t leave the house. My ex-housemate mocked me, commenting that if I actually left the house once in a while, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so damn depressed. It’s not that simple. Don’t you think that’s what I want? Do you think I want to be in a situation, where I am forced to rely on others to buy my food or get money out for me? Where I can only look outside with longing, but not actually experience it.
My agoraphobia had taken over my life.
This was my worst phrase. In the space of two or three months late last year, I must have left the house about five times. That was only with my current housemate present. To get food from the shop five minutes away from our house. I left the house once in that period by myself, and I couldn’t leave it at all, not even with a friend, for a whole week afterwards.
Agoraphobia is often misunderstood. It’s commonly described as a fear of the outside, of large crowds, busy places and open spaces. This isn’t completely true. It is just common for people with agoraphobia to experience anxiety or another phobia, which might be triggered in a large crowd or public place. Personally it is the idea of not being able to escape that scares me most, and it was that which caused me to avoid crowds and busy places when I was having a particularly hard time.
The best definition of agoraphobia I have ever heard is that agoraphobia is the fear of fear itself. That’s how my doctor explained it to me. Agoraphobia usually develops in someone who has had multiple and continuing panic attacks. It is the result of avoidance strategies and techniques, aimed to prevent these panic attacks from occurring. For example, I had my first panic attack whilst running, something I loved, but because I had a panic attack, which I didn’t understand then, I stopped running. I have a generalised anxiety disorder, so I have always found it difficult to pinpoint the cause of my anxiety. Panic attacks just happened to me. Every day, multiple times.
It was my attempts to avoid panic attacks, which caused my agoraphobia to develop.
I’m recovering now. Once you realise what is happening to you, it’s easier to conquer that fear. I realised that I was scared of experiencing further pain. That I was scared of what life was going to throw at me next if I walked out that door. I still struggle with it. I find myself avoiding any concrete plans, out of fear that I will be unable to attend last minute. Yet, I’m making progress. Most days I can make myself leave the house now. It’s only on the really bad days, where I’m too sick, dizzy, in pain and engulfed in sadness, that I simply can’t find the strength needed to get out.
I’ve found it hard to tell friends and family. It makes me feel ashamed and I don’t want them to see me like that. Yet the more I slowly admit things to them, the more understanding they become. I know I should open up completely, but it is difficult because it leaves you so fragile, open to the stigma and misdirected hate, from those who don’t understand.
I’ve experienced too much of that.
However, it is exactly why I am sharing my experience of agoraphobia with you. It is Mental Health Awareness Week and I feel agoraphobia is often forgotten and misunderstood. Life gets a lot more complex when you can’t leave the house. You can’t even sort out your bills because the bank wants to see you in person. Agoraphobia is a mental illness that is often linked with Anxiety and Depression, which means it can cause those aspects of your life to become even harder to deal with. It is terrifying to experience, especially if you don’t understand what is happening to you.
It is only by raising awareness of Agoraphobia, that those who are experiencing it can feel safe enough to admit to their loved ones how they truly feel. That no, they aren’t ignoring you, they aren’t ditching you last minute, they do care, they simply can’t leave the house right now.