On Friday I talked in my blog about the fact that I have been suffering from a physical illness for the past week or so. This has kept me off work and housebound for the majority of this week and has caused me to reflect on a period of my life when I was housebound for a very different reason. As I’ve spoken about previously, my mid to late teens were profoundly affected by panic attacks and this caused me to develop another mental health condition – agoraphobia.
‘Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong’.
The above description sums up agoraphobia well in relation to my experience of the condition. As I touched on in my previous blog about panic attacks, I attached so much fear to panic attacks that I became desperate to avoid having one. The more desperately I tried to fight panic attacks the more they happened and the more I began developing agoraphobia. If I couldn’t stop myself from having a panic attack then, instead, I was going to make sure that I avoided putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t easily ‘escape’ after one hit.
This mind-set meant that going anywhere away from home became extremely difficult. I just about managed to continue going to school and then sixth-form each day although there were times when I panicked so much that I had to leave and go home early. I remember some days walking to school when I was physically sick due to the intense fear I was feeling about being away from home all day with the looming possibility of experiencing another panic attack. Doing the essential everyday things was pushing me to my limits. Anything beyond that was just impossible for me to even consider doing.
Simple infrequent events like school exams or trips were terrifying. How could I leave an exam midway through if a panic attack hit? How could I get home from a school trip? The harder the situation was to ‘escape’ from the more intense the fear got. It got to the point where I made excuses to avoid going on a history trip to a lecture in London because I knew I couldn’t handle it. There were several other school clubs I didn’t join and activities I didn’t participate in because of my agoraphobia which weighed around my neck like an anchor.
Not being able to do the things that I wanted to do in my last few years at school was really tough. However, the impact that my agoraphobia had on my family and social life was heart-breaking for me. I remember having to leave big family occasions early and forcing my Mum to do the same because of the fear that overwhelmed me. I remember other times when I refused to go on days out to places I would have loved to have gone while my family went without me. I don’t blame them. Their lives couldn’t come to a standstill as well just because mine had. Sitting at home in fear of having another panic attack waiting for everyone to come home was soul-destroying and I’m sure it wasn’t much easier for my family who tried everything to help me.
It was the same situation when I was invited to social events with friends – except they didn’t know why I always declined. A day when my girlfriend (at the time), her best-friend and two of my best-friends went for a day out shopping in Cambridge sticks in my memory. I desperately wanted to go but I knew my condition wouldn’t allow me to without making a fool of myself. I made my excuses and declined the invitation. The day they went shopping came around and I sat at home all day feeling sick wishing I could be there. I felt pathetic and couldn’t understand why there was something so wrong with me when everyone else could go out and have fun.
I’m sure I’ve lost friends because of my mental health. A large part of that is my fault for not being honest with people about what I was experiencing but there was no way I could be at the time. Instead the excuses and lies just kept coming and I kept avoiding situations. My sixth-form friends tried to organise a holiday for all of us, I pretended to be interested but I secretly hoped that it wouldn’t happen because I knew I couldn’t go away anywhere with my condition. I was relieved when the plans fell apart but really I would have loved to have gone on holiday with them under different circumstances.
Crunch time for me with my condition was when university loomed on the horizon. It could have gone either way. The thought of going away to university was utterly terrifying. I declined interviews and offers from Essex & Kent because those universities were too far for me to comprehend moving away from home. In the end, I went to an open day at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and just about pulled myself through the day. I was proud of myself but it took a lot out of me and I didn’t know how I’d cope going there every day. I accepted my offer from Anglia Ruskin knowing that I could commute from home to university and that is exactly what I did for the first year.
University helped me realise that I was capable of going places and doing things. As I spoke about in my panic attack blog, there came a point before going to university when I realised that I didn’t need to fear panic attacks any longer. This led me to slowly overcome my conditions and the things which I did at university helped reinforce that I could have fun and live my life how I wanted. Going with my friends to Thorpe Park was a massive moment for me.
Staying overnight with friends and going clubbing was even bigger. Returning home from a university trip with my friends to Paris was probably THE moment that I realised I’d conquered my panic attacks and agoraphobia for good. If I could do that, I no longer had any reason to fear going anywhere!
I moved to Cambridge ahead of my second year at university and over the past 5 years I have been to so many places, achieved loads and had so much fun. If you’re at home with agoraphobia reading this now then please know that you can come through it. The biggest thing that you need to do is identify what is causing you to fear leaving the house. Once you rationalise that thing, as I did with panic attacks, you destroy the fear that is attached to it and you can begin to overcome your agoraphobia.
It takes time but generally the more you put yourself in the situations that scare you the more you realise that you are capable of doing things which you never thought you could. Once you get to a better place, it’s easy to regret the time ‘wasted’ in the past because of your condition. However, I always find it helps to remember that I am happy now and I wouldn’t have got to this place and met the people I’ve met without my past experiences leading me here. This conjures up a couple of questions to me. How can you regret a mental health condition which you couldn’t control? How can you regret what has led you to be happy in the present?