I have been confined to my house for around six years now. If I was able to leave the house I can’t say that I would want to. I’m not so confined that I can’t physically leave the house because anytime I wish I can walk out the door. I am not a prisoner in the way most people perceive it to be. There are no court orders holding me here, I don’t have one of those electronic tracking ankle bracelets. I don’t have a husband who is keeping me locked up; I just can’t bear to go out. I’m a closet agoraphobic.
Every morning five times a week, at precisely 7:30 I leave the house and return safely most days no later than 7:45. Exactly half an hour later at 8:00 I once again leave the house and return at 8:20. Two down, one to go; at 2:17 I exit the house and arrive home at 2:35. I’m done for the day. Sounds like a bus schedule doesn’t it? In reality that is what it is. I drop my daughter off at school, then my son. That leaves me with one last trip to pick up my daughter later in the day; my son walks home in the afternoons. This is a routine for me every day and it takes a lot of gearing up to accomplish those three trips five times a week. Some days no matter how much I’ve mentally prepared myself to leave the house it’s extremely hard and I just have to force myself to do it.
On days that require me to leave the house to run errands I start feeling the panic as soon as I’m out of bed. Normally I don’t have a lot of errands. All my banking and financial responsibilities are taken care of right over the internet so there’s no need to drop off bill payments and such. Pretty much my errands consist of grocery shopping, running the kids around and maybe making a deposit at the bank; once in a while I have to run by the pet store or do some other odd ball chore. It takes me longer on those days to actually make it out the door, often times I don’t end up running my errands until the very last minute.
There are occasions where leaving the house is relatively painless. Going camping with my family is one of them. It’s an event that we do yearly and has become a tradition that we faithfully follow each summer. We vacation at the same camp ground each year and I’m very familiar with the area. I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that I am able to camp panic free. However, unexpected trips send my heart racing and the gearing up process must begin.
This is what life is like when you live with agoraphobia. Technically I’m not afraid of the outdoors; it’s what could be out there in the outdoors that terrifies me. The symptoms of agoraphobia are not the same for everyone that has it. Some agoraphobics aren’t able to leave the house as much as I do while others only have a mild form and are able to go anywhere with a little bit of push. Regardless of the symptoms each of us has it’s embarrassing for people to know that you have totally irrational fears and therefore have become a hermit. A lot of us simply go without treatment because it’s too scary to tell someone who has the ability to have you locked away somewhere in a padded cell with nothing to do but finger paint and eat jello. I am one of those and that’s also one of my symptoms. I am afraid people will think I’m nuts and I’ll get locked up for it. I am slowly coming out of the agoraphobic closet.
For those that have never heard of agoraphobia it is an anxiety disorder which primarily consists of being afraid, of being in a difficult situation that can’t be escaped and the embarrassment of people finding out you have these kinds of fear. People with agoraphobia can have severe panic attacks in situations where they feel trapped or are too far out of comfort zone. In severe cases, an agoraphobic may be confined to one or two rooms in their house and can become bed-bound, or a recluse. The standard definition of agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces however in the studies preformed on actual agoraphobics has revealed it’s not so much the open space as it is the unknown of what might possibly happen in the wide open space.
Agoraphobia does not just come out of nowhere and smack you in the head. It gradually increases in intensity until it becomes unbearable to leave the house. I suspect my agoraphobia began developing when I was a child. I’d play outside all day long but the moment I entered into unfamiliar territory I became disoriented and paralyzed with fear. I remember one incident particularly well. I was probably around eight years old when it happened. I had been invited over to a friend’s house to play and was walking down the street on my way there. Overhead I heard a plane flying by that seemed to be extremely low. Growing up as a military brat, I was quite comfortable with being around airplanes. My father was on a flight crew so I had been exposed to them in great detail both on and off the flight line. This plane however, was not flying as high as what I had been taught was normal. At some point I began to panic thinking that the plane intended to land on me. I searched for cover and then I realized the neighborhood didn’t look familiar to me. I panicked and ran home as fast as I could. At the time it felt like it took forever to get home because I got lost in my confusion and hysteria. Everyone in my family thought I was just being silly but the fear of that moment has stayed with me and I’ll never forget how frightening it was to have that plane over my head. Logically I knew the plane wouldn’t land on me but in the midst of this kind of panic there is no real logic behind the fear.
Every one has different depths of panic attacks. When they hit me my heart will typically race, I become short of breath, feel dizzy and the urge to run is very high. Some people feel like they are dying or having a heart attack. Have enough of these panic attacks and pretty soon your brain figures that if you just don’t go there you won’t have to endure the panic.
A big part of dealing with agoraphobia is acknowledging its presence. I tend to act like everyone else has the problem and just wants to label me as weird. That’s how I defend the fact that I don’t go outside. I like to let them think I’m more worried about skin cancer and a sun burn instead of telling them the real reason I avoid the great outdoors. Slowly I’m turning that around and expressing my fears in truth. I’m learning that being embarrassed about it won’t kill me.
When it’s time to leave the house and go somewhere with the whole family I plaster a smile on my face and let my fears bounce around inside my head rather than just lay it out there for them all to see. I allow myself to focus on each task I have to accomplish in order to get out of the house individually. That way I’m able to manage the panic and actually make it out the door.
The down side to having agoraphobia, aside from the obvious, is weight gain. I am naturally a thin person but when you don’t get very much exercise there’s no way to stay that way unless you invest in various exercise equipment to put in your home. I tried joining up at a women’s exercise facility called Curves but that didn’t last long. The exercise routine is supposed to last thirty minutes and while that seems doable it is in fact far too overwhelming. I spent every second in that place watching the clock and counting down to escape. Most people would just get up and leave but for me that’s just as bad as actually entering the building because someone might see me leave and what kind of embarrassment will I have to endure in explaining why I’m leaving?
Another bad thing about having agoraphobia is the relentless fatigue and night terrors. The night terrors come from the mind constantly being afraid and remaining at alert in the case something should happen. It has to be relieved in some fashion so the mind attempts to clear it out through dreams; the only problem with that is that night terrors are different from dreams in that you don’t actually have any memory of the dream itself. Avoiding situations and trying to remain some level of daily responsibility wears physically one one’s body and fatigue sets in. Fatigue can cause body aches and mental confusion thus leading to more fears which turns into a vicious cycle for the agoraphobic person.
Vitamin D is a necessary element every human being needs to survive and without it the human body loses its ability to sleep well, strengthen bones and teeth and fight off certain illnesses. The human body is unable to create its own vitamin D; we soak it up through sun rays. The normal agoraphobic person does not get enough sun to accumulate all that vitamin D. There are of course options to increase foods in our diets that are rich in vitamin D as well as drink lots of vitamin D milk but there is not enough studies proving this method of obtaining the precious vitamin will work. Once again we are caught in the cycle, not enough vitamin D means not enough good sleep, not enough sleep means fatigue and fatigue means more unfounded fears.
Now that I’ve explained a bit about agoraphobia and my experiences with it, let me explain a little bit about the fears agoraphobics struggle with. The fears we experience can vary in the degree of magnitude as well as in the particular fear itself. You have to keep in mind that agoraphobia is about the fear of being noticed having a fear and that’s what sets agoraphobia apart from other anxiety disorders such as hypochondria which is very issue specific.
An example of an agoraphobic fear is dreading going to the supermarket. I am in no way afraid of the grocery store. What I am afraid of is being in the aisle and having someone knock over a display close by me which makes everyone think I knocked it over. I’m also afraid that I’ll have some terribly embarrassing episode of gas and won’t be able to leave before anyone else notices. Then of course there’s the convincing argument taking place inside my head that tells me I’m going to have a car accident on the way to the supermarket and wind up dead and my children will be without a mother. In my world these are very real fears. Most people grab their keys, jump in the car and shop for groceries without a problem but for an agoraphobic there are too many what if’s out there to do this without a lot of preparation a head of time.
Having so many what if’s leads the typical agoraphobic person to develop more fears. For instance I am terrified of public toilets. Notice I did not say public restrooms. The reason I did not say restroom is because I have no problem going in to one, standing in front of the mirror, washing my hands or exiting it. I have a problem with the toilet itself. It’s a frightening beast that will drown me in disgusting pooh-pooh water in my mind because I know that I am one of those people who WILL cause it overflow. This is probably one of my bigger fears and has caused me to nearly wet my pants more times than I care to remember. Food quite frankly scares the bejezus right out of me, or rather eating foods that are touching each other or contain ingredients I am unaware of; more so eating foods at another person’s house than at any other time. With agoraphobia one fear tends to lead to another one and before we know it we are just plain scared of existing.
To live with a disorder like agoraphobia means to live with constant fear. Fear of dying, fear of spiders, fear of being killed, fear of being alone and the fear of abandonment are all examples of fears that stem from the original fear of having noticeable fears. There are a lot of survivors of agoraphobia out there and they deserve all the kudo’s they get but there are just as many of us who continue to suffer with this disorder without any reprieve.
I am not one of those survivor agoraphobics or one that is receiving treatment. Why? Because for the most part I’m comfortable being confined to my house where I have very little panic attacks and I’m not willing to put myself through the stress of remedying the problem. Overcoming agoraphobia without medications usually involved lots of exposure to fearful situations according to the actual fear itself. I have no desire to become paralyzed by fear and therefore will continue to use the gear up technique until it no longer benefits me. I am in no way condoning the practice of avoiding doctors, medications and therapists for those that want to go that route, but for those that would rather attempt to manage the agoraphobia with the gearing up technique here are a few tips that might just help a little.
1. Take your mind off of it. When I have a chore, task or errand to run I have to plan ahead. I need to allow my body to relax and this is not always easy. I begin by doing something before hand that takes my mind off the upcoming event. Sometimes it’s something as menial as playing a game of backgammon online, other times it’s a nice long hot shower. It doesn’t have to be something that’s lengthy or detailed just as long as it gets your mind off the time you need to leave the house.
2. Make a plan. I always plan my outings with as much detail as I can. If I have to run to the post office I try to estimate how much time I’ll be there and mentally prepare myself for it. If I have several places to go I make a list of them, start with the one that is furthest away and work my way towards home. With every location that looms closer to home comes relief bit by bit. I always make a grocery list so that I can breeze through the aisles grabbing the items quickly and move on without leaving myself time to dwell upon where I am at. Whatever the outing, make a plan, make a list and allow yourself to be comfortable following it. Lists are our friends.
3. Imagine yourself being successful. Go over the route you will be driving in your mind. Imagine that you arrive both there and back safely with no interruptions. Explore the possibility that you can and will manage to leave the house and not have something happen to you while you are away. This is a tough one and not easy to master but over time with practice it will become easier, I promise.
4. Stop listening to the arguments in your head that tell you there will be a problem or impending doom. Argue back that millions of people do it every single day and live through it. Tell yourself that you can do it too and that you have a right to be in public just as much as the next person and no feat of fate is singling you out.
5. Go ahead and agree that you will most likely feel uncomfortable and out of place. There’s no sense in sugar coating it. Just because you have completed the previous step and have imagined that you are successful does not mean you have to enjoy it. It would be better if you did but it’s not a requirement. Let yourself off the hook and know it is ok to be unhappy about having to leave the comfort of your home.When you do have a panic attack you can talk yourself out of it no matter how much your brain argues back that no you can’t. Start thinking positive peaceful thoughts. Concentrate on the fact that even though you may feel like you are dying, you are actually quite healthy and are alive. Take deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Focus on the sound of the breathing and the way it feels to fill up your lungs with air. If after all that you are still panicking run like hell to get home where you can feel safe and call your therapist and let them know you had a bad day.
Agoraphobia can be a debilitating disorder that has the ability to steal away the years of your life. I can’t begin to tell you how many doctors’ appointments, family gatherings and kids’ events that I’ve missed because I have been unable to leave the house. This is an illness that can not just be cured through traditional medicinal practice. It’s something that takes time and a whole heck of a lot of work. Diagnosis can often be wrong which can in turn lead to more fears. Families suffer and relationships break because of agoraphobia. If you are like me and haven’t found the strength to get professional help and are able to somewhat manage it on your own then I suggest you start reading up on the information regarding CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. If you do have the strength to see someone about it, I applaud you and wish you the best in your recovery but whatever method you use to deal with agoraphobia know that you might be alone inside your house but you are not truly alone in the world.