Agoraphobia – Voluntary Imprisonment
Many of my previous posts on mental health and mental illness might have indicated that I have a slight problem with anxiety. Okay, okay. I have a major problem with anxiety! I have several anxiety conditions and they pretty much rule my life. I don’t remember a day, an hour, a minute, or a second, that I have been without anxiety. The conditions kind of overlap and sometimes it is hard for me to say what specific anxiety condition is making me feel uneasy at any given time. At one point I was diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia. And while I think that the panic disorder was not a correct assessment, I definitely still struggle with agoraphobia.
For me, agoraphobia is about being scared of being around people, outside of the house, and especially in closed spaces like public transport, stores and supermarkets. I am not too worried about big crowds because I feel like I can still blend in, and no one notices me or my awkwardness. The fear that I have is being ridiculed, embarrassed, ashamed. It is this odd fear of judgment by others. I am scared that they won’t recognize me as human, but as subhuman. As something disgusting, negative, not normal.
My agoraphobia was in the beginning said to be linked to panic disorder, but now I am quite certain that it is both linked to my social anxiety and my trauma issues. Social anxiety is the fear of being in social situations, and you know, that is what my agoraphobia is about as well. It is when people see, hear, sense me, and there is, if even only a subconscious and slight, interaction. Then I panic. It could be something so simple as a smile when you are waiting to pay your items at the supermarket, or you see someone walk on the other side of the street.
How it all started
The first panic attacks I ever consciously experienced were in public. I didn’t know what they were at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to hide so no one could see me freak out, or in the worst case scenario, die. I was ashamed, scared and confused. For me, it was about being outside in general, but the worst places were public transport and supermarkets. That is where most of my panic attacks occurred, and those were the places I started to avoid. I just didn’t want to feel that way again, ever. And not only that, I didn’t want to be in a situation where I can get triggered into a panic attack.
A panic attack during those days, when that kind of behaviour started, was very physically overwhelming. I got dizzy, I felt my heartrate go up, I felt a lump in my throat, my vision got blurry, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I thought I was going to faint. It wasn’t even that I was going to faint that scared me the most. It was fainting in public, and embarrassing myself, I imagined people laughing at me, or ridiculing me, or giving me attention in a way I didn’t want to. I was scared I was going to throw up, I was scared that I was going to faint, or that anyone would notice that I was struggling. So most of my energy went into trying to seem as normal as possible and to find a hiding place as quickly as possible.
I know that is not the way how most people would react if they had a panic attack. But that was my emotional reaction to it. The panic attacks and anxiety during those days led to me isolating myself. I had had times when I withdrew from people, especially when I was in depression. But this was different. I was scared to be around people. I was scared to leave the house. I was scared I would get another panic attack. I was scared people would judge me and ridicule me. I was scared of embarrassment.
One example of how it affected me is the many times I left my basket of groceries, unpaid, in the supermarket and rushed home. I could be standing in line, waiting for my turn with the cashier. The panic overwhelmed me, I was scared people would recognize that something awkward was going on with me, so I had to flee the situation (and be without food.).
After a while I was unable to leave the house, unless it was with someone I trusted. I couldn’t take public transport anymore. And I was definitely unable to go shopping, go to classes or meet up with friends. There were times when I didn’t leave the house in months. I didn’t meet a single person. My isolation was total.
Most people probably would expect me to write about how Cognitive Behaviour Therapy made me so much better and I absolutely love going outside and socializing now. Eh. But that would be a lie. I tried CBT to tackle both the panic attacks and the agoraphobia. But it didn’t help. It actually made things worse for a while because the panic attacks increased in frequency and I felt like an absolute failure for not being able to go against my fears.
I still suffer from agoraphobia and social anxiety. Panic attacks are common for me, especially when having to go out. Just the nature of it all changed a bit. I have physical illnesses now that actually give me strong symptoms at times. I am often shaky, fatigued, dizzy and feel uneasy. Those symptoms are quite unhelpful when you are already struggling with anxiety, especially so, health anxiety. So I am often weirdly convinced of that I am close to death or that I am going to die instantly because I am feeling a weird symptom. And you can imagine how that would add to my agoraphobia. Now I am often scared that I am going to die when I am outside, the most embarrassing thing I could imagine. People seeing me dying, wanting to get closer and help, or just stare.
I know this is very irrational. But the fear is real. And if it isn’t that particular fear, it is still the idea of people thinking I am subhuman, not normal, weird. When I walk past someone, I hold my breath. Always. I am worried I breathe too loudly and people will think I am disgusting. Being outside the safety of my own apartment seems dangerous to me. That is definitely also related to my trauma issues.
When I am outside of my apartment, my general anxiety symptoms are amplified and I also experience symptoms of my physical illnesses, due to physically moving. I get tunnel vision, everything is blurry and a lot of times, I dissociate. I just float through the experience. Leaving the house is torture for me. I hate leaving my home. I hate being in closed spaces with other people.
Living in Isolation
So I don’t leave my home, unless there is no other way. Exceptions would be that I need to go to the ER, or that the house is on fire. Back in Sweden, I would order my groceries online. Here in Canada, my boyfriend does the shopping. Again, I understand how irrational my fear is. And I know that I am missing out on a lot. I don’t have friends. I don’t get to see a lot of the place I moved to. But still, the fear is stronger than any other needs that I would have.
There are times when it gets better, and others when it gets worse. This is very much linked to how I am generally feeling. Sometimes I can go on late evening walks for 15 minutes, or go out to haver dinner. Other times, I don’t leave the house at all for months. Especially when I am in depression. I don’t see the part of my struggles that relate to my agoraphobia to improve any time soon. So I am going to be stuck inside. At least my bed is comfy!