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.

My 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.).

Avoidance

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.

Today

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!

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10 Responses

  1. SB4MH says:

    Just because you know the fears are irrational has little bearing on how much they can still control you and the frustration can make them worse.

    Lots of sympathy in how debilitating and life limiting this all is as there’s plenty of times I’d just love to give in, retreat inside and shut everything out.

    I do wonder how people used to suffer in silence before the Internet. Social media and the opportunity to post about symptoms and difficulties does, in my experience, provide an outlet to relieve some of the pressures.

    Thank you for writing so many brave and comprehensive pieces.

    melody xx

    • I think having self-awareness about one’s issues and not being able to do anything about them, is extremely frustrating. Sorting it sounds so easy on paper, but emotions are overwhelming and just stop any efforts right away.
      Yes, it must have been difficult to not be able to socialize at all, without internet, as well. What we would describe as loneliness today is most likely nothing compared to how lonely people must have felt before when anxiety stopped them from going out.
      Thank you so very much for reading and for your kind comment!

  2. May says:

    My fear/hate of crowds is not extreme but i would rather be in the countryside or at home than be anywhere near people – i have always been a bit of a loner. And I am pleased u have a comfy bed 😉

    • Being a homebody or enjoying solitude doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. it is always about how much it affects one’s quality of life, and if it stops you from doing things that you want to do.

  3. jupitergrant says:

    It must be very isolating for you, but I can completely understand that the fear leaves you too scared to leave your home. And although people can tell you, and you can tell yourself, it’s irrational, that doesn’t make it any less crippling.
    Your story of leaving a basket of groceries behind and bolting brought back a memory of being in a supermarket queue and being seconds away from doing the same, all because one my big anxieties gripped me suddenly -fear of peeing myself in public! Even although I didn’t need to go, I was convinced I was about to have an accident in front of the entire store, and the fear made me feel dizzy and like I would pass out. So your descriptions really struck a chord! A terrifying one!
    I’m glad that you have a safe haven, and have found ways to get around the limits your agoraphobia and anxieties place on you. ??

    • Yeah, it is difficult to logic with feelings. I tried it many times but now I am just like: okay okay, you win, haha.
      Gosh I am sorry to hear that you can so much relate to the incident leaving a basket of groceries at the supermarket and just running back home. Our fears really come up in the weirdest moments. That is such a specific fear that you have, I wonder if you are aware where it comes from?
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Jupi <3

      • jupitergrant says:

        You’re so right -logic rarely comes into it where feelings are concerned! I suppose it is quite a specific fear, yes. I remember peeing myself in the playground when I was about 7 years old, because I was afraid to go to the loos (the big boys were hovering there, and I couldn’t get my friend to chum me!). Maybe that embarrassment has stayed with me all my life and comes out now as one of the worst things I can imagine happening to me in public. Thanks Deevie, I’ve never made that connection before you asked about it. You should be a therapist ???

        • It totally makes sense that your specific fear comes from that specific embarrassing moment in your childhood! That is when most of our fears and behaviours are shaped, after all! Haha, sorry for having gone all Freudian on you and doing the psychoanalysis thing 😛

  1. March 14, 2020

    […] was starting point for my agoraphobia. At times I can’t leave my apartment for weeks on end. There was once a period of six months […]

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