A month or so ago I left my house to go for a walk. I made it four houses down from my house accompanied by my pup Midnight. My breathing became more rapid with every foot step, my mind started to blank out, the ground was moving under my feet, the cold claws were closing in around my chest, I felt feverish. I clung on to Midnight’s leash for dear life. I gave in to the incoming panic attack, recovered, snapped this picture and then ran home. Despite the panic attack, that was a victorious day. I had managed to leave the house alone. I haven’t gone for a walk by myself since.
For the past couple of years my anxiety has manifested into something new and most unwelcome: agoraphobia. For those of you who might not be familiar with agoraphobia, my (not at all professional) take on it is that it is an anxiety disorder which causes you to avoid certain places and scenarios out of fear of panic or discomfort. I’m far from an expert, here is a place to start your reading about agoraphobia if you are curious to know more. I struggle to feel safe when I am out of the house. My anxiety is particularly strong when I am in large open spaces, somewhere with lots of stimulus (i.e. a grocery store) or can’t escape/get home quickly. But most of all, I struggle to leave the house alone. This isn’t to say that I never do those things, the best known treatment for agoraphobia is exposure therapy. I have coping mechanisms I use to venture out in to the big scary world and have managed to expand the places where I feel at least somewhat safe quite a lot in the past couple of years. If I feel in control I am much more likely to try to push myself into an anxiety provoking situation. I never go anywhere without an escape plan and a little kit of anxiety coping tools stashed in my purse.
Something that many people don’t get right about agoraphobia is that it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to go out. I get a lot of people telling me things like, “Come out tonight, it’ll be fun” or “just give it a try, you used to like it”. I want to get out of the house more than anything. Agoraphobia is an innately isolating disorder. I don’t feel like I can fully participate in my life and relationships. I feel confined to my house. I dream about hanging out at my friends’ houses without my husband present, going to see a play or musical, doing the groceries… The list goes on. Even just thinking about those things causes me to start feeling panicked, but I yearn for them. I feel blocked from accessing things that I love in my life like my friends, family, the outdoors and theatre. My number one goal right now is being able to feel independent again. I long for the day when I can go to appointments or even just walks in my neighbourhood without having one of my trusted support people with me. Right now doing those things, even when accompanied by people like my husband or my mom, is extremely difficult and draining.
I have adapted a lot to this disorder. At first it was incredibly distressing and I carried a high level of anxiety with me all day every day out of pure confusion and guilt over these new feelings. I still resort to beating myself up about my agoraphobia more often than I should, but I am generally more accepting of it. I have become more accustomed to my isolation and have found things to occupy my long days spent at home alone. It isn’t easy though. There are days when I hear the mailman delivering a package to my door and can’t stand to open the door to retrieve the package. Feeling this incapacitated is exhausting, it’s humiliating, it’s often more than I can handle. Other days, I decide enough is enough. I grab my dog’s leash and I head out the door, determined that my pure strength of will is enough to conquer my agoraphobia. You might remember from my opening story, that doesn’t always go so well for me.
Sometimes I become so stir crazy that I can hardly handle it. It can feel like an itch I can’t scratch. I am currently trying to navigate one of those times. Yesterday was a crazy day, I had to rush my dog to the vet in the morning and then went downtown to my favourite restaurant for lunch with my mom to help pass the time while he was being treated. I was proud of how well I coped with the anxiety of my dog being in danger (he ate a couple of grapes – not to worry Midnight lovers, he is back to his normal self now!) and going fairly far in the car to a busy part of town for lunch. I hadn’t been to my favourite restaurant in well over a year. I probably should have taken this in as a victory – but instead it made me focus in on what I am missing. My mind went straight to longing for these sorts of outings to be more frequent and less painful. I started thinking about all of the things I want to do and can’t. Instead of being happy that I succeeded, I started to beat myself up for how often I fail.
I became restless thinking about all the things I haven’t been able to do and places I haven’t been able to go. I was exhausted at 9pm, but couldn’t bring myself to sleep until 4am. I kept thinking about all of the things I feel I have had to sacrifice for agoraphobia. I changed our honeymoon plans from a Caribbean vacation to a trip to Quebec City, I have rarely been able to walk our dog, I had to step down from being a bridesmaid for my best friend. It is the excuse I never want to have to use. I had a definite “woe is me” moment. Forgive me, self-pity isn’t pretty, but it’s a reality of life sometimes and I try to be honest here. I struggled with the injustice of it all in the early hours of the morning until I burst. I decided I was going to go for a walk at 3am, walked down to the front door, opened the door and fell into the inevitable panic attack before I even felt the cold air nip my face. I dragged myself back upstairs and in to bed. This morning I hadn’t yet given up my resolve. “Take two weeks off of work”, I said to Tom, “we’re going on vacation”. Never mind that we don’t have the savings right now for a vacation, I would likely struggle through the whole vacation and Tom obviously can’t book time off of work with no warning. It was going to happen. It had to happen. These days I feel like I need a change of scenery as much as I need air to breathe and water to drink.
This afternoon I feel subdued. This is my life right now. That isn’t to say that I can just give up on trying to push my boundaries, which is another thing that I resolve to do more frequently than I care to admit. It means that some of these things I want aren’t attainable, not right this minute anyway. Beating myself up about that and fixating on all the things I am not able to do isn’t helping anything. It just feeds in to the perpetual cycle of depression and anxiety I am stuck in. Hopefully this weekend I will push myself to go swimming, maybe go out to a restaurant or see some friends. Maybe I will spend it caged up in my house. Maybe I will give in to this stir crazy feeling and book a vacation to Florida. Who knows!? All I know right now is that I want this feeling to end and I want people to understand that being afraid of leaving the house doesn’t mean I don’t want to.
P.S. I keep meaning to share this for all those who also suffer from anxiety disorders. This song really resonates with me, a doctor in Emerg showed it to me last year. I hope you like it. Waving Through a Window – Dear Evan Hansen