Beating the monster: Agoraphobia

by weepingwillow

There's always this point where the technical information about something sinks in and I can finally connect the dots and see my symptoms for what they are in regard to the diagnosis I've received. I minimize so much that often I convince myself that I'm just a whiner, overreacting, what have you. Agoraphobia was one of those things and it has been an odd ride for me realizing that is what I have been dealing with all these years.

It started small, which I guess these things always do. I've never liked crowded spaces, social anxiety and claustrophobia played into that but then it started getting worse. I couldn't go anywhere that there would be lots of people. At first this was places like bars and stuff that I wasn't really interested in going to in the first place. Then it was restaurants - great, we'll save money on eating out! - because I had to find a way to rationalize it.

Then I couldn't go to the store alone, and eventually at all. Again I blamed this on social anxiety and kind of brushed it off. Anyone from the outside could see that it was starting to impact my life negatively, but I couldn't or wouldn't see that. From there it grew to not being able to go anywhere there were other people at all.

I love being outdoors in the forest, always have. I find trees comforting. Eventually I couldn't do that either. Anywhere that I might even run into someone else became a no no. I quit driving, which had always been hard for me anyway, and still didn't notice there was a problem.

The thing about agoraphobia is that your safe zone gets smaller and smaller. Some people get stuck in one room of their house, and luckily it didn't go that far for me, but I couldn't leave the house. Couldn't go to the mailbox without panicking, couldn't even stand in front of the door or a window that someone could see in. The thought of setting foot over the threshold of the door began causing me panic attacks. So much so that I was unable to open it.

At this point I noticed that I was unhappy about the situation, but still didn't realize what I was dealing with. Just decided that I was being a wimp and ridiculous, that there wasn't anything wrong with me other than being a stubborn brat. I felt stuck in the house. I wanted to leave but I couldn't anymore. It was like there was a wall at the doorway. I had so much fear that I actually felt resistance where there was none.

Despite this I did manage to force myself out of the house from time to time. I became very dependent on my husband for everything. I cancelled doctor appointments because even with his help I still couldn't leave a lot of the time.

It was around 2012 when the worst of it hit, but noticeable symptoms had started around 2006 or 2008 I just ignored them. I was almost completely housebound for 2-3 years. I left maybe once or twice a year because I had to. Went on vacation camping and struggled to leave the tent.

Other people noticed and started saying stuff, but I brushed it off by telling them I was just a home-body. Would rather stay in than go out and most people just accepted that since even when I was younger I wasn't one to "go out and play". I lost some friends because they didn't understand and thought I was blowing them off. I was not willing to really explain what was happening to me, so they didn't know. They just knew that I wouldn't go anywhere with them or anything.

The first few times agoraphobia was brought up I swore that wasn't it. That was an actual mental health issue after all, I was just being a baby and needed to suck it up.

Then I read the DSM requirements for the diagnosis and realized that I was dealing with nearly all of them. There was a big struggle for me to get help with it because, you know, you have to leave the house to see a therapist or psychiatrist. Any time I tried to make an appointment I panicked and either cancelled or didn't call in the first place to set it up.

It's been hard, but over the last couple of years I've managed to make big improvements. Some things will always be hard, but I have ways of coping with it now that I didn't have available before. Medication has been a big help for me, not everyone needs it to beat this but I certainly did. I started going to the mailbox - running back in the house in terror, but I did it. Well, except the first time, I made it halfway down the stairs and ran right back up them. There were a lot of false starts like this, a lot of stop and starts, sliding backwards instead of forward, but for the most part I've gotten my life back.

I can drive, although I don't like to and don't think I ever will. I can go to the store by myself, I can walk outside my house, at least in my own neighborhood. I can look out the window. I can open the door and get air for the house. I've gone to concerts and restaurants, and go visit friends at their houses now. Four years ago none of that would have been possible. It's not easy, never will be easy, but now it's just anxiety instead of abject terror.

Agoraphobia is a hell of a monster to slay, and it sneaks up on you. I'm not into giving advice generally, but I will say if you're dealing with this the earlier you can get yourself help the better. It's a painful and scary process because most of what has to be done is exposure. I wasn't sure if it was worth it, but looking at it from this end I can say it definitely was.

Symptoms of agoraphobia include fear of using public transportation like buses and trains, waiting in line or being in a crowd, being in an open space like a parking lot, being in an enclosed space like a movie theatre (Seems like you can't win here. Like Goldilocks it's either too big or too small and rarely just right.), and being out of your home alone. Some other symptoms are fear and anxiety resulting from exposure to these situations that is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation, and then avoiding them or needing someone to go with you to help. It can also cause distress in work and social situations because of the fear, anxiety, and avoidance of frightening situations. These are very real symptoms that I brushed off for a long time. I wish I would have listened to what was going on with me, would've been a much shorter road back.