I’ve been asked how I got over the worst of my agoraphobia. The really bad days are years in my past, thankfully, but I’ll write what I can remember. For me, I suspect it was mostly luck, as I live in a small town and have managed to make most of it my ‘safe zone’.
When it came to getting out of the house… I didn’t want to become house-bound, so when it was starting to happen, I broke out of it by doing something my mother told me later was stupid… I left the house at night, when it was quiet and dark — walked in the local area, round and round. I went out to where the small shops were, and walked there too, among the buildings and narrow paths.
At one point I nearly tripped over a man who appeared to have taken drugs or was drinking or something.
I walked past my own house several times in my trips around, and could see the cats sitting in the porch watching me in a puzzled way… that made me smile, though faintly!
Was it stupid? Yes, maybe it was dangerous and I shouldn’t have done it on my own, even though I live in a quiet town. For people in a bigger town, it’s an even worse idea. Did it make a difference? Maybe, in the sense that I was demonstrating to myself that the local area was mine and I could walk around in it if I chose to. It was as much ‘mine’ as anyone else’s.
Having got out of the house, for me what helped:
(1) It’s not a huge town and I could walk most places rather than get the bus.
(2) Family were in the area, so I wasn’t alone.
(3) It helped if I had something along with me (a steadying influence) so I take my shopping trolley everywhere. It made a huge difference, to the degree I can sometimes go without it now, though it depends on where I am and how long I’ll be there for. The best shopping trolleys have big rubber wheels… plastic wheels rattle and are noisy.
(4) Take small steps. For instance, at the beginning (when recovering from a bad spell) I’d only go to a small shop round the corner for groceries, and just get a basketful at a time — a huge barrowload is too much! Best to pay by cash and not spend long. I’d usually hang around admiring tins of peaches or something if there was a queue, but as soon as the queue disappeared or became much shorter, I’d abandon the peaches and join it.
(5) I’d go really early in the morning if I had to go to the supermarket — it was quiet but they had an annoying habit of only having one checkout open, so sometimes the queue might back up a bit… usually it was OK. I remember a colleague telling me I was masochistic going to the supermarket so early in the morning just for a can of kitten food. 🙂 Trouble was, if I didn’t go early, I felt I couldn’t go at all.
(6) I’d get myself a little gift sometimes to get myself into a shop… for instance, I saw a plush rhino through the chemist’s window that I took a fancy to, so going in and buying it was its own reward.
(7) Distraction is a very good weapon, as is fading memory. The best way I can explain it, is that I’m more likely to get wound up if I’m going out every day or thinking about my anxiety all the time. If I rest a lot and do something fun at home, like artwork, and only go out sometimes, I am much more relaxed… it’s as though I’ve literally forgotten. My mother thinks people should go out every day to keep in the swim of things, and I guess that’s what works for her… but for me it’s a bad idea! Perhaps she proves to herself every day that people are nice and she can get on with them, but as I’m too deaf to really talk to anyone, I just remember every day how busy the roads are, how difficult it is for me to make myself understood, and how impatient people can be. 🙄 When I’ve forgotten all about that, I’m better able to focus on the positive aspects of going out.
(8) When I was working (and going through the worst of it at that time) I remember a couple of psychological tricks I used when walking to the office.
(a) I was too scared to go, but knew I had to. So I would say to myself that getting out of the house didn’t mean I was really going to the office! I could just walk a little while and see how it went. I said to myself “just walk as far as that lamppost, and if you still want to go home, you can go home.” That way I would get all the way to work because I no longer felt pressured into going… it had become a choice.
(b) Another trick would propel me across open ground, which was harder than walking alongside a wall. I’d pick something I could think of as a kind of wall… yellow lines running through the car park or the rooftops of nearby houses… and make those my ‘wall’ while getting across the open space. It was a bit dicey, I admit, as someone suddenly racing towards me (or cutting between me and my ‘wall’) could throw me off balance! 😛
(9) Usually there are workarounds… a quieter shop, a quiet footpath instead of the busy road, a different time when most of the people have gone.
(10) Stay aware of the seasons. Town seems to be more busy at certain times of the year… I noticed my anxiety would start rising in May, when more people appeared on the streets. Perhaps this is the real reason I’ve started to love autumn… the pace slows down.
One thing that kept me going was the thought that it would be easier to deal with it now… things always start feeding on themselves if you leave them too long. If I was going to break through the anxiety and get some of what I wanted out of life, why shouldn’t it be now rather than later?
I used to avoid catching people’s eye when I was going through the worst of it, but one day looked up and looked straight at this guy, who smiled. I smiled back — that’s when I knew the worst was over! It does show… you have no idea how much your kindness can affect someone.
Agoraphobia is a tough thing to deal with and I have learned not to underestimate it. I anthropomorphized mine as a ‘black beast’, and made this poem by Ted Hughes my own… merely because I love Ted Hughes poetry?? The causes of anxiety can be as hard to locate as the beast in the poem! Perhaps thinking of it that way made it easier for me to deal with, as though it was a creature in a book and not part of me.
I hope something in all of this helps someone, though I don’t really recommend wandering around at the dead of night. 🙂