Posted in Agoraphobia

Surviving Agoraphobia

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. 🙂

Posted in Agoraphobia, Photographs

A Few Wobbles

In the middle of May I took my camera out for a short walk around the locality. I tried to take a photo of a cool and shady path which Mum was about to stroll down. I stopped her so I could get a picture of it by itself, and she stood off to the side and watched. This is the photo I should have taken:

Photo of a dark shady path heading out towards trees and sunlight.
The Path

Unfortunately when I pressed the shutter, the camera turned out still to be on a delayed timer, which I’d been using to reduce camera shake on a tripod. Not having a tripod this time, I was faced with standing still for 10 seconds, as the Canon 350D doesn’t allow me to change to a shorter setting. Aargh!

I hate standing still for long, especially when under scrutiny, even if it’s only by Mum. This is the photo I ended up with:

Shady green blur sweeping to the side (nothing recognizable).
The Notpath

The camera took it just as I jumped away.

It might have been amusing to say “this is a photo of a panic attack,” but that’s a little abstract. However, if I hadn’t been prone to those… both panics and abstracts!… that particular image wouldn’t be in my folders or here on this blog. It wouldn’t exist at all.

It was bang on time, anyway. I always get worse in the summer when the tourists arrive along with the sun. Sun is lovely for fair-weather photographers, but terrible in other respects…  most agoraphobics love rain because it keeps people indoors, hidden under umbrellas or at home. Meanwhile, the sun seems to pin you down under a merciless glare, and various forms of life appear from nooks and crannies to eat ice creams and talent-spot.

As always, I haven’t been giving in to it, and I still go to town. I have to, because the people I feed cats for always go on holiday just when town is at its busiest. People say ‘face your fears’, but agoraphobia is described as a complex phobia, not a simple one. I go to town every day, and every day I feel ill. It doesn’t seem to improve until the crowds thin out.

When I lived on my own, I survived by doing everything really early. I went to the supermarket as soon as it opened… before work if possible. The drawback was usually that supermarkets (and banks and other places) think they only need one or two tills open at such a time, and so they dragoon you into standing in queues anyway.

Another drawback is that if you sleep in, and wake about 9.30 or 10, you think “rats, it’s too late to go and get any food.” You feel able only to do things before the rest of the world awakes, and the rest of the day is a dead loss.

We visited a bigger town a few weeks ago. I was angry with my agoraphobia and wanted to enjoy myself, so at moments when there were people converging and I wanted to turn aside, I turned towards them instead. When I felt dizzy and unhappy, I ignored it. I said all the time “this is my space that I’m walking on… it belongs to me.” Up to a point it helps, and then everybody is all over the place all of a sudden, and you get a choking feeling in your throat. I still tried to ignore it, and slowed down, and looked in shop windows humming cheerily to myself, and tried to distract myself with thoughts of my own projects. And when we went home, I was as limp as a dishrag all night and all the next day… that’s how tired I was.

It struck me as ironic… that I was so wiped out by ‘being relaxed’!

Nothing seems to shift it… and sometimes I think that the usual rules for recovery don’t work so well when you’re deaf (or have some comparable issue). They say you reduce your fears by proving to yourself that nothing goes wrong when you think it will… but what do you do when it does?

I suppose the next strategy would be to teach yourself not to care that such and such does keep happening (like misunderstanding people when it’s important that you hear them correctly) but I suppose it’s like getting hit all the time in the same place. You wind up with an enormous bruise.

Mum bought a book she spotted in Waterstone’s — Overcoming Agoraphobia by Melissa Murphy. The writer has had agoraphobia herself, and that makes it a much more friendly book in some ways than one written by someone who’s never had it.

The author wrote that often, when agoraphobic people are out and about, they feel ‘woozy’ and ‘out of it’ all of the time. Which doesn’t help. And she’s right. It appears to have something to do with shallow breathing (to battle which there are breathing exercises) but it’s not all that easy to get rid of! I felt that way all today, just walking around looking at things in shops. I even bought some things… perfume from a charity shop, clothes in a sale… smiled at the shop assistants and said ‘thank you’… and all the time I felt like a balloon that might go ‘pop’ all of a sudden. Or as though someone might let my string go, and I would float off into space, never to return.

The only time I felt anything like normal was when we stopped in a coffee shop and sat on a soft couch in a dark corner. There, nobody was going to come barging out of shop doorways at you, or suddenly ask if you wanted a bag with that. (A brown paper bag, maybe!!)

Mum said, bearing in mind the dizziness, it might be a good strategy just to ramble gently from shop to shop, and not slalom through the crowds the way we normally do. That did seem to help a bit. We drifted from the coffee shop to the charity shop next door… and I felt relaxed! For five precious minutes, any photo I might have taken would have been of the Path, not the Notpath.

That’s something worth working towards.

Posted in Agoraphobia, Lost in Thought

Sun, Sun, Sun, Here it Comes

It’s not quite the end of March and there are icy showers of hail aplenty, but my stress levels are already rising.

I have more problems in the warmer, brighter weather when people come out to enjoy the sun. I don’t look around and think “awk, look at all the people! I’m going home!” Usually what happens is that I set out to have the same kind of day that I had yesterday and the day before, and it’s only when I notice how troubled I feel that I realize there are more people around than usual. The increase would be marginal and I react to it before noticing on a more conscious level.

I felt quite bad today, and it’s only Friday – it felt more like a Saturday. I didn’t want to continue feeling that way, so I straightened up and looked around, thinking there must be something in the way I think that brings it on. It’s often what you can’t see that is so scary… if you are looking away and there are shadowy figures loping towards you, they could be anybody. But if you look directly at them, you see a harassed mother clutching her 6-year old; an elderly couple ambling around contentedly; a group of tall schoolchildren looking at nobody but themselves. They are no threat. But even as you glance at them, they move out of vision and other shadowy figures enter in.

I’m not afraid of them as people – not in any real sense. Sometimes I feel alien in their world as though not experiencing life the way they do, but as soon as I recognize them as fellow human beings with troubles of their own, my inadequacy dies away. It’s this initial lack of recognition that causes the problems. When I first start to stress out, I don’t shake, although a panic attack would be on the cards if I felt really trapped. I feel tight, tucked in, maybe a bit dizzy – and ill. I’m not sure I know what ‘sick building syndrome’ feels like, but if you put the word ‘people’ in there instead of ‘building,’ that’s what I imagine it would be like – though I’m probably way off course.

To get away from the bodies pressing round me, I withdraw more and more into myself. I’ve been accused of not seeing friends when they pass me on the road… “I waved and said hello and you didn’t see me”. That’s deliberate – that’s me trying to escape into myself. I have no intention of ignoring anybody, and if I do see you, I will smile back; relieved to see a face I know… but disassociation seems to be my way of keeping to what I’m doing or where I’m going without being thrown off course by the strangers around me.

The problem is, having withdrawn into yourself, you can’t withdraw any further; you’re still conscious of people, and would pull back even more if there was anywhere to go. That’s where the tight feeling of tension comes from, as though I’m leaning back into a wall and wishing it would let me through.

I decided there had to be a way of re-asserting my right to the spot I’m standing on. I’m too aware that others are challenging me for it – some humbly, others more aggressively. I’m constantly under the impression I have no right to standing room unless I’m alone. The only thing to do is to stand tall, take a deep breath, and look calmly but directly at the other people and at the area around me, and stop trying to escape when there’s nowhere to escape to.

It gives me a little breathing space, but I continue to feel ill – and I can never stop in one place for long because there’s always somebody trundling round a corner and bouncing off me.

Talking of what gives us balance – I’m a much steadier person when I have lots of time alone. It makes everything else seem like an adventure in comparison. If I experience too many such adventures, it becomes stressful… I’m usually much better after a few days at home, rather than going out day after day. It was like that when I was going to the skating rink… I was a fair and balanced skater for a few days after getting the hang of it, and then I lost my nerve, surrounded by other people wheeling crazily around. I stood at the side, gripping the handrail, and didn’t want to go back. I didn’t get better the more I tried… I got worse. I’m like that with lots of things. I don’t believe that ‘facing my fears’ and immersing myself in situations I dislike is to my benefit; it usually has the opposite effect.

I’m looking out at softly falling snow… it’s brighter weather, but not all that warm yet. The sun is coming, though. Oh yes, I can feel it, waiting with trembling anticipation behind its cloud. Nothing I can do will make it stay there.

Posted in Agoraphobia, Life and Family, Teddy Bears

Trolley and Me Against the World

Last summer we went to a huge car boot sale. Mum said there must have been 200 stalls when she was expecting 50. I said I was expecting a sweet little sale with 20!

I threw a wobbly, which is the first time I’ve done that for ages. I get a little worrit at times, usually when I’m somewhere like a shopping centre, but it’s the first time for years that I’ve had to say, “sorry, I’m going back to the car!”

The odd thing is, I was fine the minute I stepped back through the gate. The stalls and the people were still right behind me and the cars were parked ahead – hundreds of them – but I immediately felt better. It was as though I had been trying to push myself through a wall, and the headache only disappeared when I stopped.

It was a lovely place and I wished I had bought my camera. The sun was hot and bright, the sky blue with huge sweeping clouds meeting the blue sea. There were golden fields of oats nodding on either side of the airfield with a heat haze shimmering above their hairy ears. The cars were all shining like mirrors – I remember the silver on the stalls blinded me as I walked past; even white paper hit me with a blinding glare. I had to leave the car door open or I would have suffocated – the sun was so hot on my skin I wrapped my raincoat round my arm to protect it. There were a few thrips landing annoyingly on my nose and hands. One smeared rusty red blood on my slacks.

A few people in sporty cars with hoods down were driving around just for the joy of it. I saw a silver sports car come flying down the road past me, with a couple in it who looked about 60. There was pure happiness on their faces, big grins. I thought rather wistfully “they look happy” but my physical reaction was to shrink away. “Go away, people – you are the enemy.”

I got out of the car and stood looking at the views all around. I was quite happy except for a lingering feeling of shock and disappointment. I really wanted to look at all those stalls and see what they had. There was a stall of Ty Beanie Babies, all nice and clean – Mum said “do you want any?” and I said “no” and walked past – just as I left I caught sight of a white bear with a blue star and blue wings. I’ve been looking for that one. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it though; it was right there on the table and I was too stressed out to buy it!

They finally came back to the car, and Mum gave me a lovely Russ teddy called Timber. “We can try again!” they said, and grinned at me. I didn’t say no. I said I wished I had taken the camera, it was lovely there. “What is there to take pictures of?” asked my sister.
“People going past laden with goodies” said Mum.
“No, it was the big sky, big sea…” I said. “It made me think of America.”

The very next weekend we tried going to a different car boot sale. I quite enjoyed myself and even bought a few things. We recognized some of the stalls from the previous sale – the one that annoyed me the most had dejected teddy bears tethered to a rope. The notice said “Dog toys – 50p”. There should be a law against it! Anyway, the beanie baby lady was there, with her blue star bear, so of course I bought it. “You can’t get this in the shops here,” she said. Nice to meet someone who knows her beanie babies.

I have a little trick, mind you. It’s the way I got myself used to going round the supermarket again. Even if I was only getting bread and milk, I would take a trolley (‘shopping cart’ for those with a more U.S. vocabulary) instead of a hand-basket. It made me feel safer because I could lean on the trolley. So at this car boot sale I got out a small wheelie suitcase of Mum’s, just a little upright one with a long handle. I thought we had a proper shopping trolley but this was all I could find. It’s peculiar, I even feel better if I have a huge bag without wheelies – there’s something about lugging it around that’s reassuring. It puts it between me and the rest of the world! I wasn’t the only one – there were lots of shopping trolleys there. I vividly remember a huge red tartan one.

When we got home I opened up the trolley and it was stuffed with all the bears we had bought. There was nothing there that wasn’t a bear in some form (stuffed or ornament).

I preferred the second sale because the crowd and the stalls were more dispersed and sectioned up. Short little rows – you turned the corner and embarked on the next, or you could go back round the edge to the exit. The first sale was two very long rows of stalls with the crowd confined to the middle – much more formal layout and no way of leaving in a hurry. With Mum’s trolley in tow, though, I have no worries…