Looking back over my past blog posts I was surprised to see I hadn’t written about this, especially as it was probably the most life altering part of my illness.
Agoraphobia is described by the NHS website as ‘a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong’.
This was something I never believed I’d suffer from. I’d briefly learnt about it during my college psychology days but never thought it could happen to me.
After my first child was born my anxiety hit me, it was sudden, like someone had flipped a switch. I was fearful for her safety, her health, and I was obsessed with protecting her. Things started with me only wanting to go out with my husband. I was nervous about being responsible for her on my own, I had thoughts like ‘what if I need the toilet but I can’t get pram in there?’ Or ‘what if I faint when I’m out, who would look after her?’ And more extreme/irrational fears like ‘what if someone takes her?’
I did take her out alone but I was very fearful and didn’t enjoy it hugely. I just had so little confidence in myself, plus I was struggling with my postnatal depression and anxiety. Eventually
I started to avoid going anywhere, lack of motivation from my PND and the high levels of anxiety I felt each time just became too much and so I stopped doing anything. Looking back that was probably the worst thing I could do.
Agoraphobia crept up on me, before I knew it I was unable to leave my home without panic attacks, I would make excuses for any invites I got, I had all my food shops delivered to my home, I couldn’t even go to my parents house …. and they lived next door.
Eventually I even became fearful at being left on my own at home. I was alone all the time so I had very little support or encouragement to go out as everyone was at work. This lead to my depression becoming worse, and my anxiety, it was a vicious cycle and I was trapped in it.
I remember breaking down when I had to go to the supermarket. We had run out of milk and nappies. It was late morning and I had no choice but to go, my children needed these supplies. I remember getting ready and it took a good 45 minutes after getting our coats on to get myself and my children out the front door. My daughter who was nearly 2 at the time was saying “come on mum you can do it” I felt so guilty that she had to see me like that, she was even helping me count with my deep breathing. I’m proud of how caring she was and still is though.
We got to the supermarket and I parked the car. I froze on the spot. I couldn’t get myself to open the door and step out of the car. Panic swept over me and burst into tears. I phoned my husband and ranted about how much of a failure I was and how I couldn’t even do a simple task like go to the supermarket. Another half hour later and I managed to get myself inside the shop. I dashed around, grabbing the things I needed, hastily paid and got us home. I had managed to do it but I was hugely disappointed in myself that I couldn’t even do “normal” tasks without it causing a huge deal of stress and panic. How was I going to have a future and give my children a good one? How could I attend school assemblies, or even manage the school run? How could I ever take them on holiday, or for days out?
I knew I had to do something so I was pleased when I was referred for therapy via my GP and with the local perinatal mental health team. I had CBT, and learnt to challenge the thoughts. I knew I had a long road ahead of me, but I was so fearful for mine and my children’s future I knew I had to keep trying.
Recovery was slow. It began with small steps. I would try to go to the end of the road and back again with my children and husband. Then it progressed to going on my own with the kids, then I would go further around the block. I felt a real sense of achievement each time I managed it. I was only a short 5/10 minute walk but to me it was a step towards recovery. There were times I couldn’t do it, I would feel so disappointed in myself but over time I learnt to forgive myself for these moments and became aware that I needed to be patient with myself.
As I progressed I would try to face my bigger fears. Going to the supermarket, firstly with my husband then on my own, going
out with friends. We arranged a day out to the zoo. We planned it well in advance so I could mentally prepare myself. It took 45 minutes in the car to get there and I felt very nervous, I had a panic attack before we left, but we managed to do it. We had a lovely day in the end.
Soon I could go out shopping on my own with the kids, I learnt to not put too much pressure on myself, I only did what I felt comfortable with. I remember going shopping with my mum and saying to her ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable now, I think I need to turn around and go’ she supported me and said okay, we made our way back to the car and on the way I began to calm down, got distracted and ended up staying a while longer. So I started to learn that the feelings of panic attacks while hugely uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying, did pass and I felt OK again shortly after.
So my next step was instead of making my way home when
having a panic attack was learning how to breath through them, learning distraction/grounding techniques and allowing them to pass. Then continuing with my day. Sometimes I would still come home, sometimes I didn’t but I knew that the feeling would pass and I could learn to gain control again.
This was months of practice, a few steps forward, sometimes some back but I kept going and and eventually a year had passed. I was doing much more than I was before and had noticed a huge improvement.
My daughter soon started nursery and I was having to do the school run each day. Something I had been hugely nervous about and I was doing it. I had a routine now, which I found really helped me, and I was noticing my confidence growing.
Fast forward to now – I am out all the time, sometimes I notice that old feeling of panic, but I practice my mindfulness techniques, breathing and I trust that the feelings pass. I go to
events, we’ve been on holidays, I now run support groups for other parents affected by mental illness. My life has changed for the better and I’m enjoying it again.
So what I hope this post shows for anyone struggling is that you can overcome agoraphobia, panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Anxiety might never go completely but you can take back control and learn to love life again. Hold on to hope, no matter how small because you have it in you to overcome this.
If you’re in need of someone to talk to you can call Samaritans on 116 123 – calls are free and they’re open 24/7