I bet sometimes you feel like you just don’t want to leave the house. You’d like to stay in and do nothing or goof off or just chill. Imagine feeling like that all the time, except it’s pathological and the mere thought of leaving the apartment is terrifying. This is what it’s like to live with agoraphobia. I am bipolar, I suffer from bipolar depression more often than mania, and I have panic disorder which has led to me sometimes falling prone to agoraphobic tendencies. It starts slowly, with me falling deeper into a depression and ends with me literally trapped inside the apartment because everything outside is panic-inducing. Trying to explain this to people is difficult, which is why I thought I’d give it a shot here. I read one account, a book called “Agorafabulous” which was an excellent description of what it’s like to live with agoraphobia, and one that I recommend if you’re curious about the subject. But aside from that book there isn’t much writing out there about living with agoraphobia, just “how to bust agoraphobia with this one trick,” etc. Yikes. There is no one trick. I’m sorry. It requires work. Therapy, meds, work. Lots of work. Did I mention work?
I thought I’d start with a basic definition of agoraphobia from Mayo clinic because they’ve put it into words better than I can.
Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh) is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You fear an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd.
The anxiety is caused by fear that there’s no easy way to escape or get help if the anxiety intensifies. Most people who have agoraphobia develop it after having one or more panic attacks, causing them to worry about having another attack and avoid the places where it may happen again.
People with agoraphobia often have a hard time feeling safe in any public place, especially where crowds gather. You may feel that you need a companion, such as a relative or friend, to go with you to public places. The fear can be so overwhelming that you may feel unable to leave your home.
Agoraphobia treatment can be challenging because it usually means confronting your fears. But with psychotherapy and medications, you can escape the trap of agoraphobia and live a more enjoyable life
Because I’ve been a bit depressed, I find it hard to keep up basic things like cleaning the apartment or cleaning myself. Poor Husband has to pick up the slack and it is definitely grating on him. It can be incredibly hard for loved ones to understand what you’re going through if they’ve never dealt with something like this themselves. I’m very lucky in that my therapist is incredibly understanding and will Skype with me in lieu of an in person session. Lately all of our sessions have been Skype. Every week I say, yes, I think I can get out and do stuff. I can get to the office. And except for once a couple of weeks ago, that hasn’t been true. I get optimistic. I believe in myself. I truly want to do it, to be normal (whatever that is), not to be afraid of going out, but it’s hard and sometimes it’s too hard.
I’ve been getting panic attacks for a long time now, and I have a fear of them even though I have my Xanax on hand. This is very common. Unfortunately, some people develop agoraphobia as a result of having panic attacks because certain stimuli can bring them on. For me that includes riding the subway, walking the crowded streets, getting to the pharmacy, going to midtown, dealing with strangers in cabs or Ubers, or just going into the hallway to take out the garbage. I was trying to explain this to Husband last night but I found I didn’t have the right words, which is why I looked for the Mayo clinic definition. “This may be so overwhelming that you are afraid to leave your home.” Yep. That’s the one.
During the school semester I can usually get up and out if I’m not too depressed, but I still have boat loads of anxiety. I just push through because I have to. Without a serious routine right now, I don’t have the added pressure of needing to push through it, so the agoraphobia wins. I need an outside pressure of commitment in order to really break through because the fear of not completing what I’m supposed to complete is worse than the fear of going out. I know this will dissipate when school begins again in September, but I’m hoping I can get to work on it before that, even if it takes some extra benzos to get going.
So to those of you I haven’t seen or responded to, this is why. I’m living in my little bubble, too anxious to leave. Happy to have company but only here. I have gone outside a few times because I forced myself to run errands. It is possible, it’s just terrifying. Honestly it makes me feel ridiculous, even though I know it is a legitimate diagnosis and condition.
I spend my time trying to be productive or social in any way I can. I’ve been building a chatroom focused on mental health with my friend Rex and it’s gone very well. That takes up a fair amount of my time. It’s a peer support group for people 18 and up. The community we’ve attracted is amazing and despite a few bad apples, we’ve had an incredible response. It’s important to emphasize that it’s a peer group, i.e. everyone in the group has a diagnosis (isn’t a friend/parent/professional) and is there for help and to help others. It leads to very interesting dynamics and insights.
I’m also still playing my Ukulele, trying to learn a new song every few days. That’s been very grounding for me.
I’m reading more, including a book called “You are a Badass,” which I’m hoping will reinforce for me that I can do things and I need to do them and I will feel better.
Then I spend whatever awake time I can doing practice math problems so I’m not so lost when I start calculus in the fall.
The rest of my time I spend chatting with my friends and playing video games. That really helps me. I feel closer to them and closer to the world. I get out of my head.
So what I’m saying is just because I don’t go out doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything. I have been working and practicing and socializing in my own way because the internet allows me to. It’s an agoraphobe’s world. (I mean, look at takeout in NYC! I never have to leave! Everything can be delivered.) But I’m working on it. We’re working through the issues that have me feeling trapped, the fears that keep me from confronting the outside world, and I have faith that I will get through them. I know it’s weird to say but in general I’m ok, I’m just having trouble in this one area (which happens to be a big area but it’s so much better than being suicidally depression let me tell you).
What does agoraphobia feel like? It’s like my brain assumes that the worst case scenarios are going to happen and induce a panic attack. I would do pretty much anything in the world to avoid a tried and true panic attack because they make me feel like I’m dying. There’s a sense of impending doom and a feeling that you’re absolutely going to die when you get a panic attack. NYC isn’t the best place to be if you suffer from panic, but my social anxietiy isn’t so bad any more that I can’t handle it usually, when I’m healthy. Right now it just feels like every time I think about going outside, I freeze up, my heart starts to race, I want to cry, my head spins, and I want to curl up in a ball and stay there. So I do. I stay. Rather than dealing with the terrible feelings, I try to self soothe and chill myself out at home.
My therapist has given up for the moment on trying to get me out, and instead we’re focusing on Skype and trying to work through the issues with baby steps. That’s better for me. I want to be able to shower every other day. To walk into my hallway. To go down to the lobby and get the mail. To walk two blocks to CVS and get my meds. Then I’ll think about going to midtown or the East side. I think that’s fair.
So if you’re a shut-in, maybe you can take some crafting tips from Amy Sedaris. “Crafts for Poor People.”