I’ve decided recently to feature some guests here on my blog to showcase some other people’s troubles with mental health. Here we have Becky Prowse who talks about her journey with Agoraphobia. Rebecca also has a fantastic blog where she features and reviews small business across the UK, Pretty & Petit.
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder, which means when the sufferer is in an environment or situation that they feel could become difficult or embarrassing to escape, they have a feeling of fear and ultimately this ends up as a anxiety attack. For myself, I usually feel extremely hot, dizzy or ‘spaced out’ and feel I need to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. I also feel like I need to be holding on to something or someone so I won’t fall. Falling is my main fear or being sick, which in turn has caused me to up my eating habits and make sure I am carrying water when on the underground or on journeys.
The places I feel this anxiety have been long journeys on trains, London underground and in tunnels, any large open spaces like parks and beaches, car parks, crossing large roads, supermarkets, shopping centres, bridges, roads on bright days that have bright surfaces that reflect (yes it really gets that detailed!) train stations and airports.
Before January 2011 I had no previous experience of agoraphobia, as any sufferer will tell you it does literally just come out of the blue. Due to unfortunate circumstances I had to visit a&e, where I was told to keep an eye on my appendix as it was very sore. I was written off work and I went back to stay with my mum in Kent. Eventually, I decided to go back to Southampton, where I live and work, to recuperate at home. When I got off the train at London Victoria I felt weak and sick and felt as though I needed to sit down straight away otherwise I would faint. I managed to get back to a station that my mum was able to collect me from and she took me straight to another hospital where they diagnosed me with post viral fatigue. It was at this time I had strong muscle pain in my legs, something which I realise now could have psychologically been linked to not wanting to walk very far from my house, the place that I felt safest. The pain was so bad I struggled to walk to the end of the road without feeling exhausted and I would struggle to get in and out of the bath or shower. So after I returned to Southampton, gaining a lift from my mum this time, I went back to work and slowly resumed my usual daily routine.
I found with this routine suddenly some things were getting harder to do. I would feel panic walking down empty aisles in supermarkets, when crossing large main roads and walking through empty car parks. I shrugged this off as nothing but it continued to worsen, leading to me having to change my usual route to work because I couldn’t walk down a stretch of road as it seemed too ‘open’ to even think about walking down. Avoidance of these spaces and situations is key to agoraphobia, and is what causes the condition to worsen, until you are eventually fearful of even leaving the house. Eventually, after moving house I decided it was the right time to go and see a new GP about my problem. I had initially looked it up on the internet but thought there would be no access for treatment and therapy or even hypnotherapy seemed to be a costly option. It was after over a year of frustration and fear that I was eventually diagnosed as an agoraphobic.
I started a course of counselling in Summer 2012, that fitted in around my work schedule. I was given a variety of options, CBT being one of them which is cognitive behavioural treatment. This includes exposure, that is centred around a hierarchy that I have worked on from the most feared situations to the least feared and every week a new fear has been tackled. Obviously a lot more has been involved in these weekly sessions that I won’t divulge into, but if you have any questions please feel free to ask me.
I have told this story to various doctors over 7 times now, as many were seemingly unable to diagnose agoraphobia, sending me for countless blood tests. It is only when I moved and visited a new GP that he told me to self-refer to a counsellor who gave me regular CBT treatment over 6-8 weeks. She was wonderful and inspired me to gain my confidence in walking through those places that I fear the most using a hierarchy strategy.
Unfortunately in April 2014, around 6 months after I had initially moved to London my condition worsened due to significant stress levels. I was put on a course of anti-depressants to control my anxiety which I had a severe reaction to and was referred back to therapy. This was my lowest point where I felt that I could not leave the house without feeling anxious and I had to be accompanied everywhere I went. The effect that the medication had was absolutely terrifying but my body just reacted badly to it and it is certainly not the same for everyone.
I went for weekly sessions with a therapist at a hospital in London where they treated me with CBT. We discussed the various triggers and completed a few ‘field’ trips in large shopping centres to get me used to the open space. We also tackled my fear of escalators which seemed to have emerge after my relapse.
So now we are in July 2015 and although my agoraphobia hasn’t disappeared completely I do feel much better. It has been a long journey to get to this point. I still have to plan every journey and avoid going on the tube if I can. I still avoid high escalators opting for the lift or stairs instead and very large open spaces. It is difficult for many to understand agoraphobia, even my closest friends and family are unable to, because it’s difficult to describe a fear and frustration of not being able to do something that is seemingly so simple. I don’t think there has been a session I have had where I haven’t felt emotionally drained and cried because it really is that exhausting.
The sad thing is that so many people are suffering in silence. Agoraphobia, if left untreated, can leave you housebound. This was something that I had to ensure would not happen to me and something that I have kept as a goal over the past four years. I read a fact earlier whilst researching for other agoraphobics who have shared their stories on blogs and YouTube that 20% of those with mental anxiety issues commit suicide. This is a scary statistic and one that I feel will stick with me as I share my own story in combatting this phobia and to hopefully inspire more people.
There is no certainty that my anxiety won’t return in the future. It could come on just as suddenly, but hopefully I will now have ways to handle the fears and will be able to control it.