SMALL STEPS ARE MASSIVE

Agoraphobia is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood anxiety disorders; with many people assuming it simply means ‘being afraid to leave the house’. However, agoraphobia can be better defined as an intense fear of being in a situation where an escape is not easy. For me, this has included using cash machines because of the length of time you’re stuck waiting for your money and can’t leave; it has included being in elevators, cars, trains, cinemas, using pedestrian crossings; not being able to stand still because of the need to keep running; being unable to cross the road because there’s too much traffic, and a million other small and complex things that would take me way too long to list; but equally impacted my life beyond belief. The result of all of these things was what left me housebound. It wasn’t that the outside world was a scary place to me, it was that my disorder had gradually dictated all the things that I couldn’t escape from and the only option I had left was to remain inside. Leaving the house for the first time isn’t the end of agoraphobia, it’s merely the start, the first step; because agoraphobia is all of those things. Agoraphobia is being too scared to cross a bridge and it’s feeling like you’re going to faint when you’re waiting in a queue. Agoraphobia is being feeling suffocated when crammed in a small room and feeling lost and vulnerable in an open space. Agoraphobia is most definitely not simply ‘being afraid to leave the house’. But by adding together each small step, things can and do get better. Because small steps are massive.

 

Progress

I have been fairly quiet lately on my blog so I thought it was time for a long-overdue update. I’ve been super busy with starting up my YouTube channel, trying to learn new coping mechanisms and pushing myself to get better.

For those of you that frequently read my blog, you will know that the last month has been particularly difficult for me. I’ve had agoraphobia for over a year now, but this last month has left me virtually housebound; doing anything or going anywhere has been pretty much impossible.

This has also left me incredibly emotional. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this sad all of the time. The smallest thing can happen or be said and I burst into tears. It’s like I’m walking around (clearly not far!) with frustration, anger and sadness in me at all times, waiting to burst out.

I wake up feeling dread every morning and I cry myself to sleep every night. I snap, I get mad and I cry; all day every day, just wondering around my small first floor flat.

So on Saturday, I lay there in my bed crying at four in the afternoon. I lay there feeling as I always do right now – disappointed and annoyed that my life has come to this. It had just occurred to me that my upcoming trip to my hometown next month to see my friends and family was in jeopardy. If I can’t make it to the end of the street how can I survive a four-hour car journey home?

And then, something just snapped. Or clicked. Or a combination of both. I quickly downloaded a meditation app on my phone, put in my headphones, and went out; in the middle of a thunder-storm.

I felt nervous and there were points where I felt beyond uncomfortable, but not once in the forty minutes I walked did I have a panic attack. Not once did it all become too much that I had to go home.

Instead, for the first time in around a month, I walked without feeling like I was going to pass out, without feeling like I couldn’t breathe or my heart was going to burst through my chest. I just walked, like a normal person.

And again today I did the same thing. The only time I nervously rushed was in Sainsburys, and by doing that it just made me drop my purse and all my coins across the shop floor making me stay in there even longer. But ultimately I was fine.

These things may not seem like massive deals to most people. Walking down the street isn’t an achievement to the majority of us. And I still have a LONG way to go, but regardless of all that, I feel like I’m turning a corner, so that’s something to be proud of.

I feel a little bit of hope for the first time in ages. I feel like maybe getting over this is possible after all. As for the sadness, that’s still there. My brain’s just had enough I guess. But I do also think that’s what’s driving and pushing me forward, and I do have a little help from some extra serotonin around my neck to cheer me up.

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‘No, nothing was wrong with my food. Something was wrong with me.’

Sometimes when I feel as though everything’s getting too much, I like to remind myself of how far I’ve come in my past.

I mean the big achievements. The big things that I’ve overcome already in my life.

The things that at the time felt impossible.The things that I was sure would kill me, but that I eventually wiped out myself before they had the chance.

Anxiety feels impossible to manage all the bloody time and sometimes (a lot of the time!) any hope I have to overcome it drains from me so quickly. I just want to give up and admit that this is it, this is my life.

But strangely, I’m in a unique position – and advantaged in some ways – because I’ve overcome another anxiety disorder already in my life.

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In the summer of 2009, I was seventeen and quickly becoming incredibly ill.

Out of absolutely nowhere, I’d developed a fear of choking.

By the time I turned eighteen four months later, I was just a skeleton of the person I was before. I dropped a couple of stone in weight and developed an eating disorder because my anxiety prevented me from eating anything solid.

I was so scared every single day to eat anything. I remember a friend of mine trying to force a biscuit down me because I hadn’t eaten anything for a long time, but I couldn’t do it.

Everywhere I went I got comments on how ill I looked making me feel even more anxious and self-conscious about my problem. Even from waiters in restaurants that would take away my food and say something along the lines of ‘was something wrong with your food?’ or ‘maybe a children’s portion for you next time, hey!’.

Everyone and everything was drawing attention to it.

My brain stopped functioning and it affected my ability to drive my car safely. I’d completely forget how to break and my reactions were slow.

My BMI was 15.2 and at 5 ft 7 I looked like I could fall over at any moment. My skin looked pale and my cheek bones were harsh. My body looked like that of a young girl, with every curve disappearing.

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I really thought this was my life forever. I thought I was destined to live in fear and bad health until it inevitably sometime soon would take my life.

But then, I packed up my bags in the February and moved to Canada…

I didn’t really know why I was going or what to expect. I went to live with family that I didn’t even know. But it was the best thing I ever did.

From almost the minute I landed in Toronto my big Greek family were trying to fatten me up.

I left Canada six months later after having gained two and a half stone, and I’ve never felt that intense anxiety about eating again.

It’s still there under the surface. When I order food in restaurants I analyse the menu for what I consider a threat, and my stomach has never returned to the size it once was. I eat my food incredibly slowly now, and I still get self-conscious in restaurants when I don’t finish my food; placing a napkin over my plate to avoid the comments.

But other than that, I’m fine. I eat a normal amount every day and have no real issues with food or anxiety relating to it.

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I overcame it. I overcame something that seemed impossible and was taking my life away from me.

And that’s amazing!

Occasionally it’s nice to remind myself of that and keep moving forward. It’s good to recognise that my agoraphobia really doesn’t stand a chance against me.

I’m here!

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I know yesterday I said I was confident that I was going to make it into work today, but this morning I definitely was not. Confident is probably the most fitting antonym I could have used.

When I woke up I instantly felt dread, and when I left the house I said ‘see you a minute’ to my boyfriend.

But here I am. I’ve been here for forty minutes and I still don’t exactly feel comfortable, but I am here.

I made it.

Like a child

It’s so strange isn’t it, how anxiety can make you feel like a little girl again with the flick of a switch.

As most of you know, my mum has been with me this weekend. She came to visit on Friday and left just this morning.

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Just a random photo of mum, my brother and I – because I’m feeling the family love today.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t had an easy weekend whilst she’s been here. I’ve been in a constant state of nervousness that’s made me randomly panic throughout. I’ve probably had ten panic attacks in four days. I’ve not gone much further than the end of my street or really done anything. I’ve panicked inside and I’ve panicked outside.

It’s generally just been a bit shitty. Of course other than the fact that I’ve had my lovely mum with me.

So today, when it came to her leaving, I reverted back to being a child. I got scared and upset, and was hyperventilating in tears for the last half an hour of her being here, all whilst being tucked up in bed watching Beauty and the Beast trying to calm down.

She did offer to stay until my boyfriend gets home off holiday tonight, but it’s ridiculous. She had a train to catch and it’s not like I can now be scared of being without my mum – she lives four hours away and I’m a 23-year-old woman!

So she left, and four hours later I am still here and I am OK.

But it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’ll never be too old to need my mumma. She’s the best.

Panic x6

Yesterday was a stressful day for me. Me and my mum went for a walk (something which wouldn’t have been a trigger for me just two weeks ago), and yet now that’s all it is – one big, fat, annoying trigger – just to be outside.

From the first panic attack onwards, I was in a constant state of nervousness the whole day; a couple of seconds off losing my shit again.

All in all, I had around six panic attacks yesterday. Mostly outside, but then one again after I got home before bed.

Everything was a struggle. The easiest things were impossible.

I would be walking around managing it perfectly, or sitting down having an in-depth conversation; when it would just strike again too fast and too powerful for me to bring it back down.

But also something amazing happened so I have to hold onto that as well. I stayed out.

I was given the option to come home which would have inevitably reduced my nervous energy after the first panic attack, and again after the second (and so on), but instead, I chose to stay out, which is something I’ve never done before.

I’ve never before chosen to stay in a situation which causes me to panic. Yes, I may have walked away from certain areas (or skipped to be precise, leaving my mum walking half a mile behind me), but I did stay outside which was a trigger in itself.

So that’s cool, right?

What makes us scared of some things and not of others?

I’m confident. I share my experiences with you people. Everyone I know has access to my blog and my inner deepest thoughts. I grab opportunities with both hands. I’m writing a book without even contemplating if it might fail, I work and have meetings with new people every week and I’ve recently started an online PR internship from a magazine when I have all these other issues going on in my life.

So why am I scared to walk out of my front door? The most simple and least scary thing on that list.

What in our brains determines a threat and what determines safety?

For me, this is how it is.

There are so many times that people with anxiety hear:

there’s nothing to be scared of

or

can’t you just keep doing it and eventually you won’t feel scared anymore?

And of course the ones saying these things are completely right: there is nothing to be scared of, and the more times I face my fears, the less I will fear them.

But unless you have an anxiety disorder yourself you have absolutely no idea how difficult it can be, and how little your rational thinking comes into play when panic strikes.

A panic attack is not the feeling of being nervous.

It’s not butterflies in your stomach and feeling a little bit sick – much like the average person before making a speech or going on a first date.

It’s so much more terrifying and crippling than that.

For me, this is how it is.

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At first I feel like the world is spinning, like you know those nights where you’ve had way too much to drink and you can’t focus; your head hits the pillow but everything keeps going round and round, making you feel unbelievably sick.

And then my heart starts beating like it’s trying to escape my chest. Over and over again, each beat harder and faster than the one before. And somehow my heart ends up in my head, beating its way through my skull as well.

It keeps going and going and going and everything is still spinning and spinning and spinning.

My mouth then goes dry to the point in which I can’t swallow. This is where I always lose it and feel an excruciating need to escape. My natural reflexes stop functioning and it feels as though I can’t breathe.

Feeling as though you can’t breathe isn’t one of those feelings you get used to. I know it’s a trick. I know I can breathe. But when you feel as though you can’t, it’s so difficult to ignore it and think rationally.

I know it can’t hurt me. I honestly do know that. But no matter how many times you have a panic attack, they all feel just as bad as the last, and they never become less scary.

The level of fear overcomes me so much that I feel like I’m floating. You know like in one of those films where someone dies and floats across the room to heaven – or wherever else they’re going.

My legs have just about as much feeling as a person with paralysis in that moment; I’m moving – or running – but I have no idea how. I can’t feel it.

All I can feel is the strongest urge I’ve ever felt, pulling me away from wherever I am. Wanting me to leave and not feel like I’m dying anymore.

Creating Positive Triggers

Creating positive triggers is a new concept to me, but it’s something I’m definitely willing to try.

Those of us with anxiety have negative triggers all around us. We associate bad things with ordinary objects or locations, because in the past, being around their object or in that location has made us panic.

I have many of these negative triggers: trains, buses, elevators, multi-storey buildings, pedestrian crossings, automatic doors – shall we go on? And usually, they prevent me from doing the things I want to do. I’m restricted to certain places, and I take random detours to avoid my triggers.

But what if we can turn a bad trigger into a good one?

What if we can condition ourselves to not think of something bad when we look at what scares us, but instead think of something good?

Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

I recently met a woman who puts this theory into practice, both with things that scare her and just for random points throughout the day to make life more enjoyable.

To name just a couple, she associates hooded sweatshirts with happiness and pedestrian crossings with laughter.

Pedestrian crossings used to scare her, so this positive trigger in replacement of the previous negative one allows her to use them without being afraid. Instead, she now thinks of something in her life that really made her laugh.

Hooded sweatshirts may not have made her scared, but now whenever she sees them in the street she remembers her positive trigger and smiles; just as a little uplift during the day.

I’m sure it’s one of those things that you have to do over and over again to get any sort of effect from it, so that your brain has time to re-condition itself to your new beliefs about the object or place.

But if it works, it’s so worth it. I’m a little sceptical – it does sound a little bit out there – but surely it’s worth a shot!