Robyn Wilder

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I was housebound with agoraphobia

When I was 21, I lived in the Home Counties with my mother, my step-father, and my slightly disappointing liberal arts qualification.

I enjoyed a busy social life and rarely spent a night at home, boasting an armada of toothbrushes in friends’ bathrooms right across the Thames Valley.

Though I didn’t have a steady job or any idea what to do with my life (my career plan of being discovered as a pre-pubescent literary wunderkind hadn’t panned out), I was in a bunch of self-conscious indie bands, and I did have really excellent Shakira-meets-David-Coverdale hair, so I figured I was happy.

One day, while I was out shopping with my mother, the shopping mall began vibrating imperceptibly around me. The halogen lights grew too bright and jarring, and everyone seemed to be staring at me. I’d felt a little sick in the car earlier, but had chalked that up to a recent bout of flu. Now, light-headed and self-conscious, I stumbled into Boots. Then the world started to spin and throb and my stomach swooped and pitched and cramped up. 

My knees gave way in the maternity aisle. “Don’t let me shit myself,” I thought, then: “don’t let that be my last thought.” Then I passed out. When I came to, I hadn’t shat myself, but I was covered in breast pumps.

Ladies and gentlemen, my first panic attack.

The attacks came thick and fast after that, in any enclosed space outside my home – on the train to my boyfriend’s house; on the bus to my bar job. The world would pulse and warp, and a tremendous dam of nausea would build up inside me until I’d either faint, or be trapped inside a terrible vertiginous inertia.

When I came to – or couldn’t take it anymore – I’d phone whoever I was trying to see, lie unrepentantly, then hurry home to chain-smoke and drink sugary tea until I stopped shaking. And each time, the shakes would take longer to leave me.

In the same week, I was summarily fired from my bar job (probably a relief to anyone I’ve served a watery, headless pint), and diagnosed with severe panic disorder and agoraphobia.

“Those upsetting episodes you’re experiencing are panic attacks,” the doctor told me. “Your agoraphobia comes from fearing the attacks themselves, and avoiding the public places in which you might have them.”

I was prescribed SSRI antidepressants, but binned them almost immediately because they increased my anxiety. Weekly sessions with a psychologist didn’t help much, either. I’d generally faint on the way there and, when she asked where I learned to cope with difficult situations by withdrawing from them, I wouldn’t know what to tell her.

I’d think of my loving family; my public school education; the fact that I’d lived all over the world – and wouldn’t know what to say. That I might have been led here by my childhood (upheaval, bullying, and my father’s death) didn’t even cross my mind.

As far as I was concerned, this entire situation – the panic attacks, the therapy, the derailing of my life – was the trauma. It all felt completely external to me. It was like being repeatedly hit by a truck while the truck driver asked, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”

What really did help was:

1. Educating myself about panic attacks
They’re caused by adrenaline, not a suffocating all-encompassing evil! The human body generally can’t sustain one for over 30 minutes! If learn Jedi relaxation and breathing techniques for many months you do, stop them in their tracks you sometimes can.

2. Gradual exposure therapy
Leaving a situation while you’re still panicking can create a subconscious feedback of fear, and compound agoraphobia. Whereas staying in a situation until your fear level drops can start to turn the tide.

So, I had to go to the bus stop near my house, mark my panic level on a sheet numbered 1 - 9, then stay there. I did this every day until my panic level dropped below 7. Then I had to get on a bus, and do the same thing. Then go two bus stops. Then three, etc., until I had re-conquered the world.

And you know what? I did it.

It took me two years of standing around like a fucking lemon at bus stops, in shopping malls and on trains while the world thrummed around me and I tried not to throw up on it. Sometimes I fainted. Often, people stared. But I did it.

In that time my relationship ended, a lot of friendships fell away, I scraped by on incapacity benefit, and I lost two stone (12kg) because the act of facing my fears on a daily basis made me too constantly anxious to eat (irony).

Also, I learned the second movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; hand-coded HTML; and that I really hate crime fiction. I wrote a humorous novel about pirates and, like a boss, accidentally deleted a humorous novel about pirates.

But I did it. I re-conquered the world in two years. As soon as I was able to commit to being somewhere three times a week without fainting, I got a part-time job at my local theatre. And I loved it.

Soon after that, though, my mother had a heart attack and needed my care for six months. Thankfully she made a full recovery, at which point I immediately relapsed. However, recovery wasn’t so awful the second time round – I started freelance writing rather than going back on incapacity benefit. I got a beautiful Welsh Springer Spaniel, took up running, and learned the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

In total it took me four years to recover from agoraphobia. I’m in my thirties now, and enough time has passed for me to see that – however I thought I was when I was 21 – I was really very far from okay. I was just so good at lying to myself that I didn’t realise how intolerable things had become. And, in spiriting me away from my old life and making me fight for a better one, agoraphobia actually did me a favour.

But it was horrible to endure. I’d never heard of agoraphobia before I had it, and the one thing I could have used during recovery was a success story. So now I’m thinking about writing a book about my experiences.

In the meantime I live and work in London, and travel far and wide without incident. I still have a tendency to withdraw from difficult situations, but I’m better at spotting when I do, and finding more honest ways to cope. Plus, although I have the occasional panic attack, I haven’t fainted in years.

My hair is still a bit David Coverdale, though.

Originally published on xoJane UK. I also wrote a longer feature about getting over agoraphobia, and living with anxiety disorder, for ELLE UK. You can read the whole thing on Scribd

Have you got the fear?

When I was 21 I thought I was fearless. I wasn’t, of course - say the word ‘spider’ to me and I’d run a mile. But, during my teens I’d done slightly odd things  like hitchhiking to Glastonbury Festival, and running away to the USA for a summer. Now I was fresh out of university, flat-sharing with friends, and having the time of my life. Sure, I wasn’t completely confident of what I wanted to do work-wise and my income depended on bar work, but who wouldn’t be happy boasting a guitarist boyfriend, a mane of waist-length, pillarbox-red hair, and their very own not-that-terrible-actually band? Not me. Life was good.

Until, very suddenly and completely without warning, it wasn’t. One morning, I was aimlessly browsing in Boots when the ground tilted sharply beneath my feet. My palms flooded with sweat and I was struck by the kind of wooziness you may have felt if, and I don’t mean to be presumptuous here, you’ve ever drunk too much cheap cider and urgently needed to be sick in a hedge.

With my stomach threatening to explosively empty itself, I scanned the shop for the closest exit. But by that point, the world was see-sawing so violently that I crashed headfirst into the mother & baby aisle and blacked out. Other shoppers looked on in horror as, when I came to, I clambered out from under a large pile of breast pumps and legged it.

I’d never experienced anything like it before, so naturally, I assumed I had somehow contracted Ebola, or that the zombie apocalypse had hit. But, after a restorative cup of tea, I felt perfectly normal again. And as I was neither bleeding from my eyeballs nor craving human flesh, I decided it was just one of Those Things.

However, the next day I went funny again in the local newsagent.

Read more

It happened to me: I was housebound with panic disorder and agoraphobia

In any enclosed space outside my home – the train to my boyfriend’s house; the bus to my bar job - the world would pulse and warp, and a tremendous dam of nausea would build up inside me until I’d either faint, or be trapped inside a terrible vertiginous inertia.

I write about the four years I spent as a housebound agoraphobic with severe panic disorder in my early twenties - and subsequent recovery - for xoJane.

Plus I manage to crowbar in references to Whitesnake, Yoda, and shitting yourself. Hooray!

Bit soppy, but fuck you

Took part in an ensemble piece for xoJane UK, about what we’re all proud of.

Mine reads:

I’m proud that I overcame

  • agoraphobia
  • severe panic disorder
  • being an unbearable sloane

One night when I was 21 I went to bed outgoing and sociable (and probably hungover), and woke up the next morning housebound. Suddenly, I couldn’t go anywhere without having panic attacks so severe that I’d faint.

Two years and a lot of hard work later, I got better. Then I relapsed. Then I got better. Then I got glandular fever. Then I moved to London.

My point is, I may leave the house some days still carrying a mug of coffee and a wet toothbrush, but at least I leave it. Also, I no longer say ‘eaukay’ or ‘yah’. Life is a journey, you guys.

The book wot I (never) wrote

Melissa Murphy shares her experience of agoraphobia – and beating it – in The Guardian Weekend magazine.

Her brave, honest account had me speed-reading to the end: was there a happy ending? Yes. Like me, although once crippled by the disease, she’s now a fully functioning member of society. I’ve never met Melissa Murphy, but I was immediately, intensely proud of her.

Then I read that she’d published a book about her experiences – a book to help other agoraphobics recover – and I hated her.

Funny how quickly that sisterhood stuff can fall away.

How dare she? I seethed. That’s MY thing. I was going to write that book!

When I was in the grip of agoraphobia, six stone and dropping, and fighting every day to inch along the long, uncharted road back to normality, the one thought that spurred me on was this:

If nothing else, I know I can write. When I’m better I’ll write a book about this so that no one else has to feel as alone as I feel now.

Now, six years post-recovery, I’m all lattes and Oyster cards and over-spending and complacency. And I haven’t written a word about it yet.

Why?

Well, partly because the very business of getting on with life takes so much effort. It took me four years and one relapse to recover from agoraphobia. There’s no culture shock like being thrust into a world of careers and mortgages when, for the last four years, the scariest thing you’ve had to do every day is walk to the bus stop.

Also there’s the fear that talking about it might bring it back.

Agoraphobia came for me out of the blue. One day I was a wry, happy-go-lucky twenty year old with a boyfriend, a band and a rather extreme social life. The next day I couldn’t get on a bus or go in a shop without swooning.

I’ve never fully understood where it came from, what triggered it or, most worryingly, what facilitated my recovery. Back then, despite everything, I fashioned myself into a cold streak of willpower, throwing everything I had at the disease for a chance at a better life.

Now I have that better life – the lattes and Oyster cards and so on – and it’s softened me.

If agoraphobia came knocking tomorrow I’d stand to lose a good job, a great boyfriend (well, probably not him. It might put a dent in his nice life though), a nice house, a decent social life. It’d be like the fall of Rome. I’d be as unprepared as Nero – all muscle run to fat, sedentary living, the fight bred out of me.

I couldn’t do it.

So best not to think about it, right?

Well, wrong. That whole not-thinking-about-things-because-they’re-irksome business is a breeding ground for the kind of neuroses that lead to agoraphobia in the first place.

What agoraphobia ISN’T:

  1. A fear of open spaces. At my worst point, I was A-OK with open spaces. The trouble wasenclosed spaces away from home – buses, offices, cinemas. Even then, it wasn’t fear of those places – it was fear of having a panic attack in those places. If I keeled over in a shop, it would be a Big Deal. There would be questions, witnesses. I might vomit. People might think I was mad. How mortifying. Whereas, if an agoraphobic falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, would it even have happened in the first place?
  2. A simple phobia. Arachnophobia is a simple phobia: spider + phobic = wig out. It’s not nice, but it is simple. Agoraphobia is a complex phobia; a prison your subconscious creates to keep you safe from all those pesky panic attacks. My particular prison was pretty cosy. It had five bedrooms and looked out over a forest. It had a friendly dog, a piano, lots of books, the internet. It was the address the government sent my incapacity cheques to. The problem is, the longer you stay in the prison, the less able you are to venture out. The very act of not facing your fears strengthens them.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Which is interesting now I am thinking about it.

One of the hardest pills I had to swallow during recovery was the fact that agoraphobia was something my brain did to me. It was (and is) almost impossible to accept.

Panic attacks, for me at least, were totally physiological phenomena. As un-psychological as a twisted ankle.

I wouldn’t even have to think anxious thoughts. I could be plodding round Sainsbury’s pondering turkey twizzlers when suddenly I’d be awash with the kind of wooziness that strikes you when you’ve had about five pints too many, the room spins and throbs, and you have an urgent need to be sick in a hedge.

You know that feeling. Now stretch it out for an hour and have it ambush you on a plane, in the middle of a meeting, at a picnic. Now imagine that all you had to do to stop this feeling is go home.

It was all bewildering, external nonsense as far as I was concerned.

But recently I’ve thought a little about what was going on when I fell ill. That whole boyfriend/band/social life thing. I was actually quite unhappy. Not in an ‘oh my god, I’m so unhappy!’ sort of way – I don’t do that. What I do is go ‘la la la, oh look a flower’, let the unhappiness flood me in a pervasive subconscious sort of way, and get on with things.

So when it all got too much, and my brain noticed that I was too busy ‘getting on with things’ to do anything about it, it threw a bunch of panic attacks at me and closeted me away from life.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to tell I have anxiety issues. I have ‘bubbly and outgoing’ down to an art form. I have lots of friends and I’m always making more. I’m always on the go.

I’ve just been to Vegas, for fuck’s sake.

But there are little tells, little signs. Melissa Murphy would probably get my number in a minute.

I have lots of friends, but it’s a 50/50 chance whether I’ll respond to their emails or phonecalls, or see them. In fact, one reason I keep making new friends is because – in my flaky, unexplained absences – many of my old n’ gold friendships have dwindled to nodding acquaintanceships.

I have lots of stuff, but I don’t use it. I live in one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, but I mostly confine myself (in that subconscious, oh-I’m-tired-today-I’ll-go-to-the-exhibition-tomorrow sort of way) to my home, my office, my local pub, my local Pret.

Sometimes I become aware that I’m only living about 3% of the life I have, and I make big changes. But I never get them to stick, and I fall back into the rut. I have the world at my fingertips and I’m still wishing my life away.

Agoraphobia is the prison, not the panic.

Agoraphobia is the symptom, not the cause.

A harder pill to swallow is the fact that, after all that hard graft to beat the symptoms, the cause of agoraphobia might still be affecting me in invisible but powerful ways.

I mean, I did all that work and now I don’t even get to rest on my laurels? I have to do more work? You’re joking, The Universe, yeah? You’re having a fucking laugh, right?

But then I think of Rome and Nero. And I think about that old me; that cold-streak-of-willpower me, and how disappointed she’d be to find she’d beat her head against a brick wall for four long years only topretend to live a full life.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t written the book. Because I still am the fucking book. If it’s taken me six years to realise this, it may take me another six to do something about it.

But all the same, thank you, Melissa Murphy. I didn’t write your book. But I will buy it.

[UPDATE]
A serendipitous link.