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.