I have spoken before about struggling with anxiety. It has been an issue since small but has grown with age, mophing and changing in shape, texture and severity. Why I am the anxious type is not easy to fathom. There are lots of things that may have contributed I suppose, like all of us, but as I have often said I think I was carved out of anxiety, small bones scored and polished with fear whilst folded into my mother’s womb.
I hadn’t experienced all forms of anxiety, just my own blend of idiosyncratic fears. Those which made me hold my life together through sweaty palms and a heart knock knocking with fright. When confronted with Agoraphobia, it came as a shock. Nothing substantial occurred for me to develop it or at least I don’t think so. No event where I could say with certainty ‘now that’s the reason you won’t leave your own house.’ The reality is a litany of small things, given time, added up to huge things and left their mark on the uncrossed mat by the door.
I moved house to a different country. I moved into a tiny village where I didn’t know a soul. Before this I had lived in a city, shrouded in the anonymity urban environments bring, desperately wanting to be less anonymous, to find a splinter of connection in a nameless world. What I realised is there is safety in not being seen but in a small village, in a more close-knit community, I felt like I was drowning in faces.
It’s not to say consequences were unexpected. Moving house is a huge stressor for anyone and as much as I relished moving into a rural environment – where there are more cows, sheep and pigs than people – these things still often have repercussions, perhaps layers of stress or increased anxiety or a sort of anticlimactic low mood. I suppose I just expected any repercussions to straighten themselves out quicker than perhaps is realistic.
Other consequences emerged, one of which meant life outside the village became more difficult to navigate. When visiting another town or going to Edinburgh for instance, these places now felt alien and strange. I felt anxious and uncomfortable, overwhelmed by the amount of warm bodies squashed into one place. My life living in a city, wandering around piles of people seemed a million miles away. Once it had been a regular aspect of my life: familiar and commonplace but now it had become unusual and alarming, almost an aberration to the gentle make-up of my now accustomed village day.
Getting out and about seemed important but as a person who can find herself lost in a cul-de-sac, I felt reluctant to explore alone, much preferring to be with my husband. I live in a beautiful part of Scotland, surrounded by sprawling hills and fields, rich dark forests, a meandering river, butterscotch gorse and pretty purple heather. It’s a delight to be so close to nature but even nature could not untangle the knots anxiety had begun to create.
Eventually one day, some months later, I did leave the house, alone. I knew my way around quite extensively by this time. I knew bus routes and bus stops. I even knew the layout of the towns to either side of our village.
It would have gone swimmingly but after only being on the bus for five minutes, I had a massive panic attack that left me crying and gasping for breath.
No one helped. I don’t suppose people know what to do, sheer panic being wildly disconcerting when it doesn’t appear to have a context or a focused point. I struggled on, red-faced and exhausted, full of panic and anxiety and the resultant feelings of shame. I missed my stop but did somehow manage to get to the next town and to my husband who was at work.
The next few months became a bit of a blur as I fell into a depression brought about by a litany of small things, that given time, added up to huge things. The panic attack hit me hard, not helped by my own brutal assaults on myself. How pathetic after all to not be able to take a bus or visit a shop or cope without one’s husband to hold your hand. My husband didn’t meet a person scared to leave the house. Someone scared to even step outside the door and I felt I’d not only let myself down, but I had let him down, too.
The world can be incredibly unpredictable whilst at the same time each day passes very much the same. I thought I may stay stuck on the inside looking out forever, my life reduced to the world outside my window like a doll in a toy shop. Not trusting the world but not trusting myself even more. We all want to feel in control especially when parading ourselves in front of others who always look so beautifully composed. They don’t realise how close we can all come to tying ourselves in knots or how the same thread can unravel until we lose the end and struggle to sew ourselves back together again.
I didn’t want to collapse into a panic attack if I left the house and find no one wanted to help me breathe it out. Not desperately need to run and hide and find no one who would help me find a quiet corner. It’s hard being out in a world you have become afraid of because every which way you turn, you push up against its corners and it stares straight back at you, indifferently.
One doesn’t decide to become agoraphobic, you simply find your life shrinks until its dimensions fit the size of a small house. People become agoraphobic for all sorts of reasons, too, many much worse than my own. I do go out now, but I have good days and bad, like all of us. For me, I found a practical approach has helped. Small steps each day. Just one thing. Open the front door. Go out of the front door. Walk a few steps up the garden. Feed the birds. Sit on the bench. I do leave the house now, too and have gone back out on my own. There are wins. There are always better days.
It’s not easy. I don’t think much worth doing in life ever is but within all the new steps I am taking, I keep finding a little more faith in myself. A little more compassion and patience. A little more belief. And I’m making better memories and using them to wedge the door open once marked trapped.