Last summer, when I was in the middle of my breakdown, I was afraid to look out of windows. Yes, you read that correctly. I was afraid to look out of windows because I was suffering from a lethal concoction of ‘depression laced with anxiety’, to use Matt Haig’s phrasing, which resulted in me developing severe agoraphobia.
- extreme or irrational fear of open or public places.
Whilst the dictionary definition of agoraphobia states that it is simply the fear of wide open spaces, it is in fact a much more complex affliction. In its most basic form, it can be a phobia like any other. Phobias in acute forms can be relatively harmless to a person and have very little effect on how they live their day to day lives, for example the fear of spiders, injections or heights. Whilst these phobias can be incredibly distressing for the individual confronted with them, they very rarely impact on someone’s day for any longer than the time that they are exposed to the fear.
People with agoraphobia tend fear a combination (but not necessarily all) of the following:
- being alone inside or outside the home
- being in a crowd of people
- travelling by car, bus or plane
- being on a bridge or in a lift.
(Thanks again to Mind, who I pinched this list from.)
The impact of agoraphobia can vary due to the sheer nature of the fear that it implies. For some, it comes with other anxiety disorders and mental health conditions, and only flares up alongside them. In it’s most extreme forms, agoraphobia alone can be a completely debilitating condition and in fact cause anxiety or depression.
Before Berlin, I’d only ever experienced milder forms of the phobia. For me, it’s more of a symptom of my existing conditions, rather than a stand alone issue. Throughout my time at university in London, it would affect my ability to socialise in a big way. If I was in a good patch, I could spend time with my friends, go to class and even go on occasional nights out. At its most severe, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house for weeks on end, unless accompanied by one of my (wonderful, understanding, beautiful and encouraging) flatmates, and was terrified of big groups of people and crowds. But in those times, I could always leave the house when I was with someone else. I knew things were getting serious in Berlin, because this wasn’t always the case.
It didn’t begin as a fear of looking out of windows. It began as a fear of being outside alone. Whilst alone, I felt vulnerable to my thoughts. Alone, I had no distraction from what was going on in my head. When my thoughts were particularly out of control, I found the sheer idea of being in a large space surrounded by people terrifying. It made me feel as though there was more space for thoughts to roam and consequently be joined by even more thoughts. Those thoughts would then have more chance spiral downwards, ultimately leading to panic attacks or other, more dangerous reactions. My home made coping mechanism for these feelings was to stay in a more confined space to help me contain them. Which may sound ridiculous, but I hope by now you’ve realised that mental illness is hardly rational.
I struggled with this a lot, especially during my time in Berlin, because I only had a very small number of friends from my home university, who obviously also had a lot going on too, being in a new city and all. This unfortunately gave the fear a lot more space to take hold.
It was truly all-consuming. Imagine your worst fear. Think of how that makes you feel. Consider how spontaneously and irrationally you can act when confronted with that fear. That’s how I felt all the time, except I was too scared to tell anyone about it in case they thought I was going crazy.
It would make my head feel heavy and I could barely concentrate on anything else for the incessant and continuous thoughts of ‘you are not safe you are not safe you are not safe’. It would feel as though someone had put a plastic film over my eyes, similar to the sensation of trying to focus on something through a dirty window. Everything was foggy. I had to continuously practise deep breathing exercises and concentrate on appearing ‘normal’, for fear that someone might catch on to the utter madness in my mind.
As time went by, it became more and more difficult to face the fear. It began to intensify the further away I was from my house, which was really my only safe space in the city. Going to university became increasingly more difficult as I was obsessed with thoughts of just how far away from home I was should anything happen. I found myself always creating emergency escape routes from classes in my head, such as excuses of appointments and figuring out exact timings for how long it would take me to run for the next tram.
When, to my relief, the time would come to return home, the panic would not subside until I was in the door, upstairs, in my bed, under the covers and protected from the world and everyone in it. I would usually need about 20 minutes to find calm and feel safe before I could peel myself out of the foetal position and get on with doing anything within the confines of my room.
Eventually, it got to a point where I could hardly leave the house. I’d purposely chosen to live in shared accommodation with 27 other people, as a way of guaranteeing that I would never be alone. Unfortunately, as I was so wrapped up in my own head, I struggled to make friends, meaning I still had to do the occasional dash to the supermarket to get supplies. Which I suppose was a positive in some ways, because my choice was go outside or starve (and I really like eating).
When I could brave the trip to the shops, usually after the kind words of a good friend on the other end of the phone, I would stock up as much as I could. All too often, I simply couldn’t face even looking outside. The world was so big and I was so small and in so much pain. Going outside only intensified those feelings tenfold.
When things got that bad, I knew it was time for me to come home (though I have to admit it wasn’t my immediate reaction). I dropped out of classes early and moved back to my home town. That was the start of my recovery.
I still struggle with agoraphobia from time to time, but luckily never as bad as when I was in Berlin. In truth, it rarely bothers me any more. It came back during my panic attack on Friday as I was scared to leave my room, and it stuck around for the next few days in the form of not wanting to be alone, struggling to go outside and wanting to avoid large groups of people. Fortunately, I am able to challenge myself to face this fear much better now and have developed slightly healthier coping mechanisms than my old ‘just hide from everything’ tactic. Agoraphobia is an ongoing battle, but not one without hope.
Tips for coping with agoraphobia:
- Face the fear. Ok ok, I know this sounds ridiculous. But unfortunately, sometimes the best way to overcome a fear is to face it, head on. That’s what tends to work for me anyway.
- Baby steps. This is my life mantra. When I say ‘face the fear’ I don’t mean run into a crowded street of people when you’re scared of windows. I mean take things one day at a time. I mean go outside with a friend for 10 minutes. Then the next day, increase that to 20. In a few days, trying going by yourself, and so on. Doing things in easy, manageable steps is the key to not becoming overwhelmed.
- Learn about it. Read the links and books below. Research about other people who have the same feelings as you do. This goes for mental illnesses across the board. Knowing that other people understand your struggles can help you to feel a little more human.
- Tell people. There is no shame in being scared. People who love you will be more willing to help than you realise.
For more information on agoraphobia and phobias in general, here are a few websites I’ve found useful over the years and when writing this post:
I’d also highly recommend Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ because he is just a wonderful writer and deals with agoraphobia throughout his battle with depression, anxiety and panic disorder too.