Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the individuals
When people discuss anxiety they focus on general anxiety, panic attack disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Agoraphobia is often an overlooked area of anxiety and there seems to be limited discussion within this area.
I wanted to find out more about agoraphobia but not from a health profession, but from someone who has suffers from the condition. Firstly what is agoraphobia?
Merriam Webster dictionary defines agoraphobia as;
Noun: Abnormal fear of being helpless in an embarrassing situation that is characterized especially by the avoidance of open or public places
Agoraphobia in the worst cases can result in an individual being confined to their house or even worse to their room.
Recently I met up with Susan Jones, a 21 year old young women who has been struggling with agoraphobia since 2011. I wanted to understand how Susan saw her mental health condition and to receive first-hand knowledge about agoraphobia.
Susan has been clinically diagnosed with multiple anxiety types; generalised anxiety, agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Susan has also been diagnosed with depression and hypochondria. Susan’s conditions stem from her fear of becoming ill or having an anxiety attack within a public place. Sadly for Susan, she has been suffering with her mental illness since she was sixteen years old, although her agoraphobia was not prevalent until Christmas in 2010. Susan states her agoraphobia started at a slow pace where she was unable to sit in traffic, take certain routes on her travel to eventually resulting in her being confined to her home.
Susan has pin pointed a single aspect in her life that she believes lead to her agoraphobia being prevalent, it was in 2010 when her family had to move from their family home and were briefly homeless. Susan remembers thinking, “I’ll feel better once I settle down in a house”, which was not the case. Anxiety attacks have a lasting effect and many suffers describe an attack to bring them to their knees. Susan informed me that she recently had a panic attack that left her in what she described a ‘vegetative state’.
Anxiety symptoms vary for each person though they may include, vomiting, dizziness, heart palpitations and tingling sensations. Anxiety is good at tricking your brain into believing it is something else, for example it is common for people who present themselves to the Emergency Room assuming they are having a heart attack to be actually experiencing an anxiety attack.
Susan states she has experienced all of these symptoms but her anxiety led to her in 2011 losing 55kgs, being confined to her house to the extent that Susan was unable to leave her bed (besides using the bathroom), Susan was not able to get up for meals or to shower. She described this time in her life as the time she was a “Prisoner within her own body, and there was no way out.” Susan then attempted to take her own life which resulted in her hospitalization. She saw this as progress in her agoraphobia recovery, due to her being forced to leave her home.
It was at this point Susan sought help. She would like to stress that if you experience symptoms to seek help immediately, through your doctor or counselor. Your University may even provide a free counselling service, or if you are uncomfortable with seeking help face to face services such as beyondblue, headspace and lifeline provide email or instant messaging services which allow you to speak directly to a counselor.
Agoraphobia provides a double edged sword for suffers, they attempt to seek help, however, as Susan noticed it is overwhelming as Susan was unable to leave the confines of her home to seek help. This is why services mentioned above are important to utilise though they can only help to a certain point. It took Susan months of searching to find a psychologist that was willing to attend a home visit, with her first counselling session taking place in her bedroom. These session resulted in Susan being able to go for small car rides without experiencing a panic attack, though this was after months of rehabilitation and determination. However, the psychologist was unable to continue, due to being an adolescent counselor. This resulted in Susan being re-assigned to a psychologist who, ‘traumatised’ her and resulted in her having a panic attack in the middle of the street, increasing Susan’s fear of having a public panic attack.
It is important to remember that if a psychologist does work for you to discontinue your sessions and find a psychologist that will be able to work with your personality. Rehabilitation will be difficult and you may relapse but there is a difference between relapsing and being pushed into further anguish by a psychologist.
Susan has gone into recovery seven times and has undertaken multiple treatment options such as; shock therapy, exposure therapy, medication, counselling and self –help books. Susan has continued to use self-help books and medication, though it is stressed that you only try treatment advised by your health care professionals.
Though I was curious how does agoraphobia effect your loved ones? Susan has a fiancé and still lives with her parents. Susan’s agoraphobia has led her to missing out on important family events including the birth of her nephew. She notes that she has had multiple arguments with her loved ones and this hinders her recovery but she understands that her condition can frustrate her family when they often feel helpless with her condition.
Though it is important to remember that even though anxiety often results in clinging to certain individuals, this is the case with Susan and her fiancé, we must also try and ensure their mental health is looked after as well. Organisations such as Beyond Blue, Anxiety online and lifeline provide information for carers. One of the most important things to Susan is to ensure her loved ones live a normal life. If you are a carer Susan stresses to not give up on your loved one but to, ‘love them unconditionally, be supportive and treat them well, don’t not enable their anxiety’.
Susan is an inspiration to anxiety suffers, she continually is trying to rehabilitate herself whilst trying to keep a normal family life. During the past four years Susan has also gained accreditation from the Erin Shaw Academy to practice makeup, even though she has not left her house she is still trying to live as though she is not agoraphobic. Susan has overcome multiple attempted suicides, being contained to her bed and is still a remarkable inspiring woman who is a happy and a kind person. Susan is also a brilliant role model to those suffering from a mental illness to never give up, because each and every time she goes through recovery she feels she becomes stronger.
Sadly Susan is still suffering from agoraphobia and is still confined to her house. She hopes her story can help anyone else that is suffering or is a career for someone suffering from agoraphobia.
If you are experiencing any symptoms of anxiety please seek help from your health care profession. I know it is hard to sometimes face someone in real life, please do not forget there are multiple organisations that provide online services that allow you to email or instant message a counselor. In a life threatening situation please call 000 or if you are having serious thoughts of self-harm please immediately contact life line on 13 11 14.