Living With Agoraphobia

By Judy Fraiia

At the tender age of fourteen I was already in the work force.  Thanks to anxiety disorders which invaded my brain at about age five a decent education wasn’t really an option.

I was never able to fit in at school, I felt like an alien, it was as though I was sending out an “aura” saying “don’t come near me, I’m weird, and I’m not worthy of your friendship”.

So here I was behind the counter at Coles.   At first it was quite pleasant being shifted from glass wear then on to brick-a-brack and finally doing the rounds at all the different counters; my favourite being the crockery department - I’ve never forgotten how to pack cups.

My first panic attack at the age of 14 will be forever indelible in my mind. Little did I know then that they were to continue on until the age of 47.  I’ve been free of these wretched things for six years.

I wasn’t feeling particularly stressed on the day of my initial panic attack which overpowered me with a direct hit.  My first thought was that fainting was a strong possibility and that my legs felt like aeroplane jelly made with an extra cup of water - very wobbly.   I wondered if I was dreaming, I certainly didn’t feel real, nothing seemed real, What was I doing here? Who was I?   I wanted to run from this unreality but where was reality?  If the tea room was some sort of safe haven,  I wasn’t sure my legs could transport me such a distance.   At this stage I felt stiff all over. Voices were swirling, customers and voices of management united, the sound of the fans overhead were menacing.  I managed to totter back to the aisle of my counter with great difficulty with robotic like movements. “Miss Pedler, please serve the customer” shouted Mr Sillborn the floor walker.  I think that’s my name but I’m not sure, anyway thank God for the customer who brought me back to earth. Such was the extent of my fear that I had a very clear understanding of how a prisoner about to be executed would feel.

I was plagued with panic attacks and Agoraphobia from that day on.

Long distance travel made me feel extremely uncomfortable, long roads of never ending bitumen and copy cat trees did nothing for me, and when a small town loomed in the distance I somehow felt relieved. I felt safer amongst houses and shops. Going to church was a nightmare and anticipation would start to build a good day beforehand.  I always prayed that our reliable old station wagon would refuse to start but it never missed a beat and it became quite apparent that I was in for an hour of terror. As far as the Church went, I know I would have fared much better had I been able to sit in the back pew for a quick exit. My husband was oblivious to my blind terror and thought he was doing me a favour by guiding me to the absolute front row of seats.  Thank goodness for the candle that flickered in uneven licks of orange flame, that was something for me to centre my concentration on.  My gaze didn’t waver from that holy flame save except when the donation plate was passed around which would mean that the end was near, and just maybe I might be able to survive this ordeal. School meetings or any other meetings for that matter were other outings that I endeavoured to avoid at all costs. Driving to a school meeting at night was a terrifying experience whereby I felt I was engulfed by sheer darkness.  If the meeting was to be held during the winter months there was always the strong possibility of being confronted by fog as I travelled homeward. I’d try not to look at my watch during  meetings and hope that the speaker wouldn’t speak one minute longer than he should.The worst thing a person with agoraphobia can hear at any meeting is for the speaker to say “I’ll get back to that later”.  “No, do it now, get it over with” I scream within.  I wonder how much later and I wait with urgency for him to ‘get back to that a bit later’, knowing that then the meeting might be nearing the end.

When I had agoraphobia and panic attacks my whole body was on guard and I can never remember being in a relaxed state.  As far as looking forward to anything, forget it, even stepping outside my bedroom was like stepping into the unknown.

The supermarket was an evil place with rows and rows of identical aisles with “NO SEATS” and nothing to hang on to, and someone should tell management that the lights are far too bright.  By the time you wobble to the check-out there is never any chance of you being able to sail right on through. There is always the inevitable QUEUE that can tip scales and break you just when you thought you had conquered your fear of the dreaded supermarket, and you have just been praising yourself for being so brave.

I would never venture into a bank or post office if they didn’t offer a hand rail with which I could clamp onto with all my might. I would stand in the queue, my white knuckles in full view, cursing that woman six ahead of me chatting to the teller in an idle manner - she’s in no hurry.  Doesn’t she know that I could faint at any moment. That woman at the end teller has brought in a sack of coins to be counted, she had to pick today didn’t she?  “I don’t know if I can wait any longer”. I often think there should be a special fast moving line for people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, two tellers to ease the load and a stool to sit on while you wait.

Public transport is a problem when you have agoraphobia - trains, buses etc. In fact it was not so much the trains and buses that were the problem, but the people that clamber on.  I found that the more people that climbed on to the train the bigger the urge I had to jump off at the next station if I could last that long.  I was almost tempted to try it when the train slowed down.

All people with agoraphobia would know about shopping centres.  They just go on and on.  There’s no joy in it -  if only I could be like all those people - standing, looking at window displays and shopping.  How can they be so relaxed?    If I had had three wishes it wouldn’t be for that never ending box of tim tams, or to be beautiful or rich. My only wish would have been to be free of agoraphobia and panic attacks.  I looked at those calm, relaxed shoppers and I envied them.

I’m here to tell you that as a fully recovered agoraphobia sufferer, that you can conquer this beast once and for all.   I made a decision six years ago that I had had enough of panic and agoraphobia dominating my life.  I was not prepared to put up with it any longer.

My decision to live a normal life was made, but I knew the road ahead was going to be rough.  I decided that I would go ‘cold turkey’, rather than doing it in easy steps.  I suppose I am lucky in that, by nature, I am a very determined person and I never go back on a decision.  I set my rules and then put all my effort into adhering to them.  One rule was to go into town, at least once a week, even if I didn’t need to.  I was to stay in town for two hours, go into shops and browse, and sit down in a coffee shop for a leisurely cup of coffee.  If I met someone in town that I knew, I wasn’t to hurry off with an excuse of a pressing matter.  I was to converse with the person - even if I had to lean against a shop window for support or sit down on a bench.

I managed, during my first trip to town, to achieve these goals without experiencing overwhelming panic.  I was very pleased with myself, and knew that I was on the right track.  I realised that having done it once, I could do it again, and then again.

Another rule was to attend every school meeting.  If I got there early I could get a seat near the door, but I would not allow myself to leave during the meeting and even made myself stay afterwards to have tea and cakes with the other mums.  I won’t say I wasn’t terrified, but I did it, and each time the fear became less.

Going to church was a similar situation.  I sat down near the back and near a window.  Being able to watch the trees outside swaying in the wind was a plus.   The movement of the wind had a very calming effect on me, and also some sounds like wind chimes, rain, and the cat purring.  Also the feel of things like a cold cement surface under my feet or touching a rough surface would help to bring me back to reality.   I would try to focus on these calming sensory experiences whenever I felt my anxiety rising.   I would also often attempt to distract myself from the panic - if I was in a dreaded queue in the supermarket I would talk to the person in front of me, pick up a magazine to read or count the money in my purse.

There were many other things that helped me to overcome agoraphobia and panic.  Most importantly, I educated myself about the disorders and ways of overcoming them.  I found a good professional therapist who knew about treating these problems, and I joined the Foundation and became a volunteer.  All of this, combined with my decision to overcome agoraphobia and panic and my self-help techniques, effectively put me back in control and on the road to recovery.  It wasn’t easy, and sometimes when I had a set-back, I wondered if I would ever fully conquer my fears.  In the end, my determination and hard work paid off.   Even though I still get anxious sometimes - like we all do, I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack for five years.  Best of all, my life is no longer controlled by fear.  I can now go anywhere, and do anything I want to - even flying in a plane (which I have discovered I really enjoy), without cowering under that terrible and constant burden of panic.