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What Having a 'Safe Place' Means to Someone With Agoraphobia

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Agoraphobia is not just a fear of leaving the house. It is a fear of being unable to access a “safe place” quickly. A safe place could be anywhere, but is most often a familiar area. It’s either empty or sparsely populated with people with whom you can trust. Agoraphobia isn’t the same for everyone. I spent four years unable to leave my house, but for the rest of my 40 years on earth, I have been able to leave the confines of my safe place in varying degrees.

One aspect of agoraphobia is needing a plan for escape from whatever social situation you may be in. For example, I had far more freedom and desire to leave the house when I owned a car. Having to sit on a curb and wait for the bus to arrive is not a speedy way to get to your safe place. In fact, my car was a safe place for me. I would often drive around for hours on end to get out of the house, but stay within the confines of safety in my car. I do not leave the house without a plan or a strategy to excuse myself from a social situation and reach a safe place as quickly as possible.

Planning your quick departure from social situations is common for those with anxiety. If you must excuse yourself, it is hard to say, “I am suffering from anxiety and must leave.” Therefore, you set up a possible cover to make a more benign reason for a speedy escape. My go-to excuse is, “I feel like I am coming down with the flu.” This feels like a more socially acceptable exit route than admitting you are suffering from a mental health issue and must leave.

Being in a situation where others are reliant on you can also be anxiety-provoking. To be someone’s ride home means that if you want to leave, you must arrange other transportation for that person or make them go early with you. Therefore, being the designated driver can seem like a massive undertaking, even if you are like me and do not drink. Also, having your child over for a visit can be stress-provoking if you’re feeling anxious and want to send them home earlier. You default to the excuse route because admitting that you are mentally incapable to care for them at this time is heartbreaking and very scary. It can lead to thoughts of being an inadequate parent and further exacerbate your anxiety.

Being without a car requires you to travel only to places where you have satellite “safe spots” for you to retreat to in the event of a panic attack. When I was preparing for college, I created safe zones in the school where, in case of emergency, I could excuse myself and go to a safe place to collect my thoughts. These safe zones are not predictable; they’re pre-planned. It helps to know what sort of social interactions you will engage in on campus. For me, I have a few safe places on campus where I can go to gather my thoughts and prepare myself for the bus trip home, when I can completely relax.

Surprisingly, a safe place is not always a place where you are alone, because just as we have safe places, we also have safe people. Individuals who you don’t need to make any excuses or explain your emotions to are important to have in your life. On campus, one of my safes places is the campus bookstore. The store has a lot of traffic coming and going, but the staff there know my situation and I am comfortable being myself when I am there. Hence, isolation is not a necessity; it’s more akin to comfort and support.

Having a safe place is key for traveling with anxiety, panic disorder or agoraphobia. It was much easier for me to access a safe place many years ago when I was working and had a car; I only had to get to my car and my level of anxiety would reduce significantly. I would have a quick trip home to where I feel the most at ease. Without a car, I am dependent on pre-planning every trip I make in order to have a safe place in mind in case I have an anxiety attack. Using campus as an example again, when I arrive at university, I know I will have the bookstore to retreat to, but there are two other places I know of where I can breathe and collect my thoughts.

As someone with agoraphobia, I do not tend to leave the house without a plan. I will not stray too far from home without a quick route back, and if I have no immediate way, I know of my established safe places. The concept is not of isolation but rather a place you may go to where you don’t have to explain yourself. Even I, who advocates for mental health awareness, have times where I do not want to talk about it; I want to deal with it as quickly as possible and continue on with my day. It is not often that I will travel without a plan and I will even check to see that my safe places are open in case of an emergency. As someone with agoraphobia, I always know where all the exits, nonjudgemental people and safe places are.

Unsplash via Elijah Hiett

Originally published: November 25, 2018
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