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I Have Agoraphobia, but I'm Not Afraid to Leave My House

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I’m not afraid to leave my house. Yet, after spending a lazy weekend at home in my pajamas, I can’t help but get a nagging feeling at the edge of my stomach trying to pull me back as I walk out the front door.

I’m not afraid to leave my house, but sometimes doing regular tasks, like walking down the street to the pharmacy and a little bit farther to the post office, can seem difficult. I know the measurable distance is small and I could easily run home in less than five minutes. However, the closer I get to my destination, the farther it seems to be, especially when I look back to see where I’ve come from. I know when I get there I will be OK, but the space between the two points seems like a wide gulf.

I’m not afraid to go for a walk. Yet, I worry when I start to feel dizzy and my heartbeat speeds up there won’t be anything in my environment to help me feel grounded. Things like a bench, someone’s front porch, a large rock or a solid concrete wall to lean on. I have to fight with every ounce of my being the blaring siren in my brain screaming at me to run and that I’m not safe.

Sometimes, I can breathe through it. Sometimes, I have to turn around and walk a little toward home until I start to feel OK before I can try to go farther and complete my route. Sometimes, I push myself and make it all the way through. Other times, I relent and go home.

I’m not afraid to go to the grocery store, mall or Wal-Mart. Yet. When I go to these places I know where the exits are in case I suddenly feel like I need to get out of there. I park close to the entrances as I worry about my car being stolen and feeling stranded far from home. When in stores with carts, I always take one, even if I don’t put anything in it. To others it may look like I don’t need it, but in fact it helps me stay in the store and grounds me when I feel a panic attack coming.

It is the most difficult when I get to a part of a store or the mall that seems far from escape because I can’t see a quick, clear pathway out anymore. This happens when my view is blocked by tall shelves or the exit with my car is on the other side of the mall. I find myself often re-routing to paths where there are wide aisles that lead directly to the front. Otherwise, I’ll take the stairs or elevators close to exits, even if it is not close to the store I need to go to. It might take me longer to get to the store, but I can usually get what I came there for without needing to go back to my car to calm down before trying again.

I’m not afraid to drive long distances, but I become increasingly uncomfortable when driving on long stretches of highway where there are no houses, exits, gas stations or convenience stores. This is especially true when there are few other cars on the road. I worry about needing help and being too far away to get it.

I’m afraid of situations when I feel trapped. What this means is don’t like enclosed situations, like being stuck in an elevator or locked in a room. I also don’t particularly like wide open spaces or huge big box stores. These are places where being in the middle can feel like being trapped because it seems like getting out would be difficult or take a long time.

This also makes things like traveling seem impossible. I fear other situations that are not inherently unsafe.

This is what agoraphobia looks like for me. It’s not about being afraid of the outside world. It is the fear of the anxiety and panic attacks that have occurred out in that world. This doesn’t mean that panic attacks don’t happen when you’re at home, but at least there you can feel in control of what is going on around you.

I was fortunate to have already been receiving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for panic disorder when I began to develop agoraphobia. During the summer, it escalated to the point where I barely left the house and had difficulty even walking to the end of my street to rent a movie from the local corner store. With the help of medication and continued therapy, I was able to work through it and not become indefinitely house bound.  Unfortunately, for many people living with this condition, this is not the case.

When it comes to anxiety, agoraphobia seems to be one of the more misunderstood and stigmatized conditions. I often find myself at a loss for words to explain it, which makes understanding even more difficult. This is not helped by the few and inaccurate representations in movies, television and other forms of media. I wanted to share my experiences to contradict what is already out there, in order to create a more accurate picture of agoraphobia. I want to let others who are struggling know they are not alone.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: August 23, 2016
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