Part 1 of 2 When I was a little girl, there was talk of a woman who never left her house. I thought to myself, “That’s really weird!” In my 60s, I became that woman.
I began having panic attacks at age 29 during a period of extreme stress. I was working 20 hours per week while taking 12 hours of graduate classes and a 10 year relationship was ending. I managed to cope with the attacks through the years, telling my boss that I had hypoglycemia. I made the regrettable mistake of marrying at age 38 without telling my husband I had panic disorder. I wasn’t having panic attacks at the time of my marriage. However, my husband told me later that he had noted that I often checked my heart rate. In hindsight, even though it’s hard to talk about, I advise being open with those close to you about your mental illness. If you don’t you will regret it later. Bust the stigma.
I have found panic attacks to be cyclical in nature. One can go for a few years without having one, then they come back in full force.
Driving has been difficult since developing panic disorder. I have pulled over to the side of the road many times. Left hand turns when the car must face oncoming traffic were especially difficult for me. Freeways can be terrifying. I’ve popped a Xanax to drive. I’ve kept CDs by Claire Weeks in my car CD player. I finally gave up driving in my 60s.
Once I had a long panic attack in the grocery store. After abandoning my grocery cart half full of groceries, I sat down in the deli area. There was an older man in overalls sitting at the same table eating fried chicken. Somehow, that man’s calm nature helped me immensely; he never knew I was having a panic attack. When I went to the restroom a little while later, the feelings of unreality came. I had a hard time walking to the car and driving home.
Two panic attacks at age 62 were the seminal ones that caused me to become agoraphobic. I was shopping for groceries during the first and taking Prozac newly prescribed by a psychiatrist. I had been reading how SSRIs increase the risk for fractures. I had a panic attack while checking out. I felt the sense of unreality. My heart raced. Somehow I managed to write a check and get my groceries to the car while walking on legs that felt like jelly. The second seminal panic attack occurred while I was sitting in church. I looked down at my FitBit, and my heart rate was 138 bpm. I got up and left, worrying that I might pass out in front of the church members. I had difficulty driving home.
I went to the grocery store once after these two seminal attacks. I walked to the produce department to get bananas and avocados. I was shaking so bad in the checkout line the clerk asked me if I was okay. Somehow I made it home. Another time I tried to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. I was so anxious that I had to abandon the pickup. The pharmacy clerk said, “but it’s right here, ready.” I said, “I’m having an #Anxiety attack and have to leave.” Again, I pictured myself passing out in the store and had a hard time getting to the car and driving home.
Now, I rarely go into the grocery store, the pharmacy, a movie theatre, a restaurant, a department store, or church now. On the rare occasion I go out, I have a safe person with me. I will go for weeks without leaving my house. If I have a doctor’s appointment, someone drives me.
Not many people know I have agoraphobia. The stigma causes me to stay in the closet about my condition. I am worried what people will think: that I’m weird, weak, or crazy. That is, if they even know what agoraphobia is at all. I admit I have some shame about being mentally ill. I’ve never discussed my condition with my sister or brother.
Agoraphobia is very lonely. Zoom helps with the social isolation. In a sense, I’ve been glad for the pandemic as others have gotten to see what it’s like to not leave the house. I spend my life in a very small space of about 800 square feet. I am grateful that I have that much space to live in.
I also have chronic #Insomnia and #Depression . I take medications that someone picks up for me for panic disorder, depression, and insomnia.
Living with mental illness is very challenging. I wish a social worker could come visit me. Maybe in the future there will be better help for those living with mental illness. I really like the quote at the end of the recently published book, “Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health,” by Thomas Insel, M.D. The quote is by Hubert Humphrey. It is: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those