Let’s clear up one thing, agoraphobia doesn’t mean you are housebound. For some it does and for others it doesn’t. This is a misconception I wish would go away but movies like the soon to be released The Woman In The Window starring Amy Adams do nothing to dispel this pervasive misunderstanding. A few other misconceptions about agoraphobics include they are introverted, are antisocial, they are paranoid, or it’s a lifelong affliction.
Simply put agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder that leads to the avoidance or fear of places that cause you to feel panicked, trapped, embarrassed, or helpless. Add to that a panic disorder (not an uncommon pairing with agoraphobia) which includes frequent and sometimes sudden panic attacks in these situations and well, it’s understandable why many think agoraphobics never leave their home. Agoraphobics come in all different shapes, sizes, and locations as do the situations they tend to avoid. The most common include: enclosed spaces, areas where crowds gather, open spaces and/or long lines.
My Experience With Agoraphobia
Before diving into the lessons from an agoraphobic about staying home I need to clear one thing up. Three years ago I was diagnosed with agoraphobia. I’ve always had anxiety since well, as long as I can remember. Public speaking and flying were the main offenders and strike fear into my heart having led to more than one epic panic attack. I was the child that would count how many classmates were ahead of me when reading out loud in elementary school so I could prepare the passage I was going to have to read. It was dreadful. As I got older I noticed things I used to enjoy started to bring about that familiar heart racing, sweat pouring, whole body shaking, blurred vision ordeal that was to be endured. Driving for one. Meeting friends in public. Grocery store lines which soon turned into any line (thankfully this led to quitting my starbucks habit. Silver lining). And other general avoidance tendencies.
Over time my world became smaller and smaller and I found myself shutting in more and more. Nowadays, I don’t leave my house much. The longest I’ve gone without leaving is about two months and when I did finally leave it was only to run simple errands with the help of family members and my ever-so-patient husband (he really does deserve sainthood for his patience and understanding). This is my general routine. Housebound unless necessary. What is necessary differs for everyone. For me, errands are non essential and more often than not so are social events. I’m sorry to all those I cancelled on last minute. I really did want to go but just couldn’t bring myself to leave the house.
Contrary to popular belief or portrayals, agoraphobia doesn’t slow me down professionally or from being a functional member of society, it just changes how I function with the world. For instance, while I may not be willing or able to leave the house to do simple things like grocery shopping, I love traveling. Well, I love being in new places. I don’t just love it – I crave it. It’s the check-in, security lines, customs lines and flying which induce crippling panic but the destination is worth it everytime. And as much as I am nothing short of terrified at social events, even with people I’ve known for years, I love being around people. I’m an extrovert by nature. Talking to and learning from others is something that drives me.
Often my anxiety comes out in a talkative nature which can easily be interpreted as overpowering, annoying, or just plain intense. Understandably, my social circles have grown smaller over the years adding to already mounting feelings of not wanting to leave the house. While others may see avoidance or think maybe I’m an introvert, my internal monologue is running like a feral child – completely unchecked and seemingly with no understanding of basic social norms. For that, I only have myself to blame because up until now only six people know that I am a diagnosed agoraphobic. Two of which are my therapist and my doctor. And, if no one knows how can they think any differently?
Why Talk About Agoraphobia Now?
Why am I telling you all this now? There are two reasons. The first is that I realize we all have our own struggles and until we open up to one another we can never truly be accepted for who we are. How can we expect others to understand us if we aren’t willing to share. The coronavirus outbreak has led many to understand the daily anxieties that many like myself struggle with on a daily basis. We are self-isolating, afraid to go outside our homes or neighborhoods. It’s a strange mixture of confusion, anxiety, sadness, and helplessness. One that myself and many other agoraphobics are intimately familiar with. Strangely enough, this common anxiety has decreased my own daily anxiety. It’s as if I am now operating in a world in which everyone can understand one another. We are all speaking the same language through our shared global anxiety.
The second reason, why now, is because I’ve learned a thing or two about staying home. Three years is a decent amount of time to test out various strategies for thriving when in isolation. Some have been successful and others, well, they haven’t. Over the years I’ve had both feet solidly in what I will call “functioning society.” Other times I’ve straddled the line between functioning society and agoraphobia and yet, at other times both feet were firmly planted in agoraphobia. In fact, for most of my life I’ve been a member of a functioning society so I do understand the struggle when you suddenly find yourself housebound. It’s a mental minefield.
Lessons in Self Isolation from an Agoraphobic
1. Set a routine. Don’t set a routine. Do what you want: This may sound contrary to all those pinterest-esq posts you’ve seen floating around with perfectly color coded time tables and activities. Your world has just been turned upside down so you are completely forgiven for not having your shit together. Want to wake up and work on a puzzle – do that. Want to start work at 5am – do that. Wear pajamas all day or dress up – either works fine. Or maybe you love organizational structures and planning down to the minute your day – do that. Staying home for prolonged periods of time is probably new for you so figure out what works best FOR YOU.
2. Set time aside for yourself to grieve: With any sudden disruption to your daily life comes a natural sadness. This doesn’t matter if you’re self-isolating from coronavirus or diagnosed agoraphobic. Your life has changed and it’s okay to grieve. You have permission to be sad, be mad, be confused, be frustrated, and to not love your circumstances. Maybe grieving means spending an extra 10 minutes in bed. Or it means scrubbing your house until your hands are raw. Maybe it looks like just sitting alone with your thoughts. Everyone grieves differently and that’s okay. The important part is to take time for yourself with yourself to recognize those feelings and to come to the understanding that it’s natural, normal, expected, and acceptable.
3. Find your people: Thanks to technology we can keep in touch with loved ones. Do this. Having connections to people is important. I might not want to leave the house often but I rely on my online communities heavily. Humans are social creatures. Our survival has and always will rely on the support of a community. So get online or on the phone and chat, text, video with the ones who make you laugh, make you cry, will just listen, or will sit virtually with you in a silent understanding. Facebook groups are great for this if you don’t know where to start. There’s something out there for everyone. Social distancing doesn’t mean not having a community.
4. Find the funny: I’ve never been a fan of “think yourself positive” or “so-and-so has a plan, trust it, live it” type advice. Don’t misunderstand, being positive is great and has fantastic health benefits but sometimes life is just plain old hard so try to find the funny. Watch a short video. Dance with no regard. Wear the most ridiculous thing you own. Don’t be afraid to laugh in the face of your new situation. It’s absurd, it’s abnormal, it’s fraught with uncertainty. But sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.
5. Skip the guilt: Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation while in seclusion during the plague and William Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear during isolation from another plague, that’s cool. Nothing like adding a little more stress on top of an already stressful situation to make you feel calm. Skip the guilt and the panicked feelings surrounding doing more. Western societies in general, have a tendency to push upon us a narrative of always doing more, always achieving more, always being better than we are right now. Only then can we truly consider ourselves whole. I’m calling bullshit on that one. For many of us our mental health is teetering due to the unprecedented situation we find ourselves currently living in. So, stop putting extra pressure on yourself. You’re doing great just how you are.
6. Share and know you can’t do it wrong: I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me this long to come clean with my own mental health. I continuously encourage others to speak out, to know they are not alone and yet, here I am, a hypocrite mostly afraid of being misunderstood, pitied, or dismissed. But shared experiences, no matter the circumstances, have a tendency to bring out the best. Sharing your story not only helps you but lets others know they don’t have to suffer in silence. When you find yourself in an extraordinary circumstance know that you can’t do it wrong. We are all trying to find our footing here. No one has the right answers but we’re all in it together.