By Caitriona McMahon
Last week I experienced what I would consider to be a milestone in my journey to date. As I walked round the local shopping centre, sipping hot chocolate, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of anxiety I was experiencing.
There was almost a palpable calmness and subsequently a lot of disbelief. You see a couple of years previous to this such a relaxed me, would have been impossible, unthinkable.
Even the thoughts of vast public buildings sent me into crippling panic attacks. In wide open spaces, my body used to shut down bit by bit while my mind span out of control.
I would start trembling, sweating and panicking to the point of collapse. In the end the fear of panicking was causing me to panic non stop.
It came to a stage where I was unable to go to the bank, the local shop, events, occasions and so forth. I felt as though I was the only person feeling like this.
I used to dread having to say no to event invitations, which in turn meant I started to socially withdraw and bit-by-bit, started losing connections.
Some people were more understanding than others when it came to cancelling going places.
It was assumed by many that I was “antisocial” or just “weird”. Phrases like ‘You’ll be fine, shur what’s there to worry about’, ‘That’s all just in your head’ or ‘You’re useless, you never want to go anywhere” were but a few of the responses I got on a regular basis.
Then of course there was the overheard remarks and looks thrown that spoke louder than any words could. Each one hurt.
I remember the first attempt I made at making contact with a therapist to get help. I looked through every inch of the yellow pages and carefully removed any practices listed in built up areas.
I went on to decide which ones I was going to try but I would first need to speak to them and ask the size of the building and was the office near an open door.
I pressed dial….someone answered. I remember asking about the size of the building then dropping the phone in panic.
This happened numerous times but one day a voice at the other end of the phone noticed the anxiety and desperation in my voice and calmed me down before I had a chance to hang up.
And so within a few days therapy had begun. From there I went onto a counsellor that introduced CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
I explained I could no longer go to the local small shops, banks. They asked where the hardest place was for me to go and I explained the Cresent Shopping Centre, I hadn’t been there in years because of the sense of dread it induced.
I continued to explain that as soon as I entered a building I was convinced the doors were locking shut behind me and I was trapped.
After a lot of discussion and listening they asked me to try something. I was encouraged to go with someone I trusted to the shopping centre car park and stop outside, then sit and look at the building. Allow myself time to simply be and leave again.
No undue added pressure simply observe. This I guess was teaching me to trust that only I am in control not my thoughts.
The next step was scheduled for a different day and involved dipping my toes inside the shopping centre main door with the person I trust a few steps behind watching.
To this day I remember looking back after about 10 steps and smiling. Followed by swiftly exiting. I left beaming with delight and eager to try again.
To my dismay on my next venture I panicked and had to leave. Frustrated and annoyed I wanted to never return again I felt a failure but after some dissection it was clear that going and trying was a victory in itself and so starting fresh the next day was the only way forward.
Day after day I stepped inside the shopping centre a bit more. The more my confidence built in the place I feared most it helped me try going to the local places I found challenging.
It took the best part of a year to reach the middle of the shopping centre and even then it was believe me a flying visit.
But the next time the visit was a little longer and so on and so forth until one day your sucking the marshmallows from your hot chocolate strutting like some sort of a god. If I had been told at the start this moment was possible I would have laughed and left as I wouldn’t have believed it.
So in a nutshell what helps?
1. Accepting that taking smaller than baby steps in working towards your goal is okay.
2. Making achievable goals.
3. Knowing that it’s ok to keep going even though the goal is sometimes covered in a fog of fear.
4. Practicing cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness.
5. Accepting that failing from time to time is necessary to achieve the end result.
6. Acknowledging I was only human and it is ok not to be ok all of the time.
7. Education – Reading up on the topic of agoraphobia and anxiety along with suggested therapies.
8. Having a support network in place.
9. Attending counselling.
There is no guarantee that tomorrow I won’t be looking in from outside the main door unable to enter.
But this too will pass and perhaps I will be back a few days later better than ever .For now I will continue to take smaller than baby steps and If you are experiencing something similar I invite you to join me as we tackle our fears side-by-side.