‘My battle with agoraphobia’

Jackie McGregor
Jackie McGregor

In the year 2000 I had been going through a painful relationship break-up and was also trying to cope with my mother’s failing health.

Mum had Alzheimer’s, though it had yet to be diagnosed. Mentally I was in a bad place. Everything that had made me feel secure, my romantic partnership and my relationship with my mother, had crumbled. I felt cast adrift in a choppy, mental sea that was both unfamiliar and terrifying.

I became filled with anxiety from the moment I awoke. Then the panic attacks began. These were horrifying!

Panic attacks are named after the Greek God Pan, who had a penchant for hiding in remote areas and springing out on unsuspecting travellers, scaring them to death.

Like Pan, panic comes out of the blue, it robs you of logical thinking and fills you with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, fear or frantic agitation.

My first attack occurred in a shopping mall.

I was already feeling extremely anxious, the overhead lighting in the mall seemed to be making me feel off balance.

I was there for a hairdressing appointment. As I tried to walk through the salon door, I literally froze and was overcome with a sensation of abject terror for no reason. I began to hyperventilate. I turned and ran for my life.

All I knew was I had to get away. I rushed to the toilets and splashed water on my face. I phoned my father to come and collect me as my mind couldn’t even make sense of how to get myself home. And so it began.

As my mother’s illness progressed and she became increasingly difficult to care for, my panic attacks and anxiety accelerated. I would awaken at night shaking with fear.

For the next five years there was no let-up, I lived in a constant state of nerves, this quickly led to agoraphobia; commonly described as a fear of open spaces.

I wasn’t actually afraid of open spaces, it was the fear of being out alone and having a panic attack that kept me indoors.

I loathed going out in case I panicked.

I feared I would lose control and go completely hysterical in front of people.

Of course this was all in my mind, that would never have happened. So I avoided the outside world at all costs. If I was forced to go out, I could go nowhere alone. I stopped living and began simply existing. It became a relief just to get each day over with.

When the attacks first began, I visited the GP who prescribed Seroxat antidepressants. I took these for five days but experienced terrible feelings of anger whilst on them, this frightened me even more than the panic attacks.

I stopped the tablets immediately. Subsequent visits to the doctor resulted in more offers of different anti-depressants or tranquilisers. I didn’t want them.

Instead I read every panic self-help book I could. This was a mixed blessing as some helped (the books by Dr Claire Weekes are excellent!) and others made me think I had symptoms mentioned in them that I would never have thought of, had I not read about them!

I began to find some ease when I started a new relationship with an ex-boyfriend who reappeared on my doorstep, (handy, because as an agoraphobic I wasn’t able to go out and meet someone new!).

He was very supportive and assured me that I would be completely cured one day. (He’s now my husband).

The death of my mother, although devastating, was also a factor in aiding my recovery, as I no longer had to cope with her care or endure watching her terrible suffering at the hands of Alzheimer’s.

Though the real road to recovery started with the birth of my child. My son was the motivation I needed to beat agoraphobia.

I wanted to be able to take him to school and always be there for him if he needed me. Being an agoraphobic mother just wasn’t an option, it would be condemning my son to the same fate as myself.

So I began CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) with therapist Ken Walsh, whom I found online. He came to my house for sessions and encouraged me to set goals for myself and to let go of negative thought patterns.

My first goal was to walk to the end of my driveway. My next goal was to get into the street. It was a long slow process but eventually I managed to walk the mile to what I knew would probably be my son’s future school.

I kept a log of my progress, pushing myself to go that bit further each week. If I wavered, I thought of my son needing me in an emergency and me having to get to him.

I also had reflexology and began taking St John’s Wort which lifted my mood.

The Linden Method, which comes with a money back guarantee, was also helpful.

The first thing I learned on this method which made a terrific difference to my thinking, was to stop talking about agoraphobia completely, to stop labelling myself as an agoraphobic.

I was giving the condition too much importance and had linked my identity to it.

Other advice found in a panic attack recovery book, which really helped me put an end to panic was; if I felt myself starting to panic, to go ahead and have the biggest panic attack of my life in public, pee myself if I wanted to!

And I found I couldn’t do it! Deciding to go out and let the panic come was the biggest step on my road to recovery.

Accepting and inviting panic was strangely my cure, because the imaginings of what would happen in my head if I went out and had a panic attack, were much worse than in reality.

You really must feel the fear and do it anyway, it’s the only way through. I am now thankfully panic free!