What it's like having Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia for me, was something that gradually grew year after year. It was a fear I didn’t develop right away. In fact, I believe I was suffering from it for a full year before I had even learned the fear existed. It’s hard to pinpoint when it all started, because I feel everybody experiences anxiety and maybe even a handful of panic attacks in their lives. However, for me, I feel as if it started when I had my first couple of panic attacks when I was 21 years-old.
I feel it important to note, at this age, I was a young hippie kid, who had a punk/anarchist mentality. I was constantly traveling the country, studying anarcho-anything literature. I was rebellious, with a desire to smash patriarchy, the state, and any other oppressive system in this social structure.
I am going to briefly jump into 2 “panic” stories because I feel they’re important. To express how freighting they were, thinking back I don’t really remember if my panic was so bad I thought I was dying, or that I wish I were dying to make it all go away. The panic makes it seem very dramatic, but on the outside, they were just normal days with minor inconveniences.
The First attack was in New York City. I was there with my family celebrating my 21st birthday. Long story short, after my parents went back to their hotel room for the night, my sister and I met up with some friends who lived in the city and partied til sunrise. The morning came, and without any sleep my parents wanted me to explore central park with them before their flight out of town. The next few hours of my life were without a doubt the hardest I had ever experienced up to point. I was in full blown panic mode. Millions of humans, animals, cars, buildings, the honking of cabs, loud music from street performers, sun beating down on my body, it was like a bad LSD trip, fear and loathing in NYC.
The New York experience was the first panic attack I had ever experienced. I was sick, constantly looking for a bathroom, or an alley to jump in and hide. There is just no escaping in Manhattan. There was a look of disappointment on my parents faces. They wanted a nice day in the city, and their son was a total wreck. It was so bad, I said goodbye to them, took a cab to my friends disgusting apartment in Harlem, and slept for 24 hours straight.
Now, It was easy for me at the time to not know exactly what that experience was. It was a bad hang over, a mistake, something that happens. However, when all of these symptoms of sensory overload struck me again later in the year, without being hungover, or being sleep deprived, that’s when I started to worry.
The second attack was in Asheville, North Carolina. I was out to lunch with my boss at the time. It was a normal work day, sitting there waiting for our tacos to come out of the kitchen, when it all hit me again. That Sensory overload. Clanking of silverware, fingers tapping, bugs flying, cars racing by the windows, a dozen conversations weaving in and out of each other, waitstaff running around taking orders. I started to sweat immediately and get very nauseous. The front door of the tiny Mexican diner opened and the blast of hot air on my face sent me off. I ran to the bathroom and hid until another human entered. At that point, I went outside and waited for my boss to get our food to go. Now I was worried. This didn’t happen because I partied the previous night, this was an out of nowhere panic attack.
As the panic attacks grew more frequently, my mind naturally started shying away from the activities that I had believed caused the attack. Having a panic attack in a movie theater, while ruining a first date, made me hesitant to ever go back to a theater (or go on a date for that matter). That repetitive exercise of cancelling out normal activity is what slowly turned me into an extremely anxious person, who felt much better just staying at home.
My panic attacks would instantly make me nauseous. My stomach would drop right away forcing me to run to the nearest restroom. As the attacks became more frequent, the necessity for “escape” from common situations, and the location of restrooms were very important for my mental health. This created a snowball effect, because I could be feeling fine, but upon realizing there weren’t any restrooms, my anxiety would build, turn into a panic attack and make me sick in public.
Another big factor was the ability to be alone easily. My coping mechanism for panic was always to find a quiet space alone, and breath through it. Concerts, big cities, important events where your presence is important, being in the spotlight, these were the first spots to avoid. Knowing my parents were coming to town, and want to spend all their time with me, would be terrifying. Going on a date with somebody, public speaking, being in a long line where it would be impossible to regain your position if you tried to catch a breath elsewhere. It became very easy to convince myself there was danger or public humiliation literally everywhere outside of my home.
My 22nd year was a long one. I never went back to that Mexican restaurant. I kept experiencing panic attacks in new environments, then quickly put those environments on my list of places to avoid. I kept thinking back to my days, traveling the country. I miss being afraid of police, or our government, as opposed to a dinner party with friends. I had the pressure of my job wearing on me. It was in this time that the sexual harassment I faced at work became a situation of sexual assault that made me say, “Fuck this! I’m out”. (I apologize for this seemingly intense sentence from left field. This is for another post all together, however it’s important to the story. In the years of therapy, me being sexually assaulted has come up as the source of my panic, however my panic started a year previous)
So, I hit the road. My goal was to hitchhike from Asheville to Nashville, visit my grandparents, fly to Denver, then hitchhike around the Western United States. Forcing myself back into the world I loved, but now feared, was my attempt at sanity and healing, and for a time it worked. I had few panic attacks, even sitting on the side of the road waiting endless hours for a ride, I was comfortable. Not being in control of a steering wheel while in a moving car was frightening as all hell, but on this trip, I felt liberated and ultimately really enjoyed talking with the people who gave me a ride.
Arriving in Denver things changed, I stayed with an ex-girlfriend of mine for a few days. It was magical, she gave me that creative spark that made me fall for her a few years prior. I could feel myself wanting to settle down tho. So, I continued on. I stayed with a dear friend in Boulder for a month. This continued on to Salt Lake City with an even longer stay. My plan was failing. I wasn’t traveling the country free from my anxiety. I was jumping from one safe place to the next. Building barriers. Taking advantage of peoples homes and emotions. I was scared, feeling broken, I retreated home to Detroit, Mi.
What is it like to have Agoraphobia? It’s constant exhaustion. It’s the fear of having panic attacks, which are around every corner. For me, it comes in the form of sensory overload, over stimulation, and nausea.
I did a year of therapy before trying any medications. Light doses of different anti-depressants. None really worked. I fought through it tho, making my home and work both safe spaces. Avoiding interactions at all cost. I eventually moved out to the northern hills of California. Living in the redwoods helped, there was a lot of space, places to escape. I worked out on a Marijuana farm for a full year. That entire year, I never left the property. An entire year, not communicating with anybody but the small worker crew, and the occasional phone call to family.
The year away from civilization helped. However when I returned to civilization, a completely different story. I started a business in the local town. I opened a tattoo shop, and started interacting with people again. Then it all came back strong. I was having panic attacks mid tattoo. Do you know how uncomfortable you can make a client receiving a tattoo when you get up and leave them sitting there alone for 20–30 minutes? Trying to focus on the art you are permanently putting on somebodies body. I sought help once again. This time, being prescribed to heavy benzodiazepines. That was that, I got through my day-to-day, but I wasn’t human. I was on those pills for 3 years I believe. Years past any recommended run on such potent drugs.
I am rushing through all of this, because I want the full story across to accurately give my 2 cents at the end. This was years of Benzos, and not leaving California. I lost tons of my previous memories. The meds took their toll in so many ways, I am continuously learning more and more, until it was too much, I moved back to Detroit after 4–5 years in Cali.
My new psychiatrist’s jaw nearly hit the floor when I told her what I was prescribed to, and for how long. We developed a plan to kick the Benzos. The first couple weeks seemed like it was out of Trainspotting. Cold sweats and a two week long panic attack, and that was just cutting the dose in half. Smaller doses, upon smaller doses were cut until it was kicked completely. It took 6 months, if i can remember correctly, to kick the drug. I was at this point on Prozac and weekly therapy.
Writing this currently, I am 32 years old. I have been off Prozac for 3 months. I am drug free. I have found other coping mechanisms outside of medication to deal with my agoraphobia and panic attacks. All of which I blog about at freshair.blog. I am not cured, most likely this will be my life forever, however I am so much better. I have years experience dealing with it. Knowing breathing techniques, and my success rate (100%) at not dying during a panic attack helps me cope.
Writing this made my palms sweaty. I had to step out for air a few times during. There were portions I wanted to delve into deeper, but wanted to keep this “short” so you, the reader, could power through it to the end.
How do i cope? I write about it ^ I blog and vlog about it. I talk with others. I know I will have panic attacks, however now I document them and share them. It gives me a new appreciation. I’m no longer alone in this because I have you to share it. Open dialog is the most important part of mental illness. I don’t know where you live in the world, but here in the United States, mental illness is hidden in a box. It’s a silent disease we don’t acknowledge or take seriously. We don’t have health care worth a damn, so we are all on our own to deal with this.
You are not alone. I am here, and I want to talk with you about this. If you made it this far, I thank you for hearing my story, now I would like to return the favor and hear yours. Comment below, or go even anonymous email firstname.lastname@example.org.