Creativity for the Agoraphobiac Part One
January 28, 2012
Agoraphobia is the fear of crowds, being in public spaces, being around strangers, people in general, being in unfamiliar places or away from home. It commonly arises alongside Panic Disorder, a debilitating mental condition where the smallest thing can make you freak out and feel as if you’re about to die.
Anxiety / panic attacks are horrific. Anyone who has ever become suddenly aware of the weirdness of a situation and started to sweat because of realising that weirdness, knows what it means to experience anxiety and panic. Long-term sufferers live with that feeling every day, sometimes in that mild form, other times in such an extreme way, medication is required to sedate them.
I am one of the X million people in the UK who live with Panic Disorder and have developed agoraphobia as a result. I’m going to make a list now, one of my favourite things to do. This list outlines my experiences as an agoraphobiac.
The thought of three or more people in one place at one time, near me, makes my stomach shrivel. I rarely venture out at the moment, due to a serious relapse, but if I do, I have to plan my outings and set myself time limits for how long I can stay out for. I do not go beyond my village, a mere half-mile up the road. If people start pouring in, I have to leave. Symptoms include:
- Dry mouth
- Dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint
- Shortness of breath, sometimes a lack of breathing altogether
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest pains
- Sudden bowel movements (hilarious fun…)
There are probably more but I can’t recall them and herein resides another element of my mental health that must be explained before I move on to the next experience.
I dissociate. What that means is that under stressful and / or frightening situations, I disconnect from the experience. It’s not an uncommon thing. Dissociation is a psychological device which enables us to survive traumatic experiences. If you’ve ever been in a nasty accident, experienced a bereavement or even seen a film that’s scared the buckets out of you, you might have a hard time remembering the event and feeling any emotions that would naturally be connected to it. This is our brain’s way of protecting us.
My own life experiences have been traumatic in a consistent enough way to make dissociation a regular defence mechanism so that now it happens naturally. I can’t control it and I don’t know or understand all of my triggers yet. What I do know is that when I have a panic attack, I disconnect. I can’t remember everything that goes on.
They don’t have to be packed full of people to terrify me. For reasons I don’t understand, I experience spatial and visual glitches. I call it ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’ because either I’ve become really small or everything around me has become monolithic. Even the sense of my own physical body becomes warped. The same list of symptoms applies and more often than not, I leg it and try to find somewhere safe to hide. Mostly I don’t go out at all.
Meeting strangers is a nightmare. I remember my first day back on the second year of my MA. Not only was I in a small, public space surrounded by a crowd of people, I didn’t know a single one of them. But I was determined to finish my studies and I set myself a target: make a friend.
Having the willies about strangers doesn’t lend itself to making friends, I can tell you that. What if I make a complete tit of myself? I’m a weirdo anyway; I have a habit of staring, I say inappropriate jokes and statements when nervous, and when I get really wound-up, I start ticking.
Ticks are physical twitches, involuntary movements. Mine are mostly facial but at my worst, I roll my shoulders out-of-place and continuously wipe my thumb and index finger over my brow and nose, one after the other. I fidget, jig my legs, twist my fingers and experience sudden spasms that make me turn my head quickly. I try to calm down but it’s not easy. I make odd noises too. All this in front of people I don’t know, who don’t know me, can become too much to handle.
I hate buses. Trains I can just about cope with. Cars are bearable only in cases where I trust the driver. Recently, all have been off the menu. Simply put, I don’t want to be in a confined space with other people and I certainly dot want to be transported to places where there are other people. I refuse to learn to drive too because I’m terrified I’ll end up getting lost or cause an accident because I dissociate and freak out.
I think I can be left to my own devices at home for around fifty minutes before I start to panic. What if my Dad has had an accident? What if he’s unwell? What if I hurt myself? What if I become sick? There’s no one here to help me.
There are days where I experience nothing. What I mean is, I’m so out of my mind and confused, I can’t work out what the kettle is for. I know I want to make a cup of tea but then I realise that I don’t know what tea is, let alone how to make it.
I can’t account for what happened in any precise way, but I remember wanting to cook some scrambled eggs. I’d not been eating properly and for once, I was hungry. With making a cup of tea being hard enough, I think I must have become disenchanted with the eggs and distracted by something else. I remember the TV, which was turned off at the time, being fascinating.
I returned to the kitchen some time later (I’ve no idea how much time had passed) and noticed that it didn’t smell right. It smelt thick and sort of sweet. There was a hushing sound. I’d turned the large gas ring on, intending to cook those eggs, and walked away without realising what I’d done. I could have blown my home to pieces, myself along with it.
All of the above does not make it easy to relax. I have terrible trouble getting to sleep at night and maintaining that sleep, which is why I’m awake at almost 1:30 am writing this.
Newspapers are off the agenda, along with news broadcasts. I have to carefully select any TV material (all apocalyptic material is to be avoided, no exceptions), and when viewing a film or episode of something, I have to make sure that I’m physically aware of my safety. Obviously I don’t go to the cinema or the theatre. A rarely watch TV. The films and shows I do watch can’t contain anything too heavy.
I got into Sherlock recently. The second episode scared me so much, I sat in bed crying for an hour. It wasn’t the hound; it was the setting. The open spaces of the moors juxtaposed with the claustrophobic trap of the research facility. And the tourists. God, the tourists…
Reading fiction also requires vigilance. Certain topics can make me throw the book across the room in terror, and I love books. I’m a bibliophile and proud. But I get so involved with the characters, I forget me and begin to experience them, their world and all the people and spaces, their fears and feelings. It spirals and I have to take a break, ground myself.
It helps to have someone who ‘gets me’ close to hand, when engaging in any TV or reading, for reassurance. To stop me from going off the deep end.
A Deeper Understanding
It’s not just physical effects that panic and agoraphobia inflict. The mental side of living with these things is hellish.
- Wave goodbye to your self-esteem and confidence
- Say hello to increased periods of depression
- Reality becomes implausible
- Embarrassment makes it hard to seek comfort and advice
- Isolation breeds paranoia
- Mistrust strains relationships
- Fear paralyses efforts to break free
- Confusion erases time and memories
You’re probably feeling as miserable about this as I do now, after reading that. I’ve found however, that even if all of the above is going on and blocking my path to a happy, fulfilled life, I can always find a way around it. And if you’re in the same boat as me, so can you.
My next post, Creativity for the Agoraphobiac, Part Two, will be focused on the creative activities I enjoy but because of my mental health, are restricted. It sounds daunting I know, but I’m going to be finding ways to rediscover the pleasure of these activities without aggravating my fears and making myself sick.
Until then, I’m off to get some much-needed sleep.