I’m frequently asked what I mean when I say I suffer from agoraphobia and I’m amazed that so few people know what it is. Not that they are ignorant, though honestly we all know people like that, but I have just gotten so used to it that it’s like saying computer or Belgium, just normal words that make sense without thinking. Not everyone knows what a Forensic Psychologist does so why would I think they would understand my issues if I don’t explain? So here is an explanation, thanks to a friend who reminded me I might want to qualify a few terms.
Someone somewhere has told a bunch of people who told a bunch of people that agoraphobia is the opposite of claustrophobia, a fear of open spaces and public things. I get asked why I’m not scared walking through a large park (not the rapey kind) or drinking in a big bar (not the rapey kind either, that would make me a little apprehensive) as though the sheer size of real life is at the crux of my issues. Perhaps if I hid in small shops with tiny windows and cosy restaurants painted in dark colours everything would be dandy. Perhaps if I just walked around wearing a motorcycle helmet I would feel better?
I can categorically say that agoraphobia has very little to do with the size of the room I am in and everything to do with people, society, visibility and expectation.
So if I am not freaked out standing in a field on a hill in west Auckland, what the hell am I afraid of?
As I have said before my agoraphobia started (in earnest) when I was 17 but anxiety has been with me for as long as I can recall. Anxiety is the nucleus at the heart of every agoraphobia atom, without anxiety I wouldn’t be uncomfortable in my friends cars or standing in line at the supermarket.
Anxiety is like living with emotional hallucinations. The feelings are almost exactly the same as when it’s a real thing, it feels like a real thing but when you learn to look at your insides objectively it is just the anxiety playing tricks on your mind. Something will pique my senses, something negative about me or the situation. Rather than knowing if it is or is not a real risk straight away, I have to take shit load of my precious time deconstructing the thoughts, getting to the root of why it is there to decide if it’s real or anxiety. All this happens before I work out what I should do or how to react. Is it right to throw packet of nerds at your friends face, take off all your clothes, lie on the floor and scream like a toddler? Hmm perhaps not today.
“Just going with it” and “not thinking about it so much” really don’t help with anxiety, they lead to even more stressful situations where my inappropriate reactions will follow me and shower a shit storm of self-blame and utter crazy mindedness on my head for days to come. It’s like having another full time job which exists only in my head. I get home and I’m exhausted. I have learned over the years that I need a decent amount of time every day or two to just sit, be, watch terrible television and not have to think or exist in society.
I have found management is the only real long term option and with time your management skills make the process much quicker and more effective. Would you get in a car and just figure “ahh well I’ll just work it out as I go along!” or would you want to be taught the right way first, then get better at it with practice until it is second nature? I choose the less death in fiery crash likely option.
Any councillor will jump to tell you that anxiety and panic are linked to our natural fight or flight mechanisms, from back in the caveman days when a T-rex was likely to jump out and gnaw on your face. You had good reason to be nervous when you popped out of your cave for a quick piss behind that rock; do you try to fork-stab the T-rex and turn him into a snazzy winter cloak? Or do you jump up, mid wee and run for your life, face uneaten but with piss on your feet? Piss feet or snazzy coat? Nowadays there are no T-rex and they are not waiting for me in the supermarket car park or on the back seat of a public bus (where the cool kids sit, because T-rex was popular). But anxiety lurks, like a lurky thing in too many parts of daily life. It’s not until after the panic subsides that you realise that the only thing really lurking is that guy you went home with that one time, when you were drunk but really don’t want to have to see ever again for fear he will restart a barrage of text date requests for lunch or drinks for the next 3 months.
I say sorry A LOT. People often get more annoyed at my apologising than the thing I did in the first place. I am learning over time that whatever screw up I think I have made, most of the time other people don’t notice or if they do they think it is no big deal, sometimes they end up thinking it’s cute and winning.
I read in one of the first pamphlets about anxiety I was given when I was diagnosed (I hate to say diagnosed because it sounds like I have rectal cancer so I guess informed of my tendencies is better) at around 18 that most people are far too interested in their own life to give a shit what you are doing or why you are doing it (I am paraphrasing) I was told that people are mostly very self-involved and for good reason. If they weren’t we would be terrible breeders and we’d all die crossing the street or eating dinner with a particularly sharp fork. Being anxious means I read people’s bodies and their moods from the point of view that it is entirely my fault. That they are reacting to me and me alone (now who sounds like the self-involved narcissist?) It has taken me years to not just understand but really put into practice not taking other people personally because they have their own lives and issues which are in no way my fault or mine to fix.