Hope for Agoraphobics

living-in-fearMood dependent behaviour refers to the state of mind when a person can only take action if they feel capable of it, even though they are otherwise completely capable of acting. It might be putting off doing an assignment, it might be procrastinating about preparing a healthy meal, it might be as simple as waiting until the house is empty before emerging from one’s room. It can be hard for a person to understand this if they have never felt so small and miserable before to find such ordinary daily activities so overwhelming. Ridicule or condescension are common reactions when opening up to someone about facing such struggles. Failing to find a compassionate ear results in an unwillingness to attempt to open up again in the future, adding an extra layer of loneliness and despair to the experience. When one is this powerfully affected by one’s mood, it can feel preferable to hide alone or to starve rather than to ever face the terrifying world that lies beyond the front door.

Agoraphobia literally means fear of the city square. The agora was the busiest place in an ancient city. Each day hundreds, or even thousands of people would meet for trade or to discuss politics. In the history of philosophy, the agora of Athens was where one could meet Socrates in his quest to teach virtue to anyone willing to listen. However, how many people couldn’t hear Socrates’ words because being out in public and exposed to others was too challenging an experience for them? This is part of the tragedy of agoraphobia, one is frightened into abandoning living a full and wholesome life. Often the quest for security and safety comes at the cost of a life half lived.

Agoraphobia is actually something I have personally suffered from and had to work my way through. When I was 19, I was in the city with some friends when a gang of thugs decided they did not like us standing around where we were, even though it was a public place. So they surrounded us and proceeded to attack us with bats. We were hopelessly outnumbered, so we did the only rational thing and attempted to run away. A guy who was with us was wearing glasses and when he dropped them as we were making a run for it, he foolishly decided to turn back to pick up his glasses. I turned around to see him set upon by eight men who pushed him to the ground and started beating him with their bats. I yelled at them to stop, but another thug grabbed me and tried to knee me in the crotch. He narrowly missed hitting me in my most vulnerable spot, but all the same, I had the presence of mind to fake as though I had been hurt badly, then made my escape when he wasn’t expecting me to because he thought I was in too much pain. Rather, it seemed that with so much attention focused on beating the man with the glasses, I was ignored long enough to make my escape.

After this happened, I was changed by this experience. I had difficulty sleeping, experienced nightmares, and at first started avoiding going into town or busy places, but soon just avoided even going outside my room. This behaviour led to me developing a fear of leaving my room must less my house. I would have these episodes of rages that would come over me when I was alone, reliving what happened, but this time pretending that it worked out differently and that we beat up the thugs attacking us.  I was too young and inexperienced to understand what was happening to me emotionally at the time, it was a confusing and difficult episode. One of the hardest experiences for me was making a train journey. As soon as the doors of the train closed, I felt trapped and terrified. All I could think about was that I needed to get off that train and away from all those people in the same space as me. It did not help that I had also witnessed someone getting bashed by a stranger on the train once, which reinforced my fear of feeling unsafe while trapped in a train carriage. Sometimes I would get off the train and walk down to the next station to try to calm my nerves enough to catch the next train so I could eventually complete my journey. Curiously, one of the ways I chose to deal with what happened to me was to only go outside at night time when there were fewer people around. In a complete reverse to how many people typically feel, I felt safer the fewer people there were around me and least safe around crowds.

It took me a long time to process my experience, fortunately my work and studies required me to be involved and getting out and about amongst other people I was motivated enough to gradually overcome my fears and be desensitised to them. For years afterwards though, I would sometimes feel these irrational panic attacks in crowded places and I needed to lock myself up in the toilets for a few minutes until I was sufficiently calm again to resume my work. It has been many years now since I felt that vulnerable and anxious, and these days, I’m pretty much my old self; I hardly ever think about the incident that happened to me when I was 19, but all the same, it took a lot longer for me to recover from the experience than it could have taken me if I had had access to good moral support. I saw several therapists over this time and, in retrospect, I am appalled at how poor the quality of care was. I cannot actually point to any of them and say that they helped me to better process what happened to me. It was difficult for me to even talk about it because I felt so ashamed to be a man while feeling so weak. Dealing with perceived self weakness has its particular challenges for men, as the therapists I did see were all female it is entirely possible they struggled to understand this. When I did talk about it, I got a lot of condescending comments like, “why the hell were you even hanging out with that crowd in that part of town?” which came across as blaming me for being attacked and witnessing such a brutal attack. (By the way, the man who was badly beaten was okay in the end. His glasses were smashed, but a paramedic looked over him afterwards. He was badly bruised, but able to stand and walk home, however, I have no idea what his emotional scars might have been.)

My experience of agoraphobia was based on a fear for my safety. If you’ve ever been attacked, mugged, overpowered, or raped, then you can probably understand how difficult it can be to feel safe going outside again after discovering just how vulnerable you can be if someone means you real harm. I’m unlikely to ever forget the image of that man being beaten by eight people in the street. It will always be easy to recall the moment with chilling fidelity, though at least now I don’t feel uncomfortable recalling the episode like I once did. However, other people experience agoraphobia in different ways. For instance, instead of being fearful of physical safety, it can be fear of emotional safety.

Imagine being ridiculed and humiliated by everyone in your school, family gathering, or workplace. Perhaps your friends, teachers, parents, or boss joined in on the ridicule. Although one might still feel physically safe in that environment with those people, one nonetheless feels an intense fear of ever being put in a situation where one might experience such a harrowing emotional assault.

Agoraphobia is a serious problem because it leads to behaviours which affect the rest of one’s life negatively. One’s social circle eventually shrinks, job and career opportunities are lost, loneliness on the brink of despair can easily set in. Perhaps most pernicious of all, it becomes extremely difficult to get help, as one doesn’t feel safe going outside to talk to people who could help, or to even travel to a therapist’s office.

When I was 19, the Internet was nowhere near as fast as it is now, I had to dial in through a phone line and I considered 4KiB/s to be a fast connection. Nowadays, if one suffers from agoraphobia and is afraid of leaving the house to speak to a therapist, one doesn’t have to. For instance, I am available on Skype and often do Skype sessions for other clients overseas or in regional areas. Other therapists are offering these services too. If you are interested in therapy, but find yourself avoiding it because you do not want to leave your house and agoraphobia is getting in your way, please feel welcome to drop me an email and arranging to set up a Skype session. As survivor of agoraphobia, I understand that when that anxiety goes into overdrive, it can become impossible just to get out that door to make an appointment down the street, much less across town. If you need some help with your problems, be kind to yourself, find someone who understands and is willing to listen to you compassionately. Don’t let your life slip by because of agoraphobia.

(NB: I have a policy of not asking for payment in advance. I do this because I believe as a therapist it is important that I am focused on providing value to customers. When people get paid whether they do a good job or not, they tend to do poor quality work as there is no incentive to do a good job. People who get paid only if they provide value first tend to be the most professional, as their financial security relies on them being consistently professional and helpful. If you feel that after a session that you have gotten something valuable out of it, pay me. Otherwise, you can move on and find someone who you feel is better able to meet your needs.)

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