I am familiar with agoraphobia, not just as a mental health crisis responder but because my own mental illness has manifested into periods of debilitating anxiety. What I now refer to as the breakdown of 2007, was a period of my life where I was struggling with many issues and my mental health suffered greatly as a result. I found it difficult to leave my house and the comfort zone of my home. Staying home as much as possible was the only way I could maintain some sense of sanity, when I was feeling anything but sane. I lived in this state of chronic agoraphobia for many days. This turned into many months and eventually it passed the one-year mark.
I left my house only when I absolutely had to, and it felt exhausting both mentally and physically. The process of trying to convince myself that I could leave my house, be okay after I leave my house, and get through the task of whatever I needed to do outside of my house was draining. Reflecting back, I feel a deep sadness for that time in my life that I felt tortured by my own brain.
Eventually, I got out of that dark place that I felt cemented in for so long through counseling, self-care, my 12-step recovery program and sometimes sheer determination not to live the rest of my life that way. I had to engage in exposure therapy and be an active participant in the world that I was finding so scary to be part of. It was not an easy mission and there were times I felt suicidal, but I knew that I had to fight for my life.
The agoraphobia subsided and eventually life returned to a somewhat normal rhythm. When I say normal rhythm, I mean that although generalized anxiety has never truly left me, I am able to live and thrive with anxiety now with success and ease, in comparison to that time of my life. With that being said, there have been moments that I have felt the whisper of agoraphobia try to inch its way back in my life like it was some evil gremlin. I wondered if I would have what it takes to keep it at bay.
Surgeries that have kept me isolated at home for weeks and sometimes months, have tested my resiliency to return to my regular schedule of daily living. Daily living that included working outside my home, volunteering and socializing. Somehow, the thought of going back to the breakdown of 2007 has been enough to keep me vigilant with my mental health so I would not slide back into that bottomless pit of despair to that depth again.
As our COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and social distancing was required, I found it easier than others to stay home, self isolate and not go out. I have jokingly shared the memes going around about us anxious folk who have been perfecting social distancing for years. While I reveled in the idea of staying in my comfort zone of home, I became increasingly aware that this situation has the potential to relapse my agoraphobia. When I have to go out, which is sometimes weeks in between, I can feel the anxiety setting in. With this realization, I have had to do a few things to stay connected and an active participant in society to ensure that I can keep my agoraphobia under control. Some of these things include:
- Getting out of the house once a day, even if it to just go for a drive around my subdivision or to check to mail.
- Going for regular walks in my neighborhood .
- Sitting outside every day, a few times a day sometimes.
- Making sure I am maintaining social relationships by Zoom or video chat.
- Keeping up my self care routine of online 12-step meetings, meditation and reading
These few small routine tasks make a difference in my life to help me maintain some regularity, during such irregular and unique times. The fears of agoraphobia relapse have inspired me to create an accountability post each day in the “Parenting with Anxiety” Facebook group I facilitate. With the shared fears from others of anxiety taking over during this “great pause” (as I have been calling it), we are developing tasks for ourselves to commit to each day to persevere and maintain good mental wellness.
Turning familiar and relatable fears into self-help solutions is proving to be a good way for individuals with anxiety to navigate through relapse concerns. Unless you have lived through agoraphobia and have managed to find ways of coping and combatting, it is difficult to explain the worry of it returning one day or escalating. Mental illness is an illness, and just like many other diseases of the body, relapse prevention and self-care are an important part of recovery long-term.