I’m nondescript. I possess no special characteristics that set me apart from the crowd. That’s me, abbreviated. However, I suffer from a silent illness that only my closest friends and family know I have – panic disorder and agoraphobia. (definition and article on WebMD)
I have battled panic attacks and agoraphobia most of my life and as I’ve gotten older, the frequency and severity has worsened. My authentic friends (and family) were (and still are) profoundly supportive. I did, however, lose a friend over it. That still hurts.
Don’t Panic: Some friends just walk away
We would go to the gym together, and parks, and try new restaurants. However, as my anxiety grew worse, I had panic attacks just sitting in a car. Unable to comprehend the depth the issue, she cut me out of her life.
When, she called to see if I wanted to go to the movies, I suggested she come to my place, instead. I offered to rent a movie on VUDU (her choice) – and order from our favorite Asian delivery place – my treat. She never showed up. I never heard from her again.
I didn’t even get to say goodbye when we moved from Minnesota to Florida. Other than being unable to get into her car that day, I don’t know what I did to deserve being ostracized.
Reaching out in desperation
With uncharacteristic desperation, I posted this frantic plea to my Facebook Notes a few years ago:
“At first, I only became anxious about meeting new people and once had an anxiety attack during a job interview. It was so severe that the interviewer offered to call an ambulance. It gradually grew serious enough that interstate driving became impossible. Now, I can’t drive at all.
In fact, I find it difficult to climb into a car. Inexplicably, the simple thought causes significant anxiety. Other than a single fender-bender 15 years ago, I’ve never been in an accident. I wasn’t even driving. After that accident, I continued to drive, including 100’s of miles in one day.
I have had years of therapy and medication isn’t working. I’ve tried visualization. At every attempt, I get so far and then I get tunnel-vision and have a panic attack without even being in the car. I wear headphones with soothing music, sit in the back, close my eyes – but I am still overcome by panic attacks.
The panic attacks grow increasingly worse. I feel engulfed by depression and isolation. Normally, I’m adventurous. I fantasize about shark cage diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I am not a timid person, so I don’t know why this is happening to me now.
You know that feeling that you get in your stomach when you are falling suddenly? You feel like your stomach jumps from your guts to your kneecaps and all you can do is huddle in a ball till it passes? That’s the way it feels. Or, at least, that’s the way falling feels like to me. Maybe it’s just that I have panic attacks when I fall and the experience is unique to me.
My responses to the panic attacks have also changed. Previously, I laughed them off. Now, I have a sudden urge to cry helplessly and tremble afterwards.
I’ve never publicly spoken so candidly. I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times and minimized it in friendly conversation. However, the problem grows substantially more serious. Has anyone else experienced this? How do you cope? I’m truly starting to feel hopelessly despondent.”
Social Stigmas of Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia
If I suffered an obvious physical ailment, I wouldn’t have been as reluctant to share that. However, mental illnesses like agoraphobia and panic disorder carry voluminous stigmas. On a personal level, a person accused me of using anxiety as an excuse for not wanting to take care of necessary out-of-the-house chores, like grocery shopping. I am not lazy; possibly experiencing a public panic episode terrifies me.
Because anxiety and agoraphobia make leaving the house for work essentially impossible, I draw social security. I usually keep that little secret to myself because people have made disparaging remarks about “taking advantage of the system.” Stoics suggest I pull myself up by the bootstraps and the religious community has even suggested that I don’t lean on Jesus enough. It’s also cost me a friendship.
Frankly, those painful comments just compel me to further retreat from the world. I condemn myself enough without facing judgement from people who espouse a decided bias against real, debilitating (but invisible) disabilities.
I don’t enjoy being cooped up in the house because I fear leaving the house alone. Guilt will not flip an off-switch. I don’t manifest agoraphobia to annoy others. The torment I suffer from panic disorder overshadows the annoyance some people feel.
Current State of Mind
Currently, I’m able to ride in a car (but only in the backseat). Going out alone is impossible, but I am able to leave the house with someone I know well and trust. We don’t go out much, but we are able to entertain at home. Baby steps, right?
I believe being around family, more sunshine than I was able to get in Minnesota, and getting away from a big city has helped. Improvement in agoraphobia symptoms has been slow going. I do feel anxious if people want to hug (even family – except David and my kids). I swallow it back and do it anyway because I’m always glad I did. Being from the South, everyone wants to hug – and besides, it feels good.
We enjoy hosting parties and my husband and I are both avid gamers. You can find me on PS4 as SunshineFlaGirl. We also play tabletop RPGs and eurogames.