Agoraphobia is having a crippling fear of being in open spaces, crowds, public transportation, malls, schools, restaurants — really anywhere outside your home. When you are in the thick of it, just the mention of an upcoming trip or event makes your heart start beating wildly in your chest.
Usually it starts with the fear of one or two specific locations, most likely because you had a panic attack at one of those places, and you’re afraid that if you set foot in them again, you’ll be destined to have another panic attack.
Makes no sense, right? Well, anxiety rarely does. It’s the beast that makes you believe the worst possible thing will happen, every damn time.
If things really begin to spiral out of control with your agoraphobia, you start to feel like every. single. place outside of your home is going to give you a panic attack, and you might become housebound, or only be willing to travel within a small area of your community where you feel safe.
Agoraphobia can rob you of your life. I know — I’ve been there.
I’ve suffered from anxiety since I was 8 years old. I’m pretty calm and collected on the outside. I don’t come across as a nail-biting, antsy, anxious person. But ever since I was young, I have suffered from periods of debilitating panic attacks, and almost all of the time, agoraphobia followed the attacks.
When I was 16, I had a big argument with my dad and stepmother that left me feeling unheard and unsafe. My dad lived across the country from my mother, whom I lived with most of the year. As a teen, it was hard for me to articulate how toxic the living situation had become at my dad’s house, so what happened instead is that I had a massive panic attack on the airplane the next time I went to visit him.
Enclosed space, 36,000 feet off the ground, going to visit a place that felt emotionally dangerous — perfect recipe for a panic attack. (And no, going on about the safety of airplane travel does nothing for someone who has a fear of flying; you can’t rationalize your way out of these things).
The panic attack was so powerful that I became unable to set foot on a plane again. Next followed a general fear of transportation, and after that, a fear of other public, crowded spaces — anywhere where it would be difficult to escape. My junior and senior year of high school was spent trying to dodge as many of those places as possible, which meant my life was severely limited.
At the time, I thought for sure I was alone. I mean, I told almost no one how bad it had gotten, and I was certain I was going completely bonkers. It turns out, though, I was not alone. Approximately 1.7% of people suffer from agoraphobia, and while that doesn’t sound like a huge number, it amounts to millions of Americans each year.
My gut tells me that there are even more people experiencing this because it’s a disorder that can be cloaked in shame. So people are hesitant to open up about it. Think about it: Who would want to admit that their anxiety makes it hard for them to go to a diner and order a burger, or that the idea of going to the mall for sneakers makes them dizzy with heart palpitations?
Eventually, I entered psychotherapy and was able to conquer some of those initial agoraphobic tendencies, and for a few years, I was feeling much better. But anxiety is a lifelong illness, and for those of us prone to panic and agoraphobia, we know that these sorts of things have their way of rearing their ugly heads back into our lives.
I’ve had two relapses of it since I was a teen.
The first was after 9/11. I was in the city that day, and although I was many blocks away from the World Trade Center, I did experience the trauma of that day and found it very difficult to be in certain locations in the city for many months, for fear of another attack.
My second relapse was after my first child was born. I had always had a sensitive stomach, but I developed pretty severe IBS after the birth. And let me tell you, having to rush to the bathroom with a screaming toddler in tow is no picnic. So after a few incidents where I almost pooped my pants because my stubborn 2-year-old could not move fast enough to get to the bathroom, I developed agoraphobia about being anywhere with my kids alone.
Both relapses eventually passed — again, with psychotherapy and basically making myself go out and do the things that scared me (it’s called “exposure therapy,” and it’s terrifying, but it works).
As a writer, I have shared my experiences of anxiety and panic disorder extensively, but I have only touched upon agoraphobia. For me, it is something rife with shame. It is very hard to admit that I have let such irrational thoughts dictate my life.
And although I am in a pretty decent place with it right now, there are always some agoraphobic tendencies inside me. I usually hesitate before making plans. I always think about how long I will be able to last in a particularly crowded place. I always fear another panic attack.
But I am sharing my story because I know that doing so is one of the best things I know how to do for me — and for anyone else out there who is in this place. Agoraphobia is real, it’s not uncommon, and there is no shame in talking about it.
Most of all, help is out there, and although it feels like there is no way you could ever feel better, the truth is, you just need to take the first step toward healing — and you can. The world outside your home has a lot of riches to offer, and you deserve to partake in them with confidence, ease, and joy. Don’t let anxiety rob you of another second.