I conquered my fear of leaving the house – lockdown will hinder my recovery

Like many people, I am now self-isolating to try and protect myself and others from coronavirus.

But, as someone who suffers from agoraphobia, I’ve been stuck inside my house permanently before and it’s not an experience I’m keen to repeat. 

I’ve been living with agoraphobia for almost five years.

Following a diagnosis of anxiety and panic disorders, I started avoiding places where I felt a panic attack was likely – or had happened before – until eventually I was confined to my house.

The outside world felt daunting and hostile. Just the thought of stepping out was enough to cause a panic attack and I felt absolute dread at the prospect of going anywhere. 

Things that I took for granted became impossible; I stopped working, socialising, exercising and doing the things I loved while I stayed inside for six months.

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I tried to keep a routine. I did some laundry every day and cleaned the house every Tuesday. I watched Homes Under the Hammer but mostly I slept during the day or sat on the sofa feeling like a lead weight; sad, alone and useless. 

After several months of rapidly worsening symptoms, and with encouragement from my mum, I sought professional help.

With therapy, medication and some very patient family and friends, my mental health improved.

I needed to leave my four walls; I wanted to see musicians play, meet new people, go to the beach again.

It was slow progress but I eventually managed to conquer my fear of the outside. I read lots of books on anxiety, panic and agoraphobia and they helped me to understand what was happening in my mind and body. I used techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy and exposure therapy, and put in a lot of effort.

However, following government advice to work from home and self-isolate, I now face the prospect of landing on the longest snake on the board and sliding right back to square one.

Managing my agoraphobia depends on practice – I need to keep shopping, going to the pub, going to work and being away from home. If I can’t practice then I’ll get rusty. 

The anxiety at the thought of being away from home creeps back in and the agoraphobia will manifest in seemingly small ways, such as thinking it’s silly to be out over meal times because I can eat at home. This escalates until I’ve got a myriad of reasons (excuses) to stay at home, and it feels too difficult to go out.

Before long I find I can’t leave home, even if I wanted to.

It may seem like agoraphobics have lucked out in this situation, because the perception is that we’ve nailed the art of staying indoors. But there’s never a good time to be agoraphobic.

Staying in was a symptom of an illness for me, but now it’s what we’re being told to do to keep safe

Spending all of our time at home is something we’re usually made to feel ashamed of, right up until the moment it suddenly became ‘useful’. 

Yes, I have acquired coping techniques that mean I can deal with being isolated, but I have gained these skills in order to have a quality of life.

Agoraphobia is an illness, not a life choice – all Netflix, snacks and free time for yoga. The truth is, it’s mostly anxiety, depression and embarrassment. I know a thing or two about loneliness and boredom.

Staying in was a symptom of an illness for me, but now it’s what we’re being told to do to keep safe.

With coronavirus spreading, the ‘big scary world’ that I try to rationalise in my head actually is a dangerous place – it’s as if my agoraphobia has finally been vindicated. Like all those attempts it made to keep me at home were for my safety. Except of course, that’s not true.

Self-isolation relies on you staying at home, yet recovery from agoraphobia relies on you leaving. I will self-isolate because my life or others’ could depend on it, so I need a plan to navigate this tricky time.

I’m thinking of this as very much a temporary situation, and I’m trying to reframe it as a good time to get things done – I’m going to read books, watch films, and really try to finish knitting that scarf.

I’m going to stick to a routine as much as possible, setting my usual alarm, getting dressed, working from home and eating at meal times. I’ll leave the house, but only to get some fresh air and vitamin D. 

I’ll make plans for post-isolation, too. When I was severely agoraphobic, it seemed unrealistic to think too much about the future, because I didn’t think I had one outside of four walls. I had to find things that I wanted to do that motivated me to leave the house, and this is what I’ll do now.

Thinking of places I want to visit, things I want to experience and people I want to meet will keep me looking forward, and remind me how good life can be. 

Despite my anxiety, I have been amazed at the innovative ways people have found to work, teach, communicate and generally interact remotely.

I found accessing things incredibly difficult when I was severely agoraphobic and I’m impressed by the creativity, although slightly miffed that it took a global pandemic for people to make this work.

I am optimistic that it will lead to real change – especially for those in the disabled community, for example, for whom access has always been a major issue.

Secondly, I know that when self-isolation is over, I will be even more appreciative of the things I am able to do. Dancing to live music, eating cake in cafes, doing pilates classes, people watching, experiencing the tangible hustle and bustle of life happening around me.

I know I’ll be up for the challenge of tackling agoraphobia all over again.

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