Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
I often joke that a perfect weekend is one where I don’t have to leave my apartment. I’m an introvert and a homebody, so an entire weekend spent watching movies in my pajamas is a dream. But, the truth is, I try my best to avoid weekends like that. If I don’t have any plans, I make sure I at least go to the grocery store or go for a walk. Even though I’d love to sit around and do nothing, I can’t because I used to suffer from agoraphobia, and I don’t want to fall back into those patterns.
For those who have never heard of agoraphobia, it’s often referred to as the fear of leaving the house. Although, technically, it’s a fear of open spaces, and it is usually used to describe a desire to avoid places out of fear of having a panic attack. Those who suffer from agoraphobia will experience extreme anxiety over leaving their comfort zone. I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand agoraphobia; I’m not a psychologist, and I’m basically just repeating what my therapists told me. I can only speak from experience, and for about three months, I suffered from severe panic attacks every time I left the house.
During the summer between seventh and eighth grades, I rarely went outside. I have to say, I picked the best time in my life to be agoraphobic. I was 13 going on 14. I had no job, no school, and no obligations. Looking back, I may have lost a few friendships because of my agoraphobia, but they were middle school friendships. They were already doomed. But, joking aside, there’s never a good time to be agoraphobic. It’s an all-consuming and debilitating fear, and it’s a complete pain in the ass. I spent those three months on my living room couch. I even slept on the couch because that was where I felt comfortable. Every other room in my house, including my bedroom, was outside my comfort zone, so I stuck to the living room. It had everything I needed: a television, my dogs, and proximity to the bathroom and kitchen.
After I had my first panic attack at a friend’s birthday party, I started having panic attacks every time I left the house. I would be standing in Macy’s or the produce section of the grocery store when, all of a sudden, a feeling of nausea would hit me. I would close my eyes and push my hands through my hair as my face lit on fire and my breathing sped up. I continued to feel that way until I was back at home and curled up on my couch. In order to keep the panic attacks away, I stopped leaving the house. Since it was summer, my friends constantly invited me to go places with them, but I always said no. Eventually I cut off almost all contact with my friends. I signed off of AIM (it was junior high, you know) and stopped updating my blog, but my friends kept calling. One friend even mailed me a letter. The more my friends reached out to me, the more I tried to isolate myself.
That summer, my life revolved around my TV schedule. I’d wake up on the couch and watch a few morning shows. In the afternoon, I watched Full House reruns, MTV reality shows, and Celebrity Poker Showdown. At night, I watched ABC Family unless my dad forced me to watch baseball with him. Then I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of Whose Line Is It Anyway reruns. I never exercised or got fresh air, and I rarely ate. It was a completely unhealthy lifestyle.
I’d like to repeat that I am not a psychologist, I have never studied psychology and I only speak from experience. If you are ever experiencing a bout of agoraphobia, it can get better, but it’s not always easy. I didn’t just wake up one day and magically feel ready to go outside. It took the help of several medical professionals to get me through my agoraphobia. I’m talking psychologists, psychiatrists, hospitalization, and strong anti-anxiety medications. Even with all that help, I didn’t start getting better until I put in a personal effort. All the doctors in the world can’t help someone get better if they don’t want to, and at first, I wasn’t ready. I fought with every doctor my parents took me to. Mentally, I was in a very bad place, but I honestly thought I was doing okay. Sitting on the couch every day, watching TV, and reading books? I was living the dream!
I still remember the exact moment where I realized I was not okay. The start of eighth grade was rapidly approaching, and my mom, thinking (or maybe hoping) my lack of excitement over the upcoming school year had to do with the school itself, asked if I wanted to transfer to a private school. Rather than answering with a yes or no, I said, “I’ve been thinking, and I don’t think I’m going to go to school this year.” As those words came out of my mouth, I realized how ridiculous I sounded. Did I really think I could skip eighth grade? Did I think I could just homeschool myself? It was an absurd thing to say, but I realized that I meant it. A part of me did think I could skip eighth grade. I went into battle with myself that day. Emotionally, I wanted to continue living life on my living room couch. I was ready to give up on the outside world and become a recluse at the age of 14. Logically, I knew that was a crazy idea and that I had to go to school. That summer, I missed family vacations, birthday parties, and countless afternoons sitting poolside with my friends. I didn’t want to add “eighth grade” to the growing list of things my anxiety kept me from doing. I needed to get better.
I still fought with my parents and doctors over my treatment, but I wasn’t fighting because I didn’t believe something was wrong with me. I kept fighting because I was scared. I wanted to get better, but I still feared going out in public. I feared that I would never get better and I was destined to become a teenage recluse. I feared that it was all hopeless.
Thankfully, I worked past my agoraphobia with the help of medical professionals and my family. It was a lengthy process and a whole other story that I will talk about some other time. Despite my proclivity for quiet nights spent at home, I don’t suffer from agoraphobia anymore. I was tired of letting that fear keep me from going after what I wanted. I wanted to go to college, get my degree, travel, and find my dream job. With those goals in mind, I managed to work past my fear, and so far I’ve accomplished everything on my list (well, except for the dream job thing).
It’s hard to understand the severity of agoraphobia if you’ve never experienced it, but it’s a very real fear. Those three months when I couldn’t leave my house were some of the most difficult months of my life. If anyone is reading this from their couch, afraid to leave the house and really relating to anything I said, help is out there. I don’t like to talk about my agoraphobia because I feel like I’m a completely different person from that girl on the living room couch, but I also know it’s important to talk through it in order to understand why I’m such an anxious person. I mostly write about all my little neuroses, but it’s a relief to get the serious stuff off my chest. I’m a recovered agoraphobic, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come.