Saturday, 27 April 2013

Feel the fear...

Literally: "a fear of open spaces"
Clinical: " a fear of open spaces, especially those in which getaway may be difficult, which leads to avoidance of the situation. Being in a provoking situation usually leads to an anxiety attack. There are three basic elements: phobia, avoidance, anxiety. 

I just watched what is possibly the most depressing stop motion animated short of all time. It's called Dog and is about a young boy, his ailing dog and his agoraphobia and deeply depressed dad. It's actually too depressing to recount here. I don't want to write it down for posterity. What I want to do is rewind time to the moment before I watched it and not watch it.

But it did make me think about agoraphobia and depression. Bear with me. I haven't made much of a secret about the fact that I suffer on and off with bouts of depression. Sometimes it cripples me and sometimes it just pushes me more towards my nihilistic leanings. Sometimes all I want to do is lie down somewhere quiet and dark and not think anymore about anything. And other times I'm OK and I like life again.

I have made rather a secret about my struggles with agoraphobia though. Mostly because I find it crucifyingly embarrassing. Not so much now, but when it first hit, when I was about 16 I could have died from the humiliation. To have endless panic attacks when in completely innocuous situations - at supermarkets, at concerts, at gigs, and eventually just in the street - is extraordinarily humiliating and terrifying to a teenager. And only slightly less so for an adult.

When it narrows your world to just your house and then just your bedroom then it becomes life threateningly frightening. And this is what happened to me. When I was 19 I had a nervous breakdown and I found myself unable to leave my house, and for a while my bedroom, without having a panic attack. For those who have never experienced any form of mental illness or depression this will sound ridiculous.

And in every logical way it is ridiculous. Whoever heard of someone not being able to walk down a street without having a panic attack severe enough to cause people to stare? Whoever heard of someone who can't attend a concert because more than likely their panic will supersede their interest in what's on stage and they will be forced to leave? Whoever heard of someone so terrified of everything that they struggle to go to a restaurant? Or a bar? Or to London? Or to any city that's bigger than a very small one?

Whoever heard of someone becoming so distressed in Sainsbury's that they start shaking, sweating, hyper ventilating and have to run outside? Whoever heard of that?

After a lot of therapy and some prescription drugs I learned to deal with it and was able to go outside again. Ever since that time, it's never got that bad again, but it is always here. When people ask me why I don't to move to London I lie. I say it's because I hate cities and anyway people in London are mostly wankers and who cares about all the culture and art and that? It's because there are very few streets in London I can walk down without suffering from a panic attack that is akin to severe vertigo. My throat closes, I can't breathe, I shake, I feel like I will be sick and/or pass out. Over the years I've become used to refining my life into manageable chunks.

I police where I live, where I work, where I socialise and am incredibly OCD about being in control of where I go and who with. I rarely eat out as the panic tends to rise as I try to swallow food in public places. This ebbs and flows though and sometimes it's fine.

Panic disorder/agoraphobia/whatever you want to label it is an ever present dark cloud. You spend your life trying to run from it until you realise that turning to face it is the only way to deal with it. Admit it. Tell people. You'll most likely find that a lot more people than you think can identify with at least some of it.

I still struggle immensely with it and often have to leave a situation - whether it's a party, gathering, pub or just a shop - because I start to panic. I still find it embarrassing and frustrating. It's especially tricky when therapy helps but it's impossible to pay for privately, and the NHS waiting lists are over 12 months.

I found great comfort in reading that Freud himself suffered from it. It's common. It doesn't make me insane. It doesn't make me defective or defunct. It does make me face fear on an almost daily basis and I reckon that could be construed as a positive. After all, people who are scared of nothing at all are not brave, are they?

I know now that I won't let it get as far as it did when I was 19. I understand it much more now, and I am more pragmatic. I don't know if I'll ever beat it completely, but I'm not going to stop trying.