Yesterday, I made it out of the house. Yay! Despite thirty years of therapy and a steady stream of self-help books, this continues to be a daily challenge. I have stretches of time when I think, ‘Nah, that agoraphobia label no longer applies. I’m literal decades away from that fifteen-year-old girl who hid in my closet for days at a time.’
Seriously, I only came out at night to use the bathroom. My poor parents.
So when my therapist diagnosed me with agoraphobia, I was like, “Psssh, no. Look at all the places I’ve traveled.”
She then gave me the true definition of Agoraphobia, which is: An anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed.
Then she reminded me that I’m most likely to experience these feelings in places where I encounter people I know, because, as she pointed out, I have never been harmed by strangers; it’s always been someone I trusted.
So perhaps I’m no longer hanging out in closets. I’ve been known to disappear into fitting rooms and bathroom stalls, though my favorite place to avoid peopling is still in my car. Many, many times I have lingered in a driveway or parking lot, unable to shut off the engine and walk inside. Then comes the loop of guilt when I give up and drive home and then don’t explain to family and friends why I didn’t actually go into the party/happy hour/gathering because I feel too ashamed that I let my agoraphobia win.
I’m definitely the type of person to push myself. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes I wind up nauseous and trembling in the shower because I wanted to get five more minutes in on the elliptical. Understanding my limits: Still a work in progress. However, I’ve learned that the world does not stop for my agoraphobia. Life moves on, with or without me, and since I hate missing out on things, I’ve developed some coping skills to help me through.
Here are a few things I have learned that help when I’m feeling agoraphobic. They may help you, too, if you ever feel so overwhelmed by life, you can’t make it past your front door.
1) Self talk. It’s particularly important, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable, to be mindful of what you’re saying to yourself. Negative self talk looks different for everyone. For me, it’s a nagging insistence that no one really cares paired with how flaky I must appear in the eyes of my peers. I have to consciously remind myself that this episode is temporary, that I am normally a capable, competent person, and that I will be able to get out and interact again.
2) Look at pretty pictures. Seems simple, but I find that scrolling through colorful landscapes, sunsets, aesthetic pictures, and reflections on my phone helps me feel calm and at peace with my surroundings. I use an app called OGQ that allows users to post beautiful photographs from all over the world.
3) Makeup. This has worked for me since my Goth days. Though my makeup now is more neutral and work friendly, I still acknowledge the comfort of wearing a mask. Also, I findthe ritual of applying makeup soothing. On days when I’m struggling, the fifteen minutes I spend engaged in the routine of self-care and applying makeup helps me feel as though I can face the world. (I realize that in America, makeup is a woman-centric thing. I support men wearing makeup, too, especially if it helps as a prep for going out into the world. Plus, most foundation has sunscreen – double-win!)
4) Headphones. I cannot express to you the absolute joy I feel when I’m in the grocery store, headphones in, listening to music while I shop. On an ordinary day, my brain’s one high kick from hallucinating a flash mob, and listening to my playlist only makes it better. Another awesome perk is that when people see that you have your headphones in, they take the hint. Sadly, some of your more pushy salespeople and overly-stimulated coworkers will still try to interact. I find that smiling blankly at them sometimes helps, and if that fails… there are always bathroom stalls and fitting rooms.
5) Goals + Routine = Success. This one helps me, but I understand that not everyone is as
obsessed motivated by numbers as I am. Right now, I’m training for a 10K, which means going to the gym three times a week. I work from home, and the gym is on-site, but sometimes people are there.
So I set up a goal and routine for myself. For every 12 visits to the gym, I reward myself: Usually books or clothes; sometimes kitchen gadgets or art supplies. I write my goal in Sharpie on the mirror, and then I make tally marks for each step toward that goal. For twenty years, this has helped me achieve a lot of goals. I also have a New Year’s Resolution to write 18 blog posts this year (working them goals) and to read 30 books. Go, numbers!
Perhaps the most important thing about agoraphobia is learning to be kind to ourselves. We have to be understanding. Some days, we sit in our PJs eating peanut butter from the jar. One of my frequent high-stress situations is going to the grocery store, and I understand that I can only put that off for so long because, inevitable, I’ll run out of peanut butter. It’s a super great day when I can get through the whole shopping ordeal without any human interaction at all.
On those less than stellar days, hopefully these tips can help you when you need to avoid human interaction, too.