Panic stations

I don’t expect everyone who reads my blog to have my whole history memorised because it’s a bit long and arduous, so to preface this, along with all the other crap, I’ve had agoraphobic tendencies my whole life and suffered from it quite badly from 2006-2008. It has morphed over and over again, from being quite pure agoraphobia (if I leave the house something awful will happen!) to pseudo-claustrophobia (if I leave the house I’ll get trapped somewhere and be unable to escape to a safe place!), to agoraphobia-cross-emetophobia (if I leave the house and feel sick I won’t be able to hide in my room and for some reason that’s terrifying!), and so on. I learned to manage it quite well when it was ‘just’ agoraphobia – I had a list of places I usually felt safe which included bookshops, libraries, a couple of friends’ houses, and for some reason, disabled toilets. I could quickly locate one or more of these when I had to travel to a new place. For example, at one point when I was at Bournemouth university I had to attend a lecture at a different campus, and the first thing I did on arrival was find the campus library, where I sat with a book for half an hour until I felt better. As long as I could plan routes and find somewhere safe to hide in or near my destination, I could just about function.

This got a lot harder when my phobia of being sick became entangled in it all during the Great Digestive Rebellion of 2007, and my list of safe places shrank to one – my house. I could just about make it into town to see my CPN or the ED team, but that was about it. I would try to make plans to get out and see my friends, but would become so anxious as the time to leave approached that I invariably cancelled. A couple of things helped get me out of this unholy mess. One was attending the day patient programme at the local EDU (have to give them credit for something, I guess), which essentially forced me to feel full and uncomfortable and nauseous in a different location. The other was planning and actually going through with a weekend away in Manchester with some friends. An online forum I belonged to was having a meet up which I desperately wanted to be a part of, and since it wasn’t possible for me to travel to Manchester and back on the same day from the south coast, myself and two other southern friends decided to book a hotel room. I made it as hard as possible to back out and as safe as possible to go: I would have felt horribly guilty leaving my friends to split the hotel bill between two rather than three, I took my own food so I knew I wasn’t going to eat anything which would make me feel sick and my friend drove with me in the passenger seat, negating my anxiety about travel sickness. Even so, I spent the two months between booking and leaving only able to sleep at night after I’d decided to text my friends in the morning to cancel, then waking up the next day and essentially telling my brain to fuck off, it wasn’t getting away with it that easily. But I went – I was picked up from the grounds of the EDU, where I’d been shaking and giggling hysterically all the way through a group session – nothing awful happened and the agoraphobia let up a bit. A couple of months later I moved to York, which was disastrous in many ways, but did at least dump a fuck-ton of weedkiller on the lingering tendrils of the agoraphobia.

And on that front, I’ve been fine since then – the autumn of 2008 – until a few weeks ago, when I got caught out in that thunderstorm, and yes I AM still talking about that thunderstorm, even though other people get stuck in the buggers all the time without acting like a terminal basket case for the next month. Now I feel like I’m entering a war zone every time I close the front door behind me, and my body reacts accordingly. The sky had the audacity to RAIN on me while I was walking up to the supermarket with Audrey on Monday, and I cried and hyperventilated and turned back for home, before realising that Audrey had the keys and running to catch up with her, where she somehow cajoled me into carrying on to Sainsburys. That’s the third public panic attack in the last two weeks, after having them under control for years. It’s nothing compared to a few years ago, when I was having multiple panic attacks every day and not even bothering to try leaving the house, and I’m sure I would be hailing this as an improvement if it was 2009, but it’s 2012, and I’ve been panic attack free FOR A WHILE.

Not only is it frustrating on that front, it’s also pretty bad timing. I’ve started my placement, and while I’m not yet seeing clients (still waiting for the charity to find the first appropriate person, and they are being cautious as they’ve never had a student counsellor before), I feel a bit dodgy about even thinking of counselling other people while secretly battling a phobic relapse of epic proportions. But then, this shit happens. I suspect I’ll always be prone to spikes of anxiety following shocks and periods of stress, and if I put all attempts at having a career on hold until I’m totally stable I’ll probably be waiting until I’ve reached retirement age. Of course, there are careers which don’t involve being partially responsible for other peoples’ mental health, but this is what I wanted to do, and this is what I’ve been working towards for the last couple of years. I’ve had to abandon more than enough opportunities over the last decade due to my mental health, and I don’t want to call it quits right now when this could all settle down again in another few weeks.

It’s just frustrating and scary, both the immediate experience and the fact that it’s possible to relapse so quickly and profoundly within a month, after years of stability on that particular front. And yes, this suggests that there are issues I haven’t dealt with, and yes, I would tend to agree. But I’ve been gutting and refurnishing my psyche since I was 16, and anything lingering after that much therapy isn’t going to be quick or easy to overcome, which suggests I’m going to be working on all of this for a while yet. I personally don’t think full recovery is possible for me. On the eating disorder front, maybe – I’ve maintained a healthy weight for two and a half years now, living independently, with all sorts of illnesses, stresses and other potential relapse triggers to contend with. But this anxiety has plagued me since I was tiny. I remember panic attacks and dissociative symptoms as far back as age four, and although I’m pretty sure I know what triggered that in the first place, there’s no way to reverse it. Maybe I’m always going to be prone to biannual breakdowns. What business have I being a counsellor if that’s the case?

This is all rhetorical, by the way. I don’t expect anyone to give me all the answers, and I know blogs aren’t particularly interesting when it’s post after post of problems without solutions, but it’s an accurate reflection of my head at the moment. If only I could choose not to read, turn my laptop off and find something more interesting to do…


3 responses to “Panic stations

  1. Hi Katie, I am really sorry you’re struggling with anxiety issues now… I found myself nodding to myself when I read this post because I identify with so much of it: the emetophobia, the agoraphobia, the claustrophobia… and all the permutations and combinations. I have suffered with all of these and I sometimes feel that as soon as I manage to overcome one phobia, another one pops up in its place 😦

    AN was the same. In recovery I seemed to exchange eating rituals linked to AN with rituals linked to avoiding contamination and the consumption of contaminated food. I have had phobias, obsessions and compulsions though my life.

    I guess it’s not very helpful me writing this, because all I am effectively saying is that I empathise… I am not giving you any helpful tips. All I know is that the higher my level of general anxiety, the worse my phobias, obsessions and compulsions become.

    It is difficult to know the ‘right’ thing to say… I think you will be OK in your placement. You are very clever and very knowledgeable. You will be OK and I will be thinking of you…


  2. I’m so sorry the anxiety has snuck up on you: for what it’s worth I think anxiety and panic attacks relating to agoraphobia (particularly with so many variants) are one of the hardest things to shake because so much of it seems instinctual, almost primal in my case. I think it’s so accurate the way you describe and differentiate between the forms of agoraphobia, and I identify with all of them to a greater or lesser degree. My home was always the only safe place for me…I think perhaps crowded forms of public transport, particularly trains, give me by far the most trouble still.

    Like Cathy, the best I can do, frustratingly, is to say that I empathise too. You have come so far and I don’t know that anxiety really ever leaves us when we’re hardwired for it (I remember having a massive panic attack having to go to a toddler group aged three, so we have similar fears! No-one knew what the Hell was going on I was hyperventilating so badly). Just don’t give yourself a hard time over it, okay?



  3. Hi Katie

    I’m sorry things are difficult (understatement of the year?) for you right now.

    You say “I remember panic attacks and dissociative symptoms as far back as age four, and although I’m pretty sure I know what triggered that in the first place, there’s no way to reverse it.” As someone who has been reading your blog for several years, what seems to be of critical importance here is /how/ you manage the symptoms and the way you navigate your way through this.

    I hope you don’t think that I’m downplaying what you’re going through right now because that’s not my intention. There are many mental health professionals out there who have their demons. That doesn’t exclude them from helping others. On the contrary! To me, the key question is “How are you going to handle your current difficulties?” or “What can you do to help yourself?” I’m afraid that I don’t know the answers to those questions. But, what I do know is that you have come a long way. You have overcome more than your fair share of adversity.

    I believe you can do this. I believe you will find the right way for you.

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