Agoraphobia: when your home is your prison and your only safe place

In many ways, I have confined myself to my prison: the four walls inside this house that I call home being the bars on my life. The very thing that contains me is also my comfort blanket. Shouldn’t your home be your safe space? Shouldn’t that be where you always feel safe? What if that goes to an extreme? What happens when the only place you feel safe is in your own home?

I am talking about agoraphobia: number two on my list of mental illnesses. Claustrophobia is the fear of confined spaces. Many people think of agoraphobia as its opposite; it is a bit more complex than that. It is a strange illness and, in many ways, contradictory. The NHS website lists ‘public transport’ or ‘a shopping centre’ as places we will avoid. Naturally, people assume that there is a social aspect, and it is crowds that I will avoid. You would imagine that I am not a social person.

It’s not the case. I love people. I would have somebody here every day of the week had I a choice. I am the man who hates being outside and in crowds, yet loves being around others.

At my worst, I can’t even leave my bedroom; that becomes my safest place. That is thankfully rare. On my regular days, I would have the house filled with people. I love to chat, natter, talk, listen and set the world to rights. I want interaction with people, I thrive on being with others, and I delight in just whiling away the hours in the company of friends and strangers. Unlike the ‘I am fine’ with depression, my actual face is projected out there for all to see.

At its roots it’s a panic disorder, but unlike panic attacks that can strike from nowhere, this one can build. If, for example, I know I have to post a letter, then the panic will start from the moment I know, and continue until I have either got back home, mission accomplished, or decided that the letter wasn’t essential in the first place. The foundations are rooted in my mind. The framework of fear builds until my jail is complete. Most of the time, I am simply unable to leave the house. I do not say that with exaggeration. I have many times not seen another human soul for months. I am mentally housebound.

What does it mean to be mentally housebound? Not being able to take the bins out, not being able to fill the bins as I’d have to walk through my garden. I can’t post a letter, I can’t wander to the shops, and I can’t just meet my mates at the pub for a drink. I make excuses for why I can’t do it. Stupid excuses; not quite “I am washing my hair” – I  don’t have much – but it’s a close-enough example. I’ll close the curtains early in the day. I tell myself it is because of the sun on the screen of my laptop. I am lying to myself. I haven’t seen my children in nigh-on four years because I could not face going to court and fighting for them. That alone very nearly broke me. Never forget the legal aid cuts for the family courts. There will be many fathers, mothers, and children who find themselves in unbearable situations.

I am dreading having the covid jab. Not because I don’t like needles, but because it means – unless I am lucky – leaving the house. I have holes in my teeth that I need to get treated but can’t. I need my eyes retested. I want to work, yet as I can’t leave the house, my options are limited. If I am left alone in my safe space, I am comfortable. I have adapted, and the world has got better over the years from a practical point of view. It is not perfect, it never will be, but some things are easier. When I first suffered with this, I could not even order my shopping online, because it wasn’t an option. I lived in a small town, online shopping was a thing that was only available in large towns and cities.

When did it start? I was a cocky, over-confident younger man. I was doing okay for myself. I had a good partner, a decent life, and worked from the day I left school. I was good at my job. I was good at what I did. I found myself unemployed and needed to work. Even now, I am still the same. For all my faults, I still have to keep busy. That is why I write.

I had the chance to open my own shop. Doing what I had been doing, what I was good at. So I snatched at that chance. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and with it, I would have done things very differently, or not at all. The business did not survive, and I began squirrelling myself away from the world. That was the very start of it becoming as bad as it is now. That was my downfall and my lunge into the world of mental illness.

Avoidance coping is the term that Wikipedia uses, and it is as good a one as any. I avoid things in order to be able to cope. I can, will, and have found so many excuses that it would be impossible for me to list them all. Look out for people, your friends and family, who use avoidance. Watch out for those who keep putting off going outside. The “I’ll do it tomorrow” that spirals into “I’ll do it next week”. It could be a stress-avoidance strategy, rather than procrastination.

As I’ve said, it may not just be going outside. I have places where I feel safe. Getting to them can be a nightmare, but once there, I feel secure.

I’ve been asked why this is; I have often wondered it myself too. It has always baffled me how this can be so. I feel safe at home. I feel fine at my partner’s house. These two make sense to me. I do not feel good at my parents’ home. Their houses are only five minutes apart! I travel when I can, but it is always by taxi. I shake, my heart races, and I sweat for the whole journey. Once I have arrived, the door is closed, and I have sat down. Then things start to return to normal. Sweat dries, and the heartbeat slows. Breathing starts to lose its heaviness, and after five minutes, I am calmer. I have many theories as to why this happens. I have nothing concrete. I suspect – and my psychiatrist alluded to this – that it is a mixture of things.

Firstly, as I touched on earlier, I have always found it more comfortable in certain places. I have been this way for as long as I can remember. I was never afraid to go out; I would just rather not, or it was only to certain places if I did. Indiana Jones I am not. I can’t put it  down to particular places or people. I would say it was familiarity, but I can think of places that I know and know well, yet can’t visit. I know that if I drug myself up with diazepam, I can visit those places. The downside to this is that I look like I am half asleep, and I wander the world like one of those stoners from the movies in the nineties.

Diazepam is excellent: it knocks me for six, and I can do anything. Well, anything that does not require any brainpower. Half a decade ago my parents lived on Gozo. My partner and I, along with our girls, were invited to spend the six-week holiday there. The thought terrified me, and I am still unsure how I made it. You do these things for your children, don’t you? Not many people from my background would get to spend five weeks abroad. I took three pills, one more than prescribed, and made it on to the plane. What I must have looked like going through customs, I have no idea! I then took another three for the landing and customs the other side. I was, to be frank, a walking zombie. I hope they presumed I was drunk or possibly my partner spoke to them as I passed immigration. I do not know if she did, but they let me into the country.

 Within the first week, I thought I had been cured. When you have suffered as long as I have, you do not question things. I could go outside at will. I could visit the local bars, and I could do things that I had been unable to do in years. I still struggled with some aspects, but when you suddenly have this freedom, you take what you can. A jail with a garden is better than a six-foot concrete room, and I had an island! I could not do everything I would have wanted to do. I could not participate in everything that my girls did. I did, however, manage to do far more outside with them than I had ever managed in their lives. I had a few ‘downs’ over the five weeks, but overall it was good. It was like being young – well, younger – once again. A week before we were due to return home, I started to struggle again. I cried. I cried a lot.

This will be the first time I have written about this. A few friends know, and my partner knows, but not my family. I played the ‘I am fine’ card in that final week. I do not know if they noticed a difference. If they did, they might have just put it down to ‘returning home blues’. But I struggled. I played along, and I did the normal. I’d try and make excuses, but I went if I had to. It was hard going, and the old sweats and racing beats followed me everywhere. Coming home was the same as going out. Six diazepams (total), and once again I was an extra from a George Romero movie. We arrived back at home, and I flopped. I was so mentally exhausted. I had an appointment with the psychiatrist shortly after returning home.

They came out to my house and spoke to the girls and my partner, the standard guff. Then we set about explaining what had happened and how I had coped. We went through everything and explained how I had been okay for the majority of the time. How when the thought of coming home had arisen that I had worsened. The ins and outs, the ups and downs. You get the idea. She was a Spanish lady and really quite remarkable. I can never thank her or the NHS mental health team enough. She said that I had had no pressure. The stress was gone. The anxiety and worry had gone. I had been away from my life, and I had been able to be myself because of that escape. To flee my prison, as it were.

I am no psychiatrist, but I think it is something more than that. She was a clever lady, far cleverer than I’ll ever be. Maybe she was putting it in layman’s terms. I think she was correct in a few ways. The stress and anxiety had lifted, which caused the depression to take a vacation. With those three pushed to the darkest corners of my mind, holidaying in the subconscious, I think it made my agoraphobia a little more manageable. It was still there, but it was back to its previous state. A mosquito bite of mental annoyance, but one that can be ignored.

I was myself once more, and that allowed me to be free. I suspect that is also, to some extent, why I struggle in some places and not in others. I’ve wondered if subconsciously I am ashamed of what I have become. Is it places and people where I was once known that I am ashamed of visiting? Would that explain why I don’t always feel so good with my parents and family, but I can be okay with the woman I met and who knows me the way I am now? I do not know enough people now from those days. I can’t put it into practice. I do know that thinking about it now has made me a little uncomfortable. I know that drugs and alcohol can make things a little better. Alcohol not advised, of course, but it can help. They work because they lower inhibitions; you lose the fear that you had. The reason why I am sometimes better and sometimes worse? Well, that is as clear to me as the light in the distance on a foggy evening.

Maybe you know someone who can be happy at home and in your place, but cannot seem to manage to go anywhere else? It is not laziness. It is avoidance because of fear.

And, admitting that you fear something can be challenging for even the strongest. It is the first of many steps. Look after your friends. Be there for them and understand. Just listening can help. As Bob Hoskins used to say, “It’s good to talk”. I’d add: it is great to listen.