Last year, I sat across from a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with agoraphobia. The word sounded foreign to me; almost funny. But agoraphobia is far from funny. It’s a serious and sometimes debilitating mental illness—and according to my doctor, I have it.
The first signs of agoraphobia began to appear when I was in university. I’d spend long, leisurely days at home under the soft crocheted blanket my mother had made me. I didn’t leave my house for days, existing on food scrounged from the fridge, or takeout. I created a haven of quiet and solace that nobody else could penetrate.
At the time, I just thought I was introverted, a private soul who needed the comfort of four walls surrounding me. I didn’t know anything about panic or anxiety, and I definitely hadn’t heard the word “agoraphobia” before. I’d grown up in a family that didn’t discuss mental illness, despite the fact that it’s part of our family history.
For years, I lived this way. I went to school, work and church, but I didn’t really breathe until I was safely inside my home.
I met my future husband at 19; his extroverted nature and desire to be outside in the world helped me to challenge myself more. We got married and had two children, and I managed to function fairly well as a young wife and mom. But in 2015, a series of traumatic events challenged my mental health. Shortly after my children turned three and one, my brother died of a massive heart attack. Months later, I was faced with the decision to come forward and report an assault I had experienced a decade earlier. I could feel myself unravelling. After my third daughter was born, in 2017, I began to retreat.
Like other mental illnesses, agoraphobia is as unique as the individual diagnosed. The Canadian Mental Health Association defines agoraphobia as “fear of being in a situation where a person can’t escape or find help if they experience a panic attack or other feelings of anxiety.” Because of this fear, a person with agoraphobia might avoid public places, and some may even avoid leaving their home.
My agoraphobia diagnosis is coupled with my recently diagnosed panic disorder. It’s not so much the indoors that I crave as it is avoidance of places that might create panic. For me, panic can be triggered by a myriad of experiences; an uncomfortable social encounter at the library or park, a noisy concert or performance, or a crowded grocery store with a long checkout line. My home represents safety, so I find many excuses to stay inside my house.
As a university student, my agoraphobia affected no one but me. But as a mother to three children, it was clear that my mental illness was having an effect on them as well.
Before my mental health plummeted, I had managed to function fairly well, pushing myself into uncomfortable situations for the sake of my children. But afterwards, I didn’t have the strength, favouring my own perceived safety over getting outside with my kids.
My older kids (ages five and seven) are involved in sports and clubs. Every school concert and performance, fun trip to the museum or drop-off to an after-school program can send me into panic. My mind tells me to avoid these places and send someone else. Sometimes my anxiety wins, but other times I push myself to my limit. On those days, I’m often rewarded with a wonderful experience and treasured memory with my children. Occasionally, my fear manifests and I experience a panic attack, requiring me to quietly retreat to the car for deep breathing, hot tears spilling down my cheeks.
There have been moments of resentment, like when my seven-year-old huffs that her father is more fun, and that she wishes I’d pick her up from school more often. Sometimes she’ll say things like, “Daddy goes on field trips, Mommy doesn’t.” I’ve chosen to hide my panic from them, and will wait to talk about my diagnosis when they’re old enough to understand. But that leaves us with the obvious fact that my presence is missing at times—and in those moments we all lose.
It’s hard hearing that I’ve not been present enough for my daughters, or that there are things they wish I did more. I realize that I’m missing out on parts of their childhood.
My youngest daughter has been affected by my agoraphobia the most. She was born at the peak of my diagnosis, and until recently had only seen me when my mental health had been at its worst.
As a mom with a toddler, there are plenty of ways to encounter an awkward social situation, whether it’s at circle time at the library or out grocery shopping. When my panic takes over, we’ll avoid going out to public places, sometimes for two, three or at the most four days. We eat our meals together at home, watch Elmo’s World, play with her Little People barn and take leisurely naps together.
When I received my diagnosis a year ago, I was stunned and in denial. I didn’t understand agoraphobia and was afraid of the label and judgment it carried. Shortly after the diagnosis, I stopped seeing my psychiatrist, choosing to ignore my reality. I continued to retreat further and brought my youngest daughter with me, her cherubic cheeks and light-hearted laughter a soothing balm on my aching and wounded spirit.
It wasn’t until recently, when I began to see how agoraphobia was affecting my children, that I began to seek recovery. I’ve started seeing a therapist again and have seen how my improved mental health has helped my children.
As I work through the painful and traumatic experiences of my past and dig deeper into my desire to avoid social situations, I am encouraged. Mental illness will be a battle that I’ll wage my entire life, but I don’t want it to define me. I’m also thankful to have a partner who has been with me for the last decade and has been calmly supporting me through the ups and downs of my mental illness. Over the last few months I have been practising proven therapies for agoraphobia, and I am already seeing progress.
Some of these therapies include learning more about agoraphobia and why I’m anxious; practising deep breathing to reduce stress and anxiety; introducing safety behaviours, like going to a playgroup with a friend instead of alone; and rewarding my bravery, like getting a pedicure after facing the fear of driving on the highway. It requires hard work and effort, but I face my fears because I want to live a life fully immersed in all the world has to offer—but also because I want my children to experience the beauty of this world too. Seeing my youngest daughter make friends at playgroups and special outings has been one of the most joyful and rewarding results of my therapy so far.
Recently, I’ve committed to picking my older girls up from school twice each week and dropping them off every morning. We volunteer together at the school on Friday mornings, and I help out in their classrooms a few times each school year. Things like school trips are areas I’ll likely never venture into, but I feel it’s important to respect my limits.
With my youngest, I try my best to get outside with her daily, to take her to the library or a fun playgroup, but I’ll admit that there are some days when the pull of home is too much. On those days, I return home from dropping off my school-aged kids and I wrap my two-year-old and myself up in the warm embrace of our home.
It’s taken commitment, patience and a lot of strength to face my fears head-on and to walk into a world that I’ve seen as scary for so long. But with each outing, I see myself saying yes to a life without limits.
This article was originally published online in March 2019.