Written by Joanna Cannon
During the pandemic, author Joanna Cannon suffered a relapse of the agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces that often leaves sufferers housebound – that had plagued her as a teenager. Here, she shares her journey to recovery.
When I was in my teens, I stopped leaving the house. For two years.
It began with a severe panic attack (in a church of all places). I was recovering from flu, and during the service, I started to feel unwell. Faint. Nauseous. I stared at the crowded pews around me. Everything and everyone felt a very long way away and that strange but familiar hissing sound began that usually precedes passing out. I knew I had to leave, but what would people think if I walked out of church in the middle of everyone eating their Bread of Heaven (they wouldn’t think anything, obviously, but teenage brains are not the most logical). I was trapped. Vulnerable. Adrenaline marched through my body (which isn’t helpful when you’re feeling ill). I was convinced I was going to keel over at any second, but somehow I managed to stick it out and eventually I escaped, legitimately, alongside everyone else into the quiet space of the churchyard. I took in lungfuls of cool air and the relief was intense. I decided I wasn’t going to church again; I’d give it a miss. It was too stressful, too hazardous. I was certain God would forgive me.
This was my first mistake, because when you have anxiety, submitting to it only makes it grow. Anxiety is greedy, too. It doesn’t just stop at one thing in your life, it likes to move onto all the other things as well. I was so traumatised by my experience in church, I began to analyse every situation and limit what I did ‘because I might have another panic attack’ (people with anxiety really enjoy fortune-telling), and slowly my world became smaller and smaller. At first, I avoided any kind of long journey because the closer I was to home, the safer I felt. Then I didn’t want to go to the supermarket because what would people think if I abandoned my trolley and fled (again, nothing, but I was at an age when I thought everyone would be horrified).
Eventually, it felt simpler to just not leave the house at all, until it came to the point where I was reluctant to even leave my room. Over the course of two years, I gradually became more and more isolated. I lived with my parents, of course, but as an only child I didn’t have any companions my own age, and as this was years before the internet, there were no online friends to talk to. Looking back, I’m not sure how I spent my time. I learned to enjoy my own company. I know I read a lot. I know I watched as the people I’d been at school with moved on with their lives and I stayed put. It was agoraphobia I was experiencing, defined as an extreme fear of entering open or crowded outdoor spaces, though I didn’t have a name for it then.
Then out of the blue, after almost two years, I woke one day and decided I’d had enough. I roped my dad into driving me an hour away, to where my friend was at university, and I slid a note under her door in halls. “Sorry I missed you!” She was quite shocked to say the least (as was my dad). That first journey wasn’t uneventful. There were tears (and lots of adrenaline), but there were also many calm and wise words from my amazing father. But I did it. And once I’d done that and realised nothing terrible had happened, I wanted to do other things as well. It took a few more months to build back my confidence, but eventually the whole episode drifted into the past.
The shadow of it was always there, though, because as anyone who suffers from depression or anxiety will tell you, these things don’t just disappear. They continue to sit in the landscape of your life. If didn’t go out for a couple of weeks, if I didn’t sleep well or hadn’t eaten properly, that feeling of panic would try to edge its way into my mind.But I knew how to handle it. I could bat it out of the way. Until lockdown.
Agoraphobia is all about a ‘perceived threat’. If you ask someone who is having a panic attack what they’re afraid of, they almost certainly won’t be able to tell you. Not because the fear isn’t real, but because it’s shapeless and uncertain. But it’s very much there. You just know you feel safer in your own house. You feel as though nothing can hurt you. Your home is your fortress, your safe haven. Of course, during the pandemic, that perceived threat became a reality for all of us. After a period of uncertainty and speculation, Chris Whitty was telling us to stay at home and save lives. Even the British government was telling us not to leave the house and I was more than happy to oblige, because even though my agoraphobia was – I thought – long since behind me, I was still the world’s most dedicated homebody.
During the pandemic, I was in the very privileged position of being able to work from home and, apart from walking my dog each day, building my own small fortress was exactly what I did. Self-isolation this time around was much easier than during my teenage years. I had my mobile. I had the internet. I had Twitter and Instagram, and a whole chorus of strangers to keep me company and dilute my fears. Most of all, I didn’t have panic attacks, and the only adrenaline I experienced was during the frantic rush to claim a supermarket delivery slot. I wasn’t agoraphobic, I told myself, I was just obeying government guidelines. Everything was fine.
Then restrictions began lifting in the summer of 2021, and then those familiar feelings of panic began to grow. It was only then I realised my agoraphobia had returned, I just hadn’t noticed its presence, cleverly hidden behind a pandemic. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, have (understandably) turned into a great feeder of mental illness. Although it’s too early to gather official statistics, there is a definite uptick in first presentations of anxiety and depression, alongside an increase in the severity of pre-existing symptoms. Many of the mental health charities have also seen a huge rise in calls to their helplines. In addition to the problem of isolation (a massive risk factor for mental illness), and the devastation of so many losing friends and family, the last two years have also been a prolonged period of self-evaluation and reflection. Reflection in moderation is a helpful thing, but too much, and it begins to do more harm than good.
The first I knew of my agoraphobia’s reappearance was when pictures started popping up on social media of people tentatively out and about. Restaurants, holidays, meeting friends. All the things we had longed to do but had been denied. Except… I didn’t want to do them anymore. I began to receive invitations. I hesitated. Made excuses. Eventually, I ran out of excuses and started avoiding my phone. I felt safe and perfectly happy right here in my carefully constructed small fortress. It wasn’t so much the threat of Covid that bothered me, it was the thought of going back out there. Into a world which had proved itself to be fragile and unpredictable. Almost as if it had affirmed my teenage suspicions. I had been validated by a virus. I’d spent almost two years locked away during the pandemic (ironically, the same amount of time agoraphobia stole from me as a teenager) and I’d found a routine, a safe corridor of existence, and I was reluctant to leave. I wasn’t even sure if I could.
Part of me, the part that watched as other people marched on, felt as though I was failing at life all over again; the other – slightly larger – part didn’t find it difficult to imagine never leaving the house again, and as lockdowns and tier systems ebbed and flowed, and infection rates rose and fell, I began to accept the fact that staying at home was my own personal ‘new normal’.
Then, in December 2021, and rather like history repeating itself, something happened out of the blue. A very big opportunity came my way professionally; something I could only have dreamt of, but in order to do it, I had to travel to Birmingham. I had to make a choice. Grit my teeth and get out there or stay put forever. Live or exist. In a rare moment of spontaneity, I agreed to the Birmingham trip and promptly had a private mini meltdown at the idea of it. What was I thinking? For the past two years, all I’d done was walk my dog. How could I possibly venture to Birmingham and back?
Fortune-telling and exploring all the possible ‘what-ifs’, I paced the house (literally, to walk off the adrenaline) and considered my options. I thought about my dad, long since gone, and what he would have said. As cliched as itmay sound, I also thought about the people who had disappeared from my life, thanks to Covid, and how they would have loved the opportunity to rise to this challenge. Eventually, I decided anxiety had deprived me of enough years. In the lifetime between this spell of being housebound and the last, I’ve realised that the world will always be fragile and unpredictable; the only thing I can control is my reaction to it. Instead of asking, “What if?” I asked myself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I decided I could do it.
After so many months in the house, when the train finally spat me out at New Street Station, the sensory overload was mind-blowing. All the noise and the colour and the people. So many people! But… I did it. Again. And the strange thing was, once I had, I slid back into that pre-Covid, pre-agoraphobic life as though I had never left.
I would like to say this is a fairytale ending, that anxiety is magically no longer a part of my life, but of course, it is. Each time I step onto a train, there’s a small slice of me that wants to step right back off again. I hate driving on motorways because I feel trapped; when I go to events, I fixate on ridiculous details like finding somewhere to park (because if I can give my anxiety a landing perch, it’s much easier to manage) and you will never, ever catch me without a bottle of water. I can go weeks or even months now without a panic attack, but like many thousands of others, I keep my eye on the news, on the next potential catastrophe, whether it’s monkeypox, record-breaking temperatures or the next wave of Covid, because – having been side-swiped once – in an illogical way, scouring the landscape to protect ourselves with knowledge feels strangely comforting.
Perhaps this is the mind’s way of ensuring we march on, filing away everything we have been through (and some have been through far, far more than others) to process later. And there will be a later, I’m sure. Perhaps even a tidal wave of mental illness throughout society, as the repercussions of the last couple of years make themselves heard. For now, though, I have found my peace with the world again. I’ve come to the conclusion that a sense of safety and security isn’t found in bricks and mortar, but in your own mind, and – as anyone who has suffered panic attacks will tell you – anticipatory anxiety is the biggest adversary of the lot.
My agoraphobia will always be there, waiting in the wings for its chance to take centre stage again, but after all these years, the two of us know each other well and I like to think I’ve acquired the ammunition to deal with it. The most important weapon is, as always, experience. The wisdom to face it head-on. To tell it straight. Look what we’ve all been through. Look what we survived. Now tell me, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon (HarperCollins, £14.99) is out now.
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