Dealing with agoraphobia next to people that don’t

Is it really as good as it gets?

The difference makes the difference. Or not?…

I always wanted to say something like “Hi! I am Giannis and I live with agoraphobia for the last 6 years”, you know, like in AA sessions, that is the first step, realizing your problem, admitting that you have one. It doesn’t feel liberating though, as I thought it would feel. And it really should. It had to be.

You may have read about agoraphobia, “the fear of being in open or public places”, as you find the term in dictionaries. And you may have said “OK, I see. So you cannot be in open or public places whithout feeling anxious. It doesn’t sound that bad, is it?”. And hell yeah, it doesn’t when you put it like that!

But unfortunately, that isn’t true. And it is so far from true that sounds like a cruel joke someone has played on agoraphobics by providing such a definition in every dictionary all over the world, so everyone who encounters this disorder ends thinking “I am so stupid and coward. It’s so simple and I can’t manage to make a few steps whithout feeling that the world is collapsing around me. What the hell is wrong with me?”. And even when you learn that it isn’t like that, this thought comes back every now and then, like an itch, like an irritating pitched voice of doubt that makes you wonder if it’s really so simple and you are the only one who doesn’t see it.

OK, I know internet is full of articles regarding agoraphobia that are nothing like that. In a few minutes you can learn a lot more for this horrible dissorder than just this simplistic definition. But who would take hours of his/her time to read about agoraphobia in depth, understanding what it’s really about? Only the ones that suffer from it. And maybe some loved ones of a person dealing with agoraphobia (and in most cases only if the agoraphobic told them to read it because he thought he couldn’t explain it well).

I don’t try to sound bitter and I don’t want to blame anyone for ignorance. It’s just such a burdern this ignorance, this lack of understanding, that it becomes one of the hardest things one must deal with if he suffers from any mental illness, including agoraphobia.

Think of someone who, let’s say, has a really bad flu that turns to pneumonia. He calls his office and tells “I have pneumonia. I can’t come to work for a month”. Who would say no? (OK, it’s really not that easy to leave work for such a long time and not be afraid that you may be fired, but here I want to highlight the “understanding” aspect of the matter). And now, think someone who calls his office and tells his boss “It’s very difficult for me to leave home now, I suffer from agoraphobia so, you know, today is just a bad day that I cannot seem to manage. I will come tommorow though, on time”. What do you think the answer would be to that? And do you think that the attitude of his colleagues would change towards him or not?

And that’s just a small part of it. I believe that 99/100 agoraphobics have at least one experience of someone telling them “Come on, shake it off. Man up! You don’t try enough, just put yourself together and feel better!”, or something like that. And you wonder how it is possible for them not to understand that it’s like telling someone with one leg to run 100m. and not bitching about it.

But this is just your first thought. The doubt makes its appearance in no time. And then, you just want to leave from the sight of the earth. And you say you have to be somewhere and that you ‘ll talk about it some other time. And you start to walk as calmly as you can until you think noone can see you. And then you start walking faster, and you run, and now you don’t care if anyone is watching because you just want to go home. And you get in soaked in sweat, self-loathing and shame, your heart bouncing like it wants to explode, full of stress for having to meet this (and every other) person again, and you see the most terrible fear of all waiting in the corner: being again alone with yourself.

So, after crying your eyes out, comes the inevitable thought and it doesn’t matter how hard you tried to avoid it: “Why do other people seem to manage? Why don’t they suffer from the same thing? Why is everything that makes me collapsing seems so easy for them? Why are they going to work every day, drinking coffee, making jokes, live like human beings and I am suffering so much that I want to kill myself?”

I think I found the best (although a little cynical) description of that in the words of Melvin Udall, the agoraphobic, OCD sufferer, writer impersonated by Jack Nicholson in “As good as it gets”(1997):

Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that’s their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you’re that pissed that so many others had it good.

And I can’t help myself but wonder: “Is this the ultimate problem? That everyone else seems to manage and we don’t? Is that difference that is so devastating? If everyone else felt the same way would there be any problem? Or would we just talk about it like we talk about the weather, careers, new relationships and all that stuff? And how liberating would that be? To be able to talk about your mental health issue and don’t care about the way that other people see you?”

I don’t have the answer or the healing path to overcome these fears, and I am sorry if you expected something like that. I haven’t found the magic solution nor I claim I am near. I just wanted to communicate these thoughts I’ve been having. I think these questions never disappear completely. But it gets a lot better. The devastating doubt becomes a faded scar that itches now and then. It’s annoying but nothing more than that. How about that?…

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