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My Journey With Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a complex anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic, feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. Common fears associated with agoraphobia are traveling, driving, public speaking, being alone, airplanes, public transportation, elevators, and large crowds. Agoraphobia typically manifests after someone has a severe panic attack. They begin to fear the fear, worried panic will strike any moment. 

Everyone experiences what I call "typical anxiety"...you know, the butterflies in your stomach before a first date, the nervousness you get before a job interview. Generalized anxiety is a broader term that refers to people who feel a certain level of anxiousness or stress daily. As you dig deeper into the various forms of anxiety, you will find more specialized types that vary from person to person. Regardless of the type, all anxiety sufferers wish they felt different. Up until I was 19 years old, I knew what "typical anxiety" was.

I was making coffee, just a regular day as a barista in 2002 while on summer break from college at the cutest little coffee stand called Chug-A-Tug. I loved my job. While counting money, out of nowhere, my heart started to race and I felt as if it were going to explode. I grabbed my chest and fell to the ground unable to breathe. Am I dying? Am I having a heart attack? I was rushed to urgent care and all types of tests were run. My heart was fine. I had what the doctor called a panic attack. A what? That was not okay and I didn’t want to experience it again. I was supposed to work the next day and was dreading it. What if it happens again? I work alone, what will happen if I pass out? I literally thought about each breath in and each breath out. I carried a brown paper sack to breathe into when I felt anxious. I took it everywhere. I started to feel safer around others just in case it happened again. I didn't want to be alone...I didn't want to be in my body. 

Soon after, I went back to college and the anxiety got worse. I was on scholarships and very stressed about keeping my grades up in addition to working. I didn't tell many people about the anxiety, I was too embarrassed and ashamed. Instead, I silently suffered, determined to put on a happy face. In order to soothe the anxiety, I created "safety" routines and habits. I had to sit near the exit in every class, just in case I needed to exit. I knew where all my friends lived, just in case I felt panic and needed someone to be there. I couldn't be home alone so when my roommates were gone, I studied at coffee shops. Driving down the freeway I knew where all the hospitals were in case I needed to visit the ER. I was completely petrified of my own body and what it was capable of doing without my consent. I thought about anxiety every day. It was the constant shadow that followed me everywhere. 

In 2003, I suffered another major panic attack, this time the paramedics were called because I was semi-unconscious. I was mortified it happened in public. I spiraled into another dark hole of despair. What am I doing wrong? Why me? I was exhausted trying to manage and control my anxiety, afraid it would ruin my life. Shockingly, I kept a 3.8 GPA through college and was never late to work or class. The only reason I didn't abuse drugs or alcohol is that I hated feeling out of control; it made me more anxious. I had times of peace and clarity and enjoyed many aspects of college. Even with the highs, I knew anxiety could knock at my door at any moment.

I discovered there were books and websites specific to anxiety and realized that I had a specialized form called agoraphobia. I was so relieved to know other people felt like me. You mean someone else gets anxious in a left-hand turn lane? I knew my fears were irrational, yet I couldn't stop being afraid of all the sensations and intrusive thoughts. In 2005, I was offered a scholarship for graduate school in Utah. Of course, I panicked at the thought of moving to a new place not knowing anyone. I mean, who would be my safe person? My doctor and I decided it was best to try Zoloft, a drug often used for anxiety. It did help in many ways. However, by 2007 I was determined to deal with my anxiety naturally. I also had to say goodbye to my best friend Xanax, my ultimate safe person, because I was having horrible side effects after taking it. I hardly ever took it, but knowing I had it was enough to help curb an oncoming panic attack. For many years Xanax was the only reason I could get on an airplane. Not being able to use Xanax was both a blessing and a curse. It forced me to face my anxiety head-on. However, the thought of feeling through intense anxious moments on my own was scary. I am very proud to say I have been flying Xanax-free since 2010. Not to mention flying to New York alone and Iceland! 

In 2012, after getting diagnosed with autoimmune disease, I started changing my lifestyle drasticallyMy anxiety got better as did my autoimmune. I was introduced to the DARE program by Barry McDonagh. I started saying yes to things I would have normally said no to. I started living outside my comfort zone, which actually made me more confident and happier. I told myself I would rather say yes to something and "fail," rather than saying no and wishing I would have done it. 

Would I consider myself totally healed? No. Anxiety will hibernate and at times pop up at unexpected times and unexpected places. I still struggle with anticipatory anxiety, driving long distances, staying home alone overnight, and sleeping away from home in new cities. Sometimes I have stretches of complete peace that anxiety seems a thing of the past. Other times anxiety is the guest who showed up to your party uninvited. I realized that healing my anxiety was not about taking prescription drugs or avoiding my triggers. It was about listening to my body and slowing down to nurture its calling. The hardest thing I have done to this day is sitting silently with myself during anxious moments. I truly believe in the “feel it to heal it” motto, and continually work on showing up for myself when difficult sensations arise instead of running away from them. I have also realized that sometimes showing up for yourself is using your resources and knowing when to hug yourself a little harder and practice self-compassion. Sometimes, you just need a break from “working on anxiety” and that is okay too. 

I am proud of the hard work I have done thus far. Anxiety, like my autoimmune, has positively affected my life in many ways. I am a better person, friend, daughter, and wife. I have cultivated an immense amount of self-compassion and love for myself that has translated to empathy and compassion for others. Each milestone is something to be proud of.

With Love,

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