6 June 2016

How Exposure Therapy Helped My Agoraphobia


NOTE: I am not a physician nor mental health professional. I am simply someone living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic. This is not medical advice. Please consult your doctor or therapist.

I have never shared any of this on my blog in all my years of blogging out of fear of stigma and others' judgments.

My story wasn't like how you see it in movies. I didn't step one foot outside my door and immediately fall to the ground sobbing. I had stopped working and was having trouble finding a new job. I was alone at home all day, and had some chronic health problems that were causing me to become physically weak. My family life was in disarray. Slowly, I withdrew more and stopped going out as much. Job searching was drudgery and I started to question my job skills. I stopped calling any of my friends back. It was very sneaky. Eventually, I had my first panic attack when out at brunch, and that triggered more panic and anxiety. We tried for years to have a baby, and the pain of infertility just pushed me further into a blackhole of despair. This all led to having major problems going out, and being completely dependent on my husband and my mom.

Before getting panic attacks, I was a very independent person. I traveled cross country regularly by myself, worked, excelled in graduate school, and the list goes on. When panic struck, it was very hard for me to get out and do anything on my own. I was scared to be alone. I was paralyzed at the thought that "something" could happen to me when out in public. This "something" could be as minor as embarrassing myself by tripping over a pebble on the sidewalk or as serious as passing out or having a medical emergency. Would anyone help me? Would they laugh at me? Would I get hurt? Would I die? Yes, it sounds extreme. But all of these thoughts spiraled out of control and would play like an endless loop in my mind.

I went on Paxil for about a year and a half (which I blogged about here), but otherwise, I didn't pursue any other therapy or anxiety medication besides beta blockers and Klonopin my GP prescribed me for situational anxiety. I pieced together advice and articles I read on the Internet, and basically concluded that my mental health was on a downward spiral, and I had become agoraphobic. I was terrified of what that meant, because I didn't know much about agoraphobia. I didn't know anyone who suffered from it. I wanted to distance myself from this disorder which seemed shameful and weird. I blogged for years and shared details about my anxiety, but never uttered the word "agoraphobia". I didn't really know how to help myself or what to do about it, but I had to start pushing myself to get out or I feared I could end up divorced, alone, perpetually unemployed, and unable to take care of myself.

I started off by walking my dogs down the block. We lived in a busy part of the city, and there were noisy, bustling streets with lots of pedestrians and stimuli surrounding us on all sides. Walking down the block was so mentally exhausting it would take me days to recover. When I felt strong again, I walked my dogs around the block. I didn't force matters or put myself on a strict schedule. The process involved baby steps; a lot of two steps forward one step back happening. There were days when I pretty much gave up, and did nothing all day. I would wake up with a "to do" list feeling motivated and ready to get back out in the world. Then the hours would somehow slip by, and I recall showering with the setting sun around 6-7pm. On those days, I didn't think I was depressed any more than I imagined I was just having a "really bad day." I wasn't working at the time and we were childless, so it was easy to recoil into myself and stay indoors in my safe space.

While I didn't really know it at the time, by walking down the block, I had started down the road of exposure therapy. I was slowly and purposely putting myself into situations that triggered my anxiety. I was facing my anxiety head on, breathing through it, and coming out a little stronger on the other side.

While I have been working on exposures since before I became a mom, motherhood has really been the impetus to push myself harder than I ever have. I look at my daughter, and I see this little person bursting with so much potential. I want to be an asset to my her, not something holding her back. My reason for getting better is my daughter. When my daughter was born, I was determined to find a mom support group/mommy and me infant class. I did some googling and found a class a few miles from our house. My daughter was seven weeks old, and I was so filled with anxiety I thought I would jump out of my skin. I was terrified of socializing (social anxiety), because I truly believed that I would have nothing to contribute to the group. (It turns out new moms have tons of stuff to talk about!) I was also terrified of driving with my newborn baby. The thought of going to this baby class completely paralyzed me. But, I told myself I would go once, and if I hated it, I didn't have to go back again. My mom was staying with us, and offered to drive us to class. That first class was so nerve wracking, and I'm pretty sure I was sweating like a pig, but I made it through.

From then on, it wasn't cake. I remember my mom drove us to the first month of classes, because the thought of driving on top of going to class was overwhelming. (Thank you, Mom. Truly.) Eventually, I found the courage to drive myself and even started meeting up with my mommy friends at parks and around town. Each time I was able to drive myself to a get together was a very important step toward independence and greater self-esteem. It was something I was doing on my own, and I didn't have to depend on anyone else.

I now know that the best thing I can do for myself is to keep getting back up no matter how many times I am knocked down. As cliche as it sounds, there is much to be said about never giving up. For me, exposure therapy has been about adopting a "never give up" attitude no matter how long it takes me to move forward. I know that with each repeated exposure, it opens up my world a teeny tiny bit more. Last year, we moved to a new neighborhood, and I had to jump back into a world of discomfort: meeting new people, driving on new streets, and basically re-finding our community. It has been a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I refuse to give up. Last month, we took a family vacation to Hawaii. We are currently in Seattle accompanying my husband on a work trip. I am back out in the world again with some setbacks. I still have my bad moments, and occasionally, bad days. But I no longer attempt to get back to "my old self" or put myself down for what I used to accomplish. I am solely focused on continuing my exposures, going to therapy, being in the moment, and looking to what's ahead. I lived in the past for a long time, and it was so detrimental to my mental health.

I don't know if this is "normal" for most anxiety sufferers. I imagine my situation was so severe, because I didn't start cognitive behavioral therapy until last year (June 2015). I always had an endless list of excuses as to why I couldn't get myself to therapy. In the end, I was cheating myself (no big surprise there), because I was denying myself one of the most integral aspects of my recovery. 

7 comments:

  1. What a powerful story. I'm sorry you went through so much anxiety and frankly, I don't know much about it. But I do know a lot about depression (I suffered severe postpartum depression) and I know a lot of these psychological and mental imbalances are similar. They paralyze our lives and makes us think distorted, untrue thoughts. Glad you found healing and that motherhood was a huge factor. Motherhood seems to do that for a lot of us--- makes us face our fears and anxieties head on and overcome it!

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    1. Hi Angela,
      Thank you so much for your words of support! It has been a long, difficult road. I am so sorry to read that you suffered from severe PPD. Mental health issues can be so incredibly debilitating, and, you're SO right - it totally distorts our thinking! I hope you are taking good care of yourself! xoxo

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  2. What a powerful story. I'm sorry you went through so much anxiety and frankly, I don't know much about it. But I do know a lot about depression (I suffered severe postpartum depression) and I know a lot of these psychological and mental imbalances are similar. They paralyze our lives and makes us think distorted, untrue thoughts. Glad you found healing and that motherhood was a huge factor. Motherhood seems to do that for a lot of us--- makes us face our fears and anxieties head on and overcome it!

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  3. Thank you for sharing your story! I think it's so brave of you to put your life out there for people to read. You help other people suffering from anxiety to know they're not alone. Thank you for that.

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    1. Awww, thank you so much, Rizza!! I really, really hope it helps someone. And thank you for always being so supportive. xoxo

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  4. I'm so glad you're sharing your story. It will definitely help someone to read and know they aren't suffering alone. Though I don't know a lot about Agoraphobia, I went through a period being fairly paralyzed by anxiety over the fear of medical conditions due to childhood trauma. Cognitive behavior therapy really helped me through that time, but I still have to battle it and I'm sure I will forever. I know how scary it is to not only deal with your own thoughts, but also worry about losing everything you love. I'm so glad you were able to work through the worst of it and know the steps when you feel a challenge approaching. Keep up the tough work!

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    1. Thank you so much for your support, A!! Cognitive behavior therapy is truly life changing!! I am so happy to hear you went to therapy and it helped you. Sometimes it feels like a daily, or even hourly battle, but having the tools to cope with it has made all the difference. xoxo

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