If you had told me on my 23rd birthday that I’d spend the next couple of years completely housebound, I probably would’ve laughed in your face. While I suffered minor depression as a teenager, I reached my early twenties with no real worries. I didn’t even know what an anxiety disorder was.
I travelled often as a kid and lived overseas during my teens. My family moved around a lot, so home was never a permanent place for me, and I was pretty accustomed to new people and places. I only ever used to get nervous before the usual things…making a presentation at school, or going to a job interview, so my journey with anxiety disorder seemed to come completely out of left field.
It was during a trip to Thailand that I began to experience panic attacks. I had no idea what was happening and just assumed that it was circumstantial. (Or a result of the multiple cocktails the night before). Upon returning home to Melbourne I had a massive panic attack – couldn’t breathe, arms and legs went numb, chest hurt, body shaking…all the classic panic symptoms that I didn’t yet know about. I went straight to the hospital where I underwent a barrage of tests which resulted in a diagnosis of absolutely nothing. Still assuming there was something physically wrong with me, I went about daily life but noticed that I would get another of these ‘attacks’ if I went to the shops, or to see friends, or in the car. I slowly began to avoid doing these things in order to avoid having another attack. Enter agoraphobia.
I went to my doctor, who patiently explained to me that there was nothing wrong with me physically, but that I was depressed, anxious, and agoraphobic. He actually wrote the word ‘agoraphobia’ on a medical certificate. I went home and researched it because I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I read article after article on the internet about agoraphobia, and I actually remember running out to tell my mum – “This is it! This is what I have!”
It felt good to finally have a name for my ‘mystery condition’…but that was where the good feeling ended. My life became a pretty shit one in comparison to what I had before. I could no longer go out; getting in the car absolutely terrified me. The list of ‘safe places’ that I could go to without panicking became smaller and smaller until eventually I was even scared of going for a walk down the street.
Agoraphobia took over my life, and it was a long time before I became comfortable admitting that I suffered from an anxiety disorder.
I frequently made excuses as to why I couldn’t go somewhere. I told a few friends the truth, but I dodged a full explanation. I was so embarrassed at what my life had become. I mean, who was so scared that they couldn’t leave the house? I missed all of my best friends birthdays and events, I missed going on dates, I missed seeing great movies and concerts and dinners and I basically missed out on life, for a little while. I felt like a spectator. The world was going on all around me but I couldn’t join in. On the one hand I desperately wanted to be outside having fun like everyone else, but on the other hand I was absolutely terrified of being away from home, away from my little ‘safe place’. (Heads up from future Lauren: ‘safe places’ do not exist.)
Eventually, more people found out about my condition, and I became a bit more vocal about it. If I managed to go out of the house somewhere, I would make a Facebook status about it, or an Instagram post. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the support I received from friends and family. Everyone was so understanding and kind; no one judged me. Some people opened up about their own issues with anxiety, others just asked questions and sympathized with me. I realized that having panic disorder was nothing to be ashamed of.
While my life today is vastly different from a few years back, I don’t hate where I am right now. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and I’ve become closer with my friends and family as a result of my disorder. I’ve also discovered that everyone is going through some shit. We all have issues and some of them aren’t pretty, but the more we talk about it as a society, the less stigma will be attached to such issues. Mental health problems are not a sign of weakness.