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Ben's story - My recovery from acute anxiety and agoraphobia

This page created June 2004
By Ben

I have written this for anyone who has hit rock bottom and can't see the way to get back on top and to lead a life free from fear. I am allowing the story of my recovery from acute panic, anxiety, social phobia and agoraphobia to go public in the hope that it empowers others to take the necessary steps to recover and lead normal fulfilling lives - hopefully in a fraction of the time it took me. I regard myself as being a
recovered person living a normal fulfilling life. I have recently returned from spending 6 months driving around the entire circuit of Australia on my own (I used to suffer from acute agoraphobia).

If you are presently suffering from any of these or other similar disorders, I encourage you to never give up. I can assure you from my own experience that you can become well again. Help is now available in many forms that weren't available when I had my first panic attack in 1978. I spent the best part of 20 years reading books and experimenting with countless forms of therapy, most of which didn't work.
My own experience is that no one form of treatment will cure you on its own. Your recovery will result from a combination of therapies, lifestyle changes and belief system changes that are presented on this web site (www.socialanxiety.com.au). I encourage you to make a start on your recovery. It no longer has to be a long process like mine. It will be worth the effort. It's a wonderful, powerful feeling to feel freedom from fear. It's a wonderful victory over the past and it is available to you now.

Ben in 1978:
I suffered from acute agoraphobia: I was terrified to leave the house. I wouldn't ride on planes, trains or any form of public transport. I was terrified of being caught in traffic jams, lifts, shopping centres, open spaces, crowds and especially hot, crowded rooms.

Social phobia: I had acute panic in business meetings, talking to people in positions of power or people I perceived to be better than me, and I always felt judged. Public speaking was unthinkable. Does some of this sound familiar?

Ben in 2003:
I love travelling: I love long car trips, I absolutely love flying in aeroplanes, I love being in wide-open spaces, I love meeting new people, I regularly chat to strangers. I almost feel comfortable with public speaking. I have self respect and high self esteem. I have no fear of lifts (even if they stop), and traffic jams are an opportunity to listen to good music and relax. You too can have this freedom.
How it all happened and how I made myself well.

When I think back to my earliest memories, I started life as a very sensitive little boy, happy and contented until my first day at school. I went from a safe happy home to a catholic school, which had an atmosphere of fear and violence. On my first day, a very old nun called Mother Francesca confronted me. This creature was completely draped in black, her face was highly wrinkled and she had intense, vicious brown eyes glaring at me through small round glasses. She had a very large class to teach. Prep and grade one was combined in a very large room. Mother Francesca kept discipline with a leather strap. There were certain children who she singled out as troublemakers and she would strap them relentlessly until they were crying for mercy. These were five-year-old children. Luckily, I was not singled out for special treatment, but I was terrified of becoming one. On my first day, after my mother had dropped me off at school, I tried to get out the door to run home and I can still remember Mother Francesca putting the key in the door and locking it. She also taught us in religious instruction class that if we committed a mortal sin, that we would be burned in the fires of hell for eternity. This was not a great start to a sensitive little boys' school life. Later on in my schooling, I had similar experiences when I went to the Christian Brothers who also thought that the best way to discipline little boys was to belt them into submission. My heart was regularly racing with fear. Basically my schooling was a disaster and I hated every minute of it. I couldn't get out of school fast enough and left school at the end of Year 10 to do a carpentry apprenticeship and later became a builder, a career that I was utterly unsuited for. This series of events was slowly building up a very high level of
underlying anxiety of which I was quiet unaware.

In July 1978, I came down with a very severe mystery illness. I collapsed in a restaurant and fell into my food. Two months later I fainted severely in the blood bank after giving blood and had to be taxied home. A week later I collapsed on the snow and had to be brought down on a stretcher. I then spent two months at home just waiting and hoping to get some strength back. (In later years, I discovered that the mystery illness was Hepatitis B (HBV). There was no test for HBV in 1978). I was tested many times for Glandular Fever but the result was always negative. All I knew was that I was desperately ill and the doctors didn't believe me. Almost to the day when I felt some physical strength come back, I experienced my first panic attack. It was like a wave of fear engulfing me. Total terror, I thought I was going mad. I later discovered that this disorder was very common on one side of my family. I was not alone. What frightened me even more was that I couldn't find anyone who had really recovered fully. I had thoughts of.. my god, will I still be like this in another 2 years.. 20 years???

I was now suffering acute agoraphobia. I was terrified of being away from home and collapsing again. I also knew that if I left the house, that I would be stricken with fear. It became fear of the fear.
I went to my GP and was advised to go on a holiday (not great advice for an agoraphobic). I was
prescribed Valium and Tryptanol (an antidepressant). I found the side effects of the Tryptanol made the panic worse. I was also terrified of what the Valium would do, so I only took very small doses.
A close relative, who also had agoraphobia, advised me that I had to just get out in the world and tough it out before it became a habit. I now know that this was not very good advice, but it was well intended and that was the only way that this person survived. That was the advice I took and acted on. It is not
something I would ever recommend to anyone else. I also learned meditation through the late Dr Ainslie Meares (a well known Melbourne psychiatrist). This meditation was very helpful and calming and I still practice it daily, but it was a long way from being a cure on its own.

The main actions that helped me to recovery were:

Exposure - although I wouldn't recommend the sledgehammer approach of confronting fears cold turkey that I took.

Learning to meditate - the calmness from meditation permeates into all of your day to day activities. It is very comforting, reassuring and grounding.

Learning progressive muscle relaxation - this is often taught with meditation, you learn to feel your
muscular tension and can learn to release it.

Understanding the fight or flight response and that I was not having a heart attack or going mad.

Becoming physically fit - I took up long distance running.

Learning that relying on alcohol doesn't work in the long term - it makes the panic considerably worse the next day.

Nutrition - having a good nutritious diet and also learning what are the most suitable foods for me (I found that low fat, "brown rice and lentils" type diets made me more anxious than ever).

Learning to breathe slowly and from the diaphragm.

Listening to my body - Eg. if I am overtired, I rest and if necessary, cancel meetings.

Learning not to put myself under excessive time and deadline pressure.

Changing my belief system and learning to increase my self esteem - mainly through reading self help books and acting on the advice.

Learning to trust my intuition and myself and not be ruled by the thoughts and opinions of others.

Medication: I used Xanax to cover up the symptoms for many years but the anxiety simply returned if I
didn't use it. In 1994 I saw a psychiatrist who specialised in anxiety disorders. He told me that he was
having excellent results with a new antidepressant called Prozac and asked me to give it a go. I protested that I wasn't depressed but that I would give it a go anyway. In the first 6 weeks my symptoms worsened (I have since discovered that antidepressants should be introduced to anxiety patients very gradually) but when it eventually kicked in, the change in my general feeling of wellbeing was dramatic. I was able to do many activities with a feeling of calm that would have previously caused anxiety.
The side effects of Prozac annoyed me (mainly sweating excessively) so after 3 years, I slowly came off it. Coming off Prozac did not cause any increase in symptoms. Over an extended period of time being
symptom free and automatically doing things that used to cause anxiety; my mind had literally been
retrained not to panic.

Finally, I realised that one of the biggest causes of my anxiety was that I was flogging myself along in a
career that I detested. I have now shut down my building business and am studying for a new career in
holistic counselling and life coaching which is more suited to my personality.

It is now 5 years since I have used Prozac. I keep myself symptom free by regular meditation, keeping
physically fit, having a high self-esteem, a healthy diet, resting when I need to rest, surrounding myself with calm people and not partaking in work that causes me anxiety.

My learning experience was tough, but I have turned into a much more compassionate and empathetic
human being than I could have ever been without that experience.

If you are currently struggling with anxiety or agoraphobia, I want to reassure you that you can become well again. Don't procrastinate about taking the first steps to get well and to learn the necessary skills to stay well permanently. I promise you that it is worth the effort and that you can love your life again.



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