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I' m a prisoner in my own home

This page created  October 2001
By Katrina O'Brien - B Magazine,

CAN YOU IMAGINE BEING TOO SCARED TO LEAVE HOME TO BUY MILK? FOR AGORAPHOBIA SUFFERER JESS, EVEN DOING LIFE'S MORE MUNDANE TASKS IS IMPOSSIBLE.  
 
[Names changed for privacy purposes]


For much of the past five years, Jess Pollock, 26, has been too scared to leave her home on her own. When she's ventured out, it's only with either her husband or mother holding her hand all the way. She longs to travel the world but for now she can't even visit the supermarket without fearing a panic attack.  
 
"I first knew something was wrong when I was living in London in 1996. I had been on the Underground and I started having panic attacks when the train stopped in the tunnel between stations. I knew that I couldn't get out and I felt so trapped. I'd start to get really hot and my heart would start beating incredibly fast. I started thinking about the what ifs?: the worst possible situations that I was going to faint, collapse or even die.  
 
The second time it happened it came on so suddenly, it was unbelievably frightening. The feelings were so physical I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. My heart was racing, my adrenaline pumping; I was terrified. I tried to get help but nobody would help me. I was dressed nicely but everybody just walked past with their heads down. It was so horrible. I was just sliding down the wall going 'Oh my God.' I had no idea what was going on.  
 
I went to the doctor and told him what was happening. I kept saying, 'I've got really bad stomach pains and my heart keeps racing', but he didn't even mention anxiety or panic attacks. I went to another doctor and he prescribed me drugs that I never took.  
 
Basically, my agoraphobia started pretty much straight away. Some people start getting the panic attacks and the agoraphobia comes later, but for me it wasn't a gradual process. Every time I went to leave the house I'd experience these attacks.  
 
I thought if I came home to Australia, the panic attacks would go away. I thought it was just stress. London was an expensive city and I felt very lonely over there, so I booked my ticket and flew back. I just wanted to come home to my friends and family. The plane journey was terrible I felt alone. Taking off and landing was the worst. I felt trapped. I was sitting on an aisle seat and leaned over to an elderly couple that was sitting next to me. I asked the woman if she would mind if I held her husband's hand, which she didn't. My head was spinning and I felt sick. I just needed somebody. It was horrible.  
 
When I got back home I still experienced the panic attacks, but they weren't as bad at first. Then they started to get worse. I had a part-time job at a bookshop and the attacks started happening there. I thought, 'What's wrong with me? What could be causing this?' so I looked in the health section and found a book on anxiety. I started reading about panic attacks and thought; 'This is so weird; this is me'.  
 
I took the book to my doctor and said; 'This is what I have.' But all he wanted to do was prescribe anti-depressants. No doctor, apart from my current psychologist, has ever helped me.  
 
Not long after that, I stopped going out to places with friends. It got too scary because without warning I'd have an attack and have to leave. I just wanted to run because my body would go into that cycle of fear.  
 
Soon it was just easier to stay at home but I was creating a worse situation. I stopped calling people because I thought it would be easier not to have friends at all. It was really upsetting because I used to be very social and outgoing. I'd been travelling on my own and suddenly I couldn't do any of the normal things young women do, like going out and shopping.  
 
One twist of fate, though, is that if I didn't have agoraphobia I would never have met my husband, Jack. We met at a house warming party just weeks after I had come back from overseas. It was one of the few things that I went to; my mum was going and it wasn't too far from my house, so I felt OK about it.  
 
Jack and I went out a few times after that. We'd meet somewhere near where I lived but even then, sometimes I'd have to leave in the middle of a date. In restaurants, as soon as I started feeling funny, I'd say 'Come on, let's go,' and we'd have to pay and leave. I used to think, 'If I get out of here, I'll feel better.' But it's not the place that's at fault, it's just your feelings - once you've had panic attacks, you think you're going to have them again. It's fear of fear.  
 
It was hard to hide the attacks from Jack because I was having them every day. Jack kind of had an idea something was up and when I told him about it, he was fine and he's been incredibly supportive ever since.  
 
We got married about two years after we met. We invited about 20 close friends and family. We held the ceremony in a nearby park and had the reception at our house. I often think 'Is this the way I would have done it if I didn't have the anxiety?' Sometimes I wish it had been a big, white wedding with a couple of hundred guests.  
 
Without Jack, I have no idea where I'd be or how I'd be. There have been times in the past where I've just wanted to commit suicide. Everything just got too much and I felt I was a real drain on Jack. I used to think, 'Oh God, if anything happened to somebody, I wouldn't even be able to go to the funeral,' because I couldn't get out on my own. Or if someone was sick, or if something happened in the house. I even used to think if there was a fire, how would I leave the house?  
 
But when I got to know Jack, and he asked me to do things like meet his family, I did it because I loved him. I knew I had to get better for Jack - and for myself.  
 
I joined a support group for people who suffer from anxiety and through them and a friend's recommendation, I found my psychologist, Sally. I decided to give her a go as I'd heard she was really good and tough. I wasn't nervous but kind of excited, as I was hoping she could help me.  
 
In my first session, she talked to me about breathing and what triggers panic attacks. It felt good to be able to understand them more. After a few weeks, Sally and I started going on exposure therapy sessions where she would take me to places which caused me anxiety, for example, the supermarket, trams and so on. We would practice my breathing and I would learn to relax. I am a lot better and recently I went on a plane to the Gold Coast to see my family. That was a real achievement for me.  
 
I've been seeing Sally once a week since February and I'm getting better. I still hate getting in cars with people as I feel trapped but I can manage a five- or 10- minute ride.  
 
Every now and then, I do have days where I get down and really depressed but I tell myself that even if I was completely housebound, it's still not as bad as what some people go through in life. I can manage to walk a few blocks. Now that I've started seeing a psychologist I can see light at the end of the tunnel and things seem better.  
 
Even now I dread going out but I just take a deep breath and walk out the door. I ride a bike so that I can go further and then get home more quickly if I need to. The other day I went to the supermarket for the first time in a long time and bought a basket of groceries. That was huge for me.  
 
I still don't know what caused my agoraphobia. A lot of times it can be some life event that triggers it off, but I just can't think of anything except that when I was in London I was worrying about money and feeling extremely lonely.  
 
Sally says it will be six months to a year before I'm back doing whatever I want. I'm starting to lose the fear of panic attacks and the more I go out, the more I know I can deal with them. It's kind of like a headache now - something that's annoying but not frightening. Freedom does lie on the other side of a panic attack."  
 


 
Re-printed with permission  
 
Jess is a member of ADAVIC and her treating Psychologist is Sallee McLaren. 

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