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My Journey Through Agoraphobia - Part 16

Hi Everyone,

If you have been reading my journey you will know that I am now able to do many things that I once would have never thought possible. I can get out and about, I drive and I no longer live with crippling fear.  My life is much freer than it used to be. There are still some things I struggle with and they are mainly to do with claustrophobia. I do not like being in small spaces as I feel trapped. I also don’t like being in places where I can’t easily escape. Once I could not even contemplate getting in a lift or elevator but I have now done that many times. I can’t say it is my favourite place to be but I no longer avoid it like I once did.  

I mainly drive in my local area and surrounding suburbs, but I have ventured further on some occasions. Being stuck in traffic is still a bit of a challenge for me, although it has happened and I have been fine. However, driving through tunnels is difficult for me and I avoid it. I dislike being unable to see out in tunnels. Being stuck in a traffic jam in a tunnel with no way out terrifies me.

I live in Sydney and I had to recently go to a meeting that was across the other side of town and driving there involved going over the Sydney Harbour Bridge; or in this case under it through a long underground tunnel that goes underwater pretty much. The meeting was arranged as a potential job prospect. I currently work from home and after over 15 years with my company, things were changing and there was a possibility I would lose my job. The meeting with another company was not a formal job interview but more of a discussion about possibilities. Still, it was similar to a job interview and I didn’t know any of the four people I would be meeting with so I was very nervous. I hadn’t attended anything like this in many years. I didn’t like the thought of driving so far and having to cope with driving through a tunnel as well. I didn’t want to arrive flustered for my meeting.

I was very pleased when one of my best friends offered to drive me there and back. At least that way I would be less anxious going into the meeting. When you drive over the Sydney Harbour Bridge to get to the other side of Sydney you don’t have to drive through the tunnel, you can go over the top of the Bridge. If I were to drive myself that is what I would have done, but that is a bit scary in itself as you need to make sure you are in the correct lane to do so. Sydney traffic is fast and quick, I was not confident that I could get to the correct lane in time to avoid going through the tunnel. My friend knew the way well and was a confident driver so on our way there we went over the bridge, not through the tunnel. I was very nervous going into my meeting but it went well and I was quite pleased. The meeting went much longer than we had thought and my friend was in a hurry to get back. So feeling a bit brave I said to her you can go through the tunnel, I knew it would be much quicker and I didn’t want to hold her up. She was happy about that and off we went. As we reached the start of the tunnel there was a bit of traffic and she explained that sometimes it gets a bit busy but the traffic usually flows once we are in the tunnel. Okay. We got into the tunnel, the traffic was crawling and barely moving. As we inched along we were right into the tunnel and the traffic had stopped completely. I was surrounded by cars and we couldn’t go back or forward. We were stuck in a traffic jam under the Harbour Bridge in a tunnel! I couldn’t even see the end of the tunnel as it was so long and dark. It briefly crossed my mind that I could get out of the car and run to the end of the tunnel to freedom. But I had no idea how long the tunnel was or how long that would take. And then what would I do? So no, it was best to stay put and wait it out.

I was not nearly as anxious as I thought I would have been. I didn’t like it at all but I was not getting caught up in panicking. I was restless but I was ok.  It was much easier not to panic with my friend in the car. Funnily enough, she is one of my friends who doesn’t really understand anxiety or panic and is not the most sympathetic or reassuring of people. Don’t get me wrong, she is a lovely person and can be kind, she just has no real understanding of anxiety. However, she was there and I was glad I wasn’t driving or alone. We were sitting there not moving and she and I were both rather quiet. The other thing was I was busting to do a wee!  I have never been the best at holding on and now there I was, having to do just that. I was very uncomfortable and at one stage thought of just opening the car door in the middle of the traffic and going! I didn’t care. I just wanted to go. I didn’t do that though.  I actually think wanting to go to the toilet and holding on distracted me a little bit.  I was very focused on not weeing all over my friend’s lovely car. We were stuck in the tunnel for an hour and a half! It was such a relief to see daylight again. The traffic was still heavy once we were out of the tunnel but at least I could see sky and had fresh air. Although I still wanted to go to the toilet!

Once my friend dropped me home (and I had gone to the toilet!) I was exhausted. I was very wound up, I don’t think I could quite believe that I had just been stuck in a tunnel and got through it without freaking out.

This happened over a month ago and reflecting back on it, I think there were a number of reasons I did not panic when confronted with one of my biggest fears.

Firstly, I have been meditating every day for a number of years now and I truly believe it has changed the pathways in my brain. When I was completely agoraphobic I felt like I was just hard wired for anxiety. It felt like I was living with this buzz of low level anxiety that could turn into full blown panic at any moment. I was hyper vigilant about my body and my thoughts, constantly fearing the panic and trying to ward it off by being vigilant.  Which of course never works.  When I began meditating, this changed. It didn’t happen overnight but slowly overtime this became less and less and there was an inner calm that replaced all that vigilance and control. There have been many research studies done that show meditation does in fact change your brain and your responses.  So instead of coming from a default place of anxiety you can come from a default place of calm. When this first started happening I didn’t trust it completely but over time it seemed to happen more and more naturally.  Meditation also taught me how to let the anxiety simply happen. Letting it just happen was something I had read about and been told to do but I could never quite get how to do that. It seemed impossible to me. One day in the early stages of practicing, during a meditation I started to feel my anxiety rising and my heart started beating so fast. Because I had calmed my body and mind I was able to respond with gentleness, not fear. I knew I had a choice - I could stay with it or I could spin off into my fears. I chose to stay and let it happen and by all miracle it simply lessened and passed. I understood what was meant by letting it happen and not adding fear to it. A quote I read that I really like and have found useful is, “you don’t have to like it but just allow it.”

Secondly, the therapy I had helped me enormously. The processing of difficult emotions, in a safe environment with a trusted therapist helped me to do this in everyday life. With my depression it still hits me sometimes like a ton of bricks but I have learned once again to accept the sadness and feel what I need to feel; whether that is from past feelings or issues that I suppressed or more recent events. I still do get stuck in sadness or stuck in resistance sometimes, or overwhelmed, and therapy helps enormously with this.

Thirdly, I had built up some resilience. I had been in anxiety-provoking situations and circumstances that I was afraid of and I had managed them. This gave me the idea that I could do this, and with each small victory it became easier.

It is not as though I went into situations without anxiety, the anxiety was there and still is sometimes but I am more capable of managing it. This would have once seemed impossible to me. Every time you get through a fearful episode, experience or event you build your resilience.  I use to think you had to be strong to be resilient and that I was not strong but weak. I use to think you were either born strong or you weren’t. I have learnt how wrong that was. Strength and resilience comes with practice and every small step you take builds it. It is funny though, as I was writing this I realised I don’t think of myself as a strong person at all. In fact, I don’t like the labels of strong or weak. Weak is such an awful word. Let’s use fragile, vulnerable and inadequate instead.  Not only are they better words but I think they describe the feelings more and are kinder.  I spent many years feeling that way every day and was completely stuck in them. Now they are feelings that I only have sometimes. I am learning that it is ok to feel that way and not get stuck in them. It is the acceptance of those feelings as a part of you that helps you work through them and release them.

Small steps are important at first. I had many missteps along the way. Many times I gave in to fear or anxiety and ran home. Defeated and ashamed crying my eyes out. I just couldn’t understand how or why I was unable to even walk to the end of my street at one stage without wanting to run back home to safety. Slowly (and it was very slow progress for me), the steps all came together and I found freedom.

Will I ever like tunnels or small enclosed spaces? Probably not. I actually have found from talking to a lot of people who don’t have any form of anxiety disorder that they avoid tunnels too.  My claustrophobia is still a work-in progress and I still cannot travel on a bus, train or a plane. To be honest, I have not even attempted any of those things yet. I have always hated buses and trains even before I was agoraphobic as I can suffer from motion sickness which makes being on one an unattractive prospect.

However, I would like to know I could do it if I had to or wanted to. A plane is a little more appealing as hopefully it would be taking me to a lovely destination!

I will keep you updated with my progress.

Written by Janesse – Sydney Member
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