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The Beginning

This page created September 1998
By Paula Rountree

It’s probably helpful for me to start this story with a little bit about myself. I was diagnosed with Agoraphobia with Panic Attacks at the ripe old age of 22 back in 1992. Looking back now, I can see the symptoms started sneaking up on me from the age of about 18 … just shortly after my dad died, which was a very difficult and sad time in my life. My dad had been diagnosed with an illness when I was 14 years of age, and it was only six months prior to his death, that we’d been told he had probably six years of life left in him. It therefore was a huge shock when he died while I was away on a school camp. I had just a week between his funeral and the start of my 7 th form exams. My exams finished on a Friday, and on the Monday I found myself fronting up for my first day of full-time work as a Bank Officer.

Fast forward four years - I was 22 years of age, on a week’s annual leave from work, feeling run down with the beginnings of a cold, when *wham* I was struck with my first full blown panic attack while out doing some errands. I was on an eight lane road, stuck at the front of traffic lights with three large trucks surrounding me (which accentuated the “trapped” feeling), and about 20 minutes drive away from home. It was an incredibly scary episode, and would be the beginning of my avoidance behaviour. I couldn’t face the thought of going back to work, and instead found myself at the doctor’s surgery, being diagnosed with Agoraphobia with Panic Attacks. Very quickly I made home my safe place, with me becoming virtually housebound. The only times I left the house were for doctor or therapy appointments, and even then, only with my Mum escorting me. When I look back over the previous four years, I can see little signs of anxiety had been lurking and each time I’d been to my doctor, I was told “stress” – take a few days off work.

Over the next four years, I slowly got my head around this disorder and read as much as I could about it. I began treatment through the Anxiety Disorders Unit here in Christchurch, which is part of the health system. The Anxiety Disorders Unit is the only team of its kind in New Zealand and is an outpatient service, made up by a variety of clinicians from different disciplines (eg. psychiatrist, psychologists, clinical nurse therapists, social worker, occupational therapist, physiotherapist). They are a fantastic team, and while they acknowledge a need for medications in some people, they also strongly advocate the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which I believe as a consumer/patient, is a very empowering form of treatment. My treatment was drug-free and involved learning to manage my anxiety through appropriate breathing techniques and relaxation along with learning to challenge what I now call the “negative and unhelpful” thoughts that I often found myself having. Graded exposure exercises were also slowly introduced. After some months, my confidence started to pick up, and I started doing some voluntary work at a food bank in the city. This was a real turning point for me – knowing it was voluntary was helpful as it took the pressure off me feeling that I “had” to be there. I was very honest with the staff about my Agoraphobia and they were so supportive of me and tried to make my time there as comfortable as they could. I feel very proud when I say, I didn’t call in sick once during my nearly two years there.

I also joined the Agoraphobic Support Group taking on the role of Committee Secretary at my first meeting. This role also brought huge benefits to me, as I met with others facing the same day to day challenges, and formed new and very welcome friendships. I always had a good strong network of friends, but I believe having some friends who also understand what it is like to experience Agoraphobia has been a positive for me.

The increase in my self esteem gained from the voluntary work allowed me the confidence to apply for a paid position, working in a respite home for children with intellectual disabilities. What was supposed to be a “casual” position of probably one eight hour shift a week, very quickly became full-time plus, with me working up to 70 hours a week, including sleepovers and most importantly – coping with it! I worked with a number of wonderful and very inspirational children during my time in the respite home. I was kept so busy that I didn’t have time to think about my anxiety very often. One of the very special children I worked with, one on one regularly, had a very serious medical condition which meant we were regular (probably averaging out at fortnightly) visitors to Christchurch Public Hospital. I couldn’t afford for my anxiety to get in the way while working with this amazing little boy, as I could jeopardize his life if I did. Sadly this little boy died suddenly at the beginning of 1998, but I have him to thank so much for where I am today – he really did teach me to be strong, face my fears and do the best I can.

Moving on, and in 1998 I decided that I needed to break away from working full-time in a community support worker role, and that I would like to get back to another love of mine – administration and reception-type work. The opportunity came quicker than I thought and I was soon offered a 20 hour a week position as a Receptionist in a mental health agency. A very nice place to be with more supportive people around me, many of whom had their own personal experience of mental illness.

Flying into the Face of Success

Two weeks prior to starting my new Reception role, I was approached during one of my visits to do some voluntary work at the Agoraphobic Support Group office (which incidentally happens to be in the same building as the agency I now work for) by Barry, another mental health worker. Barry was encouraging me to apply for a scholarship to the 1998 The MHS (The Mental Health Services Conference of Australia and New Zealand) conference which was to be held later that month in Hobart, Australia. Barry said the Health Funding Authority (a government service) was going to fund eight consumers from the South Island to attend the conference, all expenses paid.

I mulled over the application form that night, and decided to complete it and send it off. In the back of my mind, I felt the chances of me being selected were close to nil, if they were only choosing eight consumers. At least I could tell Barry that I’d sent it off. At this point in time, I had absolutely no intention of going – it was not in my “plan”. I had this nice little graded exposure plan mapped out in my mind, of how I would return to my pre-Agoraphobia flying days. This plan involved first taking a ten minute flight over Christchurch which a local airline offered, and if that went okay, then I would take a flight down to Dunedin, or perhaps up to Wellington – either flight only taking approximately 30 minutes, and then …. once I felt comfortable enough to extend myself further, I would take a trip to see family in Melbourne. No way was I planning to just jump “cold turkey” on to two flights to get to Hobart, and especially with a bunch of strangers.

So … you can imagine my absolute horror, when on my first day in my new job, Barry approached me and said “Congratulations Paula. I hear you’ve been selected to go to the The MHS conference next week”. I was gobsmacked to say the least and I probably can’t type what went on in my head! I honestly did not know how I was going to do it. I suddenly felt like I was in the diving well and sinking fast. It was probably a good thing that I had a new job to distract me and keep me busy.

The dreaded day came …. and all too fast for my liking. Four in the morning and we had to report out at the airport. I had packed my cabin bag with a few “first aid kit” items – a wet flannel in a plastic bag, my walkman with fresh batteries and my precious relaxation tape, a bottle of drinking water and some reading material. I arrived at the check-in counter and asked for an aisle seat – thinking I would feel less “trapped” there. “Sorry, but your seat has been pre-allocated as part of a group booking” I was told. *Sigh*, this was not helping my anxiety. Once on the plane, I met my travelling companions, and after explaining about my agoraphobia, managed to convince someone to swap seats with me. The flight went much better than I had anticipated and I felt surprisingly calm the whole way – and not one panic attack!!!. I must admit though I was becoming a bit tired of being asked “how are you feeling” by the others (I was feeling very good!!!), but their concern was at the same time reassuring.

A little over three hours later, and we touched down at Melbourne airport. My cousin and her fiancée came out to meet me there and we spent the transit time having a drink and catching up with each other’s lives. Then it was time to board the flight to Hobart. Another very uneventful flight – and still no sign of the dreaded panic attacks! (Did I forget to pack them?? Mmm….)

We were transferred to the Wrest Point Hotel by shuttle. The thought of staying there wasn’t too daunting, as in my pre-Agoraphobia days, I had spent a night at the Wrest Point Motor-Inn complex which is on the same grounds. I think that going to somewhere that I was slightly familiar with was helpful. We dumped our luggage at the hotel just after 2pm, and grabbed taxis straight back into the city to spend time at the Salamanca Markets, which we were told was a “must do” in Hobart. Unfortunately for us, we only had about an hour before the markets wound up for the day.

The following day we had the Consumers Conference Day to attend. I managed to stay at the conference for the whole day. It was interesting to mix with other consumers and advocates and hear about the work they were doing. While there appeared to be quite an impressive number of people there, I didn’t run into any others who identified themselves as having experienced Agoraphobia.

The next day the main part of the conference started. There was so much to choose from – with seven different presentations happening at once. Over the next three days I spent most of my days at the conference, with just the odd break to refresh myself. I was surprised at how well I coped with the intensity of it all. I had been told by a regular conference-goer that you go to conferences with the aim of attending only half the sessions – I think I well and truly exceeded myself if that is the case.

The highlight of the second day for many of us, was an invitation to meet the Governor of Tasmania and his wife, at a reception at Government House. Very formal … but a lot of fun! It sounded so funny hearing myself announced formally to the governor and his wife by the doorman – I certainly was not accustomed to such formality. I was becoming very tired by this point – conferences do tend to be heavy going and it is tiring trying to take it all in.

On the final day in Hobart, we had a free day. Retail Therapy!?! Unfortunately, time was very limited, so I grabbed a taxi (on my own!!) up to Island Produce Confectionery, and did a tour of their fudge factory (yum!) which also included a tour of the ruins of the old “female factory” (women’s prison). Then it was back to gather some of the others, and we enjoyed lunch in town, followed by a cruise on the Derwent River (another fear conquered!). The rest of the day was spent packing ready to come home – another early start – 5.00am collection from the hotel.

The flights home were also, surprisingly uneventful.

It was a very positive week for me – I conquered my two remaining irrational fears (flying and boats) – anything else I might be avoiding is probably quite rational – bungy jumping, parachuting …. but who knows, maybe I’ll attack those fears next.

If there is one thing that I learnt out of this trip, it is “never to say never”. I honestly didn’t think I had it in me to complete this trip panic-free, but “I did it”! While “baby-steps” are a great way to work along our road of recovery, a few unexpected “gigantic steps” may not do us any harm either.

Now to plan my next trip …

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