The Fear Of Open Spaces
Updated: Dec 5, 2018
A personal entry of an agoraphobic traveler
Agoraphobia is not a black and white term, nor is any irrational fear. We all see the same world differently. The definition of Agoraphobia is "the fear of open spaces or the fear of no escape". It's the opposite of claustrophobia if that helps paint a better picture. These phobias are one of many paths that lead to diagnosing anxiety disorders and paranoia. Unfortunately, it still takes years to uncover them. On the surface it can look like a problem with attitude adjustment or arrogance. I was diagnosed with a panic disorder associated with agoraphobia when I was 18 and the years following were dedicated to managing it. By 'managing', I mean having the ability to cross the street without my throat closing up. Believe me I know how dramatic that sounds, but it happens. It's hard to explain how it may feel on a day to day basis, but the root feeling is constant threat, danger, or the lack of having anything to hold on to. Weird right? I think it's kind of hilarious. I guess sky diving would be a good example of an agoraphobes worst nightmare; no way in hell could you ever get me to do something like that. However sky diving is feared by many so that may not be the best example. Maybe if I can make it a bit more personal. I once walked out of the cinema, half way through the movie 'Jackie', because the feeling of being alone in an empty theatre (sorry, was that a bad review?) was down right terrifying. I had no one to escape with, no one to seek safety with and I couldn't pay attention to any of the films details. I still haven't seen the ending.
When the diagnoses was finally read, everything but relief washed over me. It was embarrassing to think I had no control over my own body. I tried to think, at least I had a reason to believe the chemical make up of my brain was for the lack of a better word, fucked, but it didn't help. Light bulbs started going off and what else started to make sense was my inescapable exhaustion. I used to come home from school or work and I would sleep for hours. I have never had trouble sleeping. Sleeping was my happy place, a time that my brain on fire got to take a breather. My bedroom was my sanctuary.
In my opinion, therapy is underrated; unless it's not. I don't know, I don't really ask people upon meeting them whether or not they're a regular therapy attendee. Just the same I wouldn't want anyone asking me. But therapy, I believe, is as important as any medical check up. We really don't treat our brains like the mother ship it is. I've been in and out of therapy since the age of 13. For the first little while, as I was getting used to this new surrounding I didn't say anything. I would nod, scoff, laugh even, when absurd comments about my attitude were made. I was poked and prodded in hospitals, I was on 4 different kinds of medication, I developed sleep paralysis and turret-like fits where I would swear, get angry, throw things and hit myself. I resented others for putting me through it all, and I resented myself for being this way.
I can identify one person that really changed my perspective on my disorder; her name was Sharon. Sharon was my very last therapist. I didn't really like her honestly. She was a bit pushy at the start and I felt at times her questioning was slightly aggressive. The rooms we met in were small, minimalist and white. They had two uncomfortable chairs, one plant and a stack of fake books on a table in the corner. Aside from the getup though, this woman made some damn good sense. I was getting frustrated with how my life was developing. I was failing in my career, my relationship with my partner was deteriorating - once a night at home lead to the ambulance being called because I stopped breathing. I later tried to recall the details of my panic, but I completely forgot the reason - We were both so tired. Eventually I gave in and over time I took my slots with her seriously.
The first thing Sharon ever did was explain to me what the hell was going on 'upstairs'. Simply put, my brain was somewhere else to where my body was, but my adrenaline started pumping anyways. Simple right? Most things are. She defined phobias and disorders so clearly. One tactic we had was to mock myself, out loud; it didn't come easy.
"Look around!" She'd say. "What could you POSSIBLY be scared of. Laugh at it!"
In time this suggestion changed my life. Another weird but altering example was..
"Scared of a bus driving off a bridge? GOOD THING YOU'RE AT HOME WATCHING FRIENDS GIRL".
Or if I was actually on the bus.. She would always say this one striking line..
"You should be so lucky." Gold.
Now mind you, this is all over a long period of time, it was not an instant cure. It takes time to develop the devotion to your health. I have great friends who would help me with these weird modules. They let me make a fool of myself and in turn I opened up about what was going on. We turned to comedy and stand-up a lot of the time.
Something to understand about this entire experience, only those who want to change will change. If you don't want help, or if you believe that you will grow out of it, that will be on you.
Sharon asked me if I journaled, for which I mentioned I seldom did. She suggested I start writing down every single attack.
"If you're on the bus and you start to sweat - write. If you're at work and you start to pump adrenaline - write. If you're at home and your heart starts to pace two times too fast - write. Just write. Make it a daily routine and see what comes of it."
I'm addicted to writing now. Similar to that of music, it's an escape. I re-read a lot of the entries now and I can feel the sadness and the darkness flying off the pages. I see how far I've come from those earlier passages though, I can see the lighter days in the following pages.
Only a handful of meetings with Sharon, did I then decide to take a handle on myself; without the help of therapy or drugs. I felt so weak and shameful that I couldn't control my own mind. With the daily practices and all techniques I was given, I worked very hard to get it right. Constant breathing, the 'mockery', daily journal entries, opening up to those around me and finding comfort in comedy and music.
I'm sure this all begs the question, what the hell does all of this have to do with travel? Well, I've traveled the world and I will continue to do so. It makes me happier than anything and anyone. Exploring the history and the make up of the Earth I share with 7 billion people. I love discovering it. But with a shadow like this following me everywhere, of course traveling to unknown places alone is going to be excruciatingly terrifying; this I know. Still, there are many days I lose control. The point I'm trying to make, and hopefully it comes across, is that travel is still essential to my life, and agoraphobia will not stop it. I am constantely fighting the 'danger' signal in my body that's telling me not to get on the plane, not to go to the local gig in a foreign city, not to get on the train, not to walk out my door, or leave my country etc.
Alas, I've jumped off of cliffs,
I've driven crazy roads, I've explored abandoned places with dark history, I've fallen in love. It would be a life short lived if I ever let my fears take my happiness away from it. What life is lived hiding behind safe doors. With each mount of progress, the fake danger I create for myself slowly slips away into the abyss. If you feel like the world is too big, too scary and might hurt you and you're too scared to cross any border lines, I ask that you do not succumb to your mind. Sure, I still look over my shoulder from time to time, but at least there's something to look at.