Those of you who read about the peripatetic life that I’ve carved out for myself may be surprised to hear this: I’m chronically agoraphobic, with a side of panic disorder.
I was first given a name for my episodes of feeling in the grip of a mental hurricane when I was 14 – it’s since embedded itself in my personality, influencing my proclivities and often curtailing my enjoyment of weddings/parties/holidays/anywhere with a gathering of people.
Etymologically, the word agoraphobia means fear of the market place – busy spaces, an excess of people, the lack of a clear escape path and rigid social situations (theatres, assemblies, meetings etc.) often trigger episodes of panic or heightened anxiety in sufferers. Agoraphobia and panic disorder therefore usually go hand in hand, two little devils co-conspiring to tip fun events into exhausting episodes of vigilance for fear that ‘it’ may happen.
You may, rightly I think, wonder why someone who in the grip of such a fear, decided to devote part of their working life to travel writing. My answer is this: I do not wish to yield to my fears. Writing about travel is as much about my love of writing and travel as it is about my promise to myself not to quite literally limit my horizons – my unfounded fears about ‘bad things that may happen’ if left unchecked and unchallenged only, in my experience, spiral out of control. Pushing myself to get on crowded planes with strangers and then spend days being ‘professional’ while miles from my safe home may be exceedingly difficult at times, but it is better than the alternative, where my world would start to fold in at the corners, gradually becoming smaller and smaller with the passing of years.
A little about my version of agoraphobia (do not be fooled by google definitions, all phobias are as vastly different as the personalities to whom they’ve attached themselves): I need to have water wherever I go – I feel without it those aforementioned ‘bad things’ may happen; I keep my panic at bay when incommunicado (tube/plane/battery-less – damn you, iPhone 5s) by engaging others in mad and usually bad conversation; I like to sit at the end of the row in a theatre or cinema lest I need to leave, and I endlessly scan anywhere I am for exits and loos. The things I do are called coping strategies by experts, I call them good sense. Loos, exits and water = vital, no? Yes. But not all the time. Every minute. Not in the way I rely on it.
What happens when panic descends upon me? You imagine hyperventilation, I’m sure. A paper bag over the mouth, perhaps, in order to stem breathing that has accelerated (this is what people who don’t suffer often think panic attacks look like – I blame American sitcoms.) No. Not in my case. I seem entirely normal and carry on twittering away while inwardly racing the periphery of my brain like a hamster in a cage: ‘how do I escape? Where do I go? How will I excuse myself?’ Ad infinitum.
You may also be curious about the process of how panic flares up. Once again, I’d like to steer the uninitiated away from the Hollywood version – I don’t get stressed when it’s appropriate. I am surprisingly cool under extreme pressure and when faced with personal tragedy. I’ve never had hot tears roll down my face at a funeral, I’ve worked to deadlines without so much as a single extra beat to my heart’s usual rhythm, I’ve walked away from men I’ve loved deeply without a moment of weakness or hesitation.
So, what then? Why the panic? For me (and I stress the personal element) it’s a delayed trigger. I internalise anything that seems a stretch, and the panic comes only when several stresses become too much. I don’t know why or how or when any more than an outsider – it just suddenly is. Any of this extra stress is then exacerbated by the situation – a cinema may not be the cause of my panic, but if I’m feeling a bit wobbly, being in one will often make things worse.
Your final question is, I’m sure, why am I writing this? First, because I’d like to offer myself up to anyone suffering similarly: you will get control, it will end, you will go to the ball (even if you have to scan exits as soon as you get there). More widely, obstacles are merely that. I am an agoraphobe who travels to review hotels. Surely that proves the sheer power of will can overcome anything?
This section is therefore as much for my musings on mental illness/wellness as it is to discuss panic in an open manner for anyone to whom it’s of interest and – hopefully – a place for fellow panickers to come and wave every now and then…