Agoraphobia in the time of COVID19

Today, the world outside was vibrant. Emerald green and daffodil yellow, a chaotic spray of pink cherry blossoms amongst crimson tulips. Spring has erupted in chartreuse moss and warm sunshine, and yet it feels like the sun is gone.

I struggled with this feeling all day. A long-absent weight eased onto me, and I couldn’t recognize what it was. I roamed from room to room feeling hunted by this thing, like I needed to physically break the psychological thread slowly binding me in place.

And then I realized what it was, and why it bothered me so much.

This metaphor is going to get weird, but just…follow me with this for a minute.

Pretend you live in a huge house. It’s a lovely, rambling old thing, with a huge backyard, a wraparound veranda, a beautiful garden, and a picket fence you paint every year. You love this house, and you’re familiar with it. You grew up here. You know every creak, every noisy floorboard, what it sounds like in the winter and the spring. And all your life, you’ve trusted this house and its grounds, tending its flowers, minding its upkeep, utterly safe in the knowledge that this place is yours.

But one morning, you open the curtains to discover the world beyond the fence has disappeared. In its place is pure nothingness. A black void has cut off your home from the rest of the world, and it leaches at the edges of what you still have.

At first glance, this world is so unknown, so repulsive you’re certain it has to be a dream. You pinch yourself. You check the clocks. Check every measure of time and light and rightness and sanity to try and disprove what you saw. But when you look again, the void is still there.

Rattled, you close the curtains. The garden is still there, but a dark seed has taken root and you can feel its roots unfurling. Spreading. You feel more than know that the outside world is not safe. Every so often, you peer out, hoping things will have gone back to normal.

The black void is still there.

You decide not to look, but on the next day, you can’t help yourself. You hope it was just a dream. You hold your breath as you sneak up on tiptoe and snatch back the curtain.

The void is still there. Nothingness surrounds your patch of sky, your bizarrely sunlight porch. It looks so normal, and simultaneously so wrong.

Time becomes slippery. The clocks are no longer an accurate measure. Cut off from the world, you begin to think in recursive loops. The same way you pace the house, over and over, repeating the same actions in the hope of retaining some sense of normalcy.

But every day, the void swallows more of your world. Each glance outside reveals some new loss. It spills over the fence and into the yard, creeping inch by inch. It takes the garden, and then the walk. Now, the void laps at the bottom of the stoop. An ocean of black encroaches upon you, and you know it’s just a matter of time.

Day by day, it invades. Endless black spills in from under the door, dismantling all sense of safety. Now, you are a hunted animal, struggling to leap from one remaining room to the next. You know you are cornered, but there is no escape.

Not until it pins you in a single room.

Out there, it is not safe. Everything you trusted and found comfort in has disappeared, taken by this nameless thing. It’s so vast and endless that you don’t have any idea how to fight it.

Where you once lived safely, you now live governed by fear.

Nothing else.

It’s just a story, just a metaphor, one I used to describe to therapists and family members what happened when I got trapped in my house.

Agoraphobia has bitten me several times to varying degrees. The first time it struck, I didn’t know what it was. I only knew that nothing was safe anymore, and the only place that did feel safe was home. But even that sense of safety began to crumble as the fear continued to grow.

First, I couldn’t leave the house.

But then I couldn’t be around my family. I locked myself in my room and waited until everyone was asleep to come out. At times, the room would close in on me, too, and I would crawl under my bed, trying to hide from a thing I couldn’t understand.

I did not know what agoraphobia was, or panic disorder, or depression. What I felt was so convincing that it truly felt as though I would die if I took one step past that last threshold of safety.

But it happened again and again. The first time, at 13, again at 15, again at 17. It chased me out of my first attempt at college. And I mostly kept it at bay, but it would come back to varying degrees over time.

It returned in my late twenties, and after a protracted battle, I managed to overcome it.

Now, with COVID19 sweeping the globe, it is a terrifying specter again, lurking at the edge of the yard.

What I am trying to remember is that collectively, we are all experiencing this. Our access to the outside world has become progressively limited as the virus spreads. Unlike the irrational fear of agoraphobia, this threat is real.

In some ways, it is comforting to see others reach out and try to help each other cope. Because most of us aren’t. We’ve lost our jobs. We’ve lost our gathering places. We’ve lost physical human contact. Even when we do go out, there is an element of danger that causes me pain to watch others struggle with. Things that I once did out of irrational fears are now necessary precautions. Gloves. The endless washing. Wiping down groceries with disinfecting wipes. Avoiding others with a very real fear of terrible consequences.

At the same time, though I know it is rational and necessary, repeating the pantomimes of agoraphobia is deeply terrifying. Watching this thing consume the world the same way it has consumed me in the past is something out of my worst nightmares.

I could not identify why I was struggling so badly with quarantine.

But now I do, and now that I know which enemy I can fight, I want to help others who might be struggling with isolation the same way I have over the years.

Here’s what helped me.

Isolation is the worst part. Try to stay in contact with others. Voice messages are a great alternative to phone calls. Group chats are also helpful, especially if you struggle to make conversation.

Limit your exposure to bad news. We’re all drowning in updates. Use browser extensions to blacklist subjects. Mute or unfollow where you have to. Tell people you’re overwhelmed by it and can’t talk about it. It’s okay to set those boundaries. You’ve got to be able to take care of yourself.

Stick to a schedule. Make a to do list for the day. Cross off each task you manage. Mine is brimming with small tasks, because I need the sense that I’m getting things done. There are lots of apps for this. You can also reach out for accountability to friends. Like, “I need to accomplish at least five tasks. Will you talk to me while I clean the kitchen?” Challenging each other with tasks can turn it into a game. Making sure you stick to static wake times, meal times, and bedtimes is HARD, but it helps. The goal is just to try to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Which leads to…

Take care of yourself. This is why I have to make a daily to do list. I have to remind myself to shower, brush my teeth, take meds, drink enough fluids, manage pain, make sure I eat.  Baseline self-care is one of the first things to go for me with the onset of agoraphobia, so it’s one thing I try to remain vigilant of.

Set aside “comfort time.” This can be sitting with your cat, reading a book, playing a video game, cuddling with a loved one, or watching a movie. In my case, it’s usually wrapping myself into a blanket burrito in a dark room with some rain noises. The goal is to really, truly, physically relax. Reduce stimuli–dim the lights, turn down the volume–and do things that make you feel better. Light a candle. Soak in the bath. Eat some chicken nuggets while soaking in the bath. Whatever, as long as it’s something that actually feels good.

-Distractions are going to take up the bulk of your time. Some of them will be practical, useful distractions, and some of them won’t. Try to switch them up throughout the week. You don’t want to get burned out on one activity.

-Set aside “stress time.” All that pent up worry and frustration has to go somewhere. Write it down. Let yourself get it all out. Rant to yourself in the car. Scream into a pillow. Sing along to something loud. Go for a run. Sweep your kitchen. (Cleaning is generally my go-to.) Go for a run. Or do jumping jacks in your backyard at 3 AM. It’s gonna look weird, but if it works, it works.

ASK FOR HELP. When you get to a point of being too worried, too scared, too overwhelmed, reach out. Crisis text lines are a thing, and they are WONDERFUL. Text 741741 to talk to a crisis counselor. They’ll talk you through what you’re experiencing and help connect you to the resources you need. Mental health is critical for all of us right now. It is absolutely valid to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and afraid. You don’t have to do it alone. More resources specific to COVID19 here.

While you’ll often feel alone and scared, please remember you aren’t alone. So many of us are in this together right now, and I see so many people leaning on each other, helping each other, doing their best to make sure that we all get through this.

I’m telling you this as much as I’m telling myself this: there is a collective good here worth saving. It isn’t all doomed. But the only way out is through.

Please take care of yourselves out there. I hope we all make it to the other side of this thing alive and with more empathy and compassion for others. More ingenuity for fixing the problems that have long affected our communities and our world at large. Yes, so many things are falling apart, and that’s terrifying. But we can get through this. And no matter what it looks like on the other side, we will rebuild. We always do.

Much love to you, reader. Thank you for making it this far.