Earlier this year, I wrote a post about extroversion and agoraphobia, and the way they interact inside me. The following is a quote from that post:
These two forces war within me all the time. It becomes simple math/logic: If agoraphobia is winning a greater percentage of time, then 1) it’s likely to win even more, and 2) I’m going to be unhappy and my mental health will be increasingly disordered. If extroversion can start getting some wins, then 1) it snowballs until (eventually) I resemble a well-adjusted, normal human being, and 2) these times stand out as the happiest times of my life.
I’ve been doing really well over the last few months. After I joined my hiking group in December, I began going out more. At first it was just to places I was more familiar with. Then it grew to new-to-me places. Sometimes I even went to new-to-me places alone, which is a Really Big Win against my anxiety/agoraphobia. The more I did it, the easier it became. As I said in the above post, I pushed back the boundaries of my comfort zone until it was quite large and I was no longer confined to my home. Leaving the house became easy, and I no longer even had to think about it or psych myself up to it or have someone with me 75% of the time.
And now, our city has gone to shelter-at-home protocols. It’s the right decision and I 100% agree that it’s what we need to do. Unfortunately, it’s terrible for my mental health. All agoraphobia needs to begin winning again is several days inside my house with no external contact. To make this particular situation even worse, I’m not just sheltering at home, I’m basically confined to my bedroom because the rest of the house is being used by those who are working/schooling from home.
Yes – agoraphobia can become so strong that it’s difficult to leave my own damn bedroom. Agoraphobia can become so strong that when I need to leave the bedroom – to get food, or speak to someone else – I get extremely anxious and fearful of the rest of the house and return to the bedroom ASAP.
I began canceling events and appointments a week and a half ago. Twice, I managed to go out to do my C25K training runs, but those were the only times I left the house. I was so happy when my hiking group set up a bunch of 5-person evening hikes for this week – only to have them canceled when we received the shelter-at-home order on Monday.
Y’all – I’ve tried to stay as objective as possible about COVID-19. My family is taking it very seriously without doing all the panic-buying and other ridiculous things. But the day I heard we were going to get the shelter-at-home order, I began to have panic attacks. Because it doesn’t matter how good my mental health was prior to this social isolation. Agoraphobia only needs a few days to start winning, and months of being inside my home is going to crush me.
It’s so hard to describe what agoraphobia feels like. You know, logically, that there’s nothing different outside your own front door, but it feels So Scary, a distorted version of the world where your Safe Place is the only Normal, and everything else feels like stepping off a spaceship into the great wide eternity of the universe. Everything feels surreal and dreamlike outside your Safe Place, a funhouse version of the world. The only thing that can stop this distortion is to actually step outside. The further you venture, and the more often you venture, the further back the distortion begins. It doesn’t matter that you KNOW that this isn’t the case. It’s a mental health disorder, and just like depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or any other, you cannot control its manifestation.
Monday evening, while I was having trouble breathing as the panic attacks rolled in, Jason took me for a walk at a nearby park. It was slow and short, but it was enough to stop the panic. It was enough for me to look out at the expanse of newly-mown grass and see it without funhouse distortion. It was enough to calm my brain enough to say hey, I can still come to this park to run in the morning. It was enough to push back against the noose of my comfort zone and keep it from crushing in around me just yet.
This is not a fight that ultimately, I can win. Shelter-at-home = agoraphobia wins. My job is to fight it for as long as I can, and then to fight it again when the restrictions lift. I already miss the progress I’d made over the last few months, but this is a cycle that I’ve been through many times since I first developed agoraphobia in college. I just need to remember, when all this is over, that I can get back out into the world and start winning these battles again.