Becka Livett was diagnosed with agoraphobia as a child, after suffering debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.
'For over twenty-five years I have lived with anxiety, panic attacks and most invasive of all: agoraphobia,' she tells Red.
Agoraphobia is defined by the NHS as 'a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn't be available if things go wrong'.
For Becka these feelings began 'around the age of six or seven'. Since then, she says, 'I have been absolutely terrified of travel, of going to new places or anywhere I (or rather my head) deems "unsafe". This has been anything from the cinema to restaurants, from a friend's house to my parents' car. Holidaying was a nightmare...There were countless times when I would beg my parents in tears to leave me by the side of the road rather than have me continue the journey.'
'I’ve been in and out of therapy ever since and it has been invaluable! Having a name for this condition was the biggest relief I had. I wasn’t going crazy. I didn’t have a brain tumour and I wasn’t making it up. But the hardest part about being agoraphobic, or indeed of any mental illness, is knowing that will never completely go away.
'As a child who wanted to go to the bowling alley or the beach, or a teenager who wanted to go on holiday with friends or to see her boyfriend play rugby matches, it was incredibly difficult. I was lonely and scared and frustrated. Inevitably I also became very depressed.
'I tried medications, alternative medicines, a variety of psychological techniques. Rarely did anything help, however things did become manageable to some extent. Since that diagnosis twenty years ago, I have experienced two full relapses. One took me about a year to get over, the second and worst has taken about six years and tested both myself and my marriage to the core.
'There were times I didn’t leave the house for weeks,' Becka says, the impact of which we can all empathise with after seven weeks of lockdown. 'I lost my job. We even had to cancel our wedding at one point, as I was so terrified of having a panic attack at the alter in front of my in-laws!
'Luckily my husband happens to have the patience of a hundred saints – and a heart the size of a house – and has never uttered so much as a word of complaint, though I think he’d be lying if he said he’d found it easy.
'Eventually things did get better, but it’s taken years to get to the stage where I can travel for more than an hour by train or go to the cinema. I still struggle with cars or places I don’t know, and I’ve not been abroad for ten years now.'
As the government sets out its roadmap for slowly easing lockdown, Becka wanted to share her agoraphobia learnings and coping strategies with Red to help those feeling nervous or overwhelmed about life after lockdown.
SLOWLY EXPOSING YOURSELF TO FEAR CAN HELP
The second psychologist I visited advised that if I wanted to get the panic attacks under control, the best way would be to tackle them head on. That meant experiencing as much of what scared me as possible. Avoidance would only prolong the inevitable, they said.
So I tried a combination of CBT and exposure therapy, and this went a long way to repairing the damage that a decade of avoidance had done. At this point I wasn’t even able to sit in the car without hyperventilating but, by taking things a step at a time and exposing myself to the fear, things did slowly get a little better.
TAKE YOUR TIME
The best piece of advice I got came in my late twenties after my second relapse, which was: 'Take your time!' I was so desperate to 'cure' myself as quickly as possible and – whilst the initial exposure therapy did clear the path for a short while – I did inevitably revert back as I hadn’t taken the time to really allow myself to heal.
It’s a bit like taking half a course of your antibiotics and expecting to never catch your bug again. The mind, like the body, needs to heal steadily rather than quickly.
DON'T TAKE LIFE FOR GRANTED
Being creative when I felt so restricted also gave me a big feeling of release, which I never took for granted. In the days before Instagram, if I was able to go anywhere I would take as many photographs as I could then scrapbook them.
Although the journeys I managed would inevitably trigger my anxiety, once I’d spent about half an hour at the destination and “acclimatised”, I would soak up EVERYTHING like a sponge. I didn’t want to miss anything, and I would store it up ready to take home with me, so I could relive those moments again in times when I wasn’t able to manage going out.
Whenever I am outside in a place that either I never thought I’d get to, or enjoying experiences I didn’t think I would have, I pause and take it in. I did this! I got to the theatre to see this show! I made it to the shop to buy this cake! I’m having dinner with my friends!
I never got tired of appreciating what, for so many years, I wasn’t able to do. Most people took for granted the time before lockdown that they could go out and be wherever they wanted. Now that this is limited, I use that practice of gratitude that past circumstances taught me to appreciate the little things that are around us.
TRY TO LIMIT STRESS
So many people will tell you to 'calm down' when you’re anxious, but I found that very few people took the time to explain how you actually do this!
Your body has a mind of its own when you have a panic attack, so just 'calming down' is really not that simple. I have found that limiting the amount of general stress I expose myself to means that I also limit the number of panic attacks that crop up (which is not easy in this day and age!)
FIND YOUR CALM
I was well into my twenties before I realised the hobbies I loved also kept me calm and made me feel comfortable. Activities like reading, gardening and walking are wonderful – spending time near water always makes me feel completely happy, too! I’m such a water baby and swimming is a wonderful escape when I’m stressed out.
I started yoga when I was about sixteen or seventeen. I had already been advised by therapists and doctors to 'try and control your breathing', but if I’m honest that meant nothing to me! They didn’t explain the science behind this, which would have been a huge help.
When a friend of the family began offering yoga classes, mum and I went along to try it and I fell head over heels (literally and figuratively). Since then I’ve gone on to learn various types of yoga and meditation. This has been invaluable in teaching me how to centre myself and how to breathe properly, which is a huge help when I’m overwhelmed or scared.
TALK ABOUT YOUR FEARS
Despite all these things, I have found that the biggest difference in helping me cope with my anxiety and my panic is opening up to people about it.
I experienced so much negativity when talking about mental health illness growing up, unfortunately the worst reactions usually came from people who I was supposed to rely on or who I was closest too. They just didn’t comprehend it and could be very angry and impatient about it, and I found their reactions very painful to process.
This only made the anxiety worse as I felt like I 'couldn’t have a panic attack’ because of the way other people would react. The anxiety was feeding itself! However, after meeting my husband and experiencing his reaction to this, I realised not everyone is going to respond negatively.
Each time I told a few friends or colleagues, it came as an enormous relief to know that some people really do understand what you’re going through! Sometimes empathy comes from the most unexpected places. Some of the strongest women and men I know have been living with mental health difficulties far worse than mine, but you would never realise it!
Although it’s never nice knowing that people are suffering, it’s a lovely to share in that collective support we now give one another! The majority of people I’ve opened up to, or have seen me have a panic attack, have been like non-judgmental superglue: they won’t go anywhere, and I’m so thankful for that.
It’s a release to know that I’m just as weird and wonderful as everyone else after spending so many years thinking I was dealing with this alone.
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