Most people think of agoraphobia as a fear of open or public spaces, which by extension I suppose it is. The NHS website defines agoraphobia as a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult, or help wouldn’t be available if things went wrong. What that looks like varies from person to person, but for me it means every second of life outside my home is a constant risk assessment. What if the tram crashes? What if the man sat next to me attacks me with a knife? What if my coat gets caught in the doors? What if I get off at the wrong stop? What if the supermarket collapses while we’re inside? What if we miss the start of the film and we have to get to our seats in the dark and I fall over and crack my head on the steps and die? What if the waiter seats us at a table in the middle of the restaurant and I can’t see what’s around me and I start to panic and have to explain to total strangers that I need to sit at the edge of the room so I can keep an eye out for danger? (‘What If?’ will totally be the title of my autobiography, btw.)
It’s easy enough, within reason, to exist around those kinds of fears because they’re the same all the time; I know I’ll feel upset if we arrive late at the cinema so we make sure we don’t. Easy. But the same can’t be said for situations where the outcome is uncertain, like going somewhere I’ve never been before, answering the phone, or meeting someone new. Or, as in the case of doing a regular job, being somewhere I know I can’t ‘escape’. That’s where the avoidance behaviours come in (I wrote avoidance ‘beavers’ at first – my brain can’t take anything seriously).
Avoidance is self-explanatory; I avoid situations that scare me. I don’t often go to busy places alone, I tend to only answer the phone to my husband or my parents, and social events make me want to hide under my duvet with tea and cookies. Obviously there are times when I have to force myself out into the real world, for practical reasons mostly, or if I am one cancelled plan away from losing a dear friend forever, but it takes a heavy toll. A short trip out to the doctor down the road which takes only 45 minutes leaves me exhausted and spent, and I need the rest of the day and night to recover.
But how does agoraphobia fit with parenthood?
Put simply, it doesn’t.
Unsurprisingly, the addition of something more precious and valuable to me than anything in the world hasn’t made me any less terrified. Logistically it’s harder to ‘escape’ a given situation when I have a 20-odd pound toddler on my back or in a pram, or munching rice cakes on the floor of a café, and my fears are 20-odd pounds heavier for encompassing him too. The result is that I’m a bundle of nerves most of the time, always ready to fight or fly should anything threaten me or my son. It’s exhausting.
And I’m not able to be a social parent. I don’t go to baby or toddler groups often and when I do I pay for it later by feeling worn out and drained and unprepared for another hard day as a stay at home mum. It breaks my heart, but naturally this means T doesn’t spend time with other children very often. So far I haven’t seen any negative consequences of that – he is gentle and sociable and friendly with his peers, but that may be down to his personality and nothing to do with my efforts to socialise him on my own (if such a thing is possible).
I find myself feeling lonely at times because I don’t get regular input and companionship from other parents – the validation and support and the hugs and shoulders and the cups of tea gone cold while we talk and the kids run wild. It’s not that I’m naturally antisocial. I’m an introvert, but I enjoy people, knowing them and observing them and connecting with them. The problem is that with agoraphobia I fear being ‘found out’ and rejected, because let’s face it, who wants to be friends with someone who can’t answer the phone or reliably leave the house? There’s also a fear of panicking and having to lean on people who don’t understand what it is I’m frightened of, or how to help me. So it’s easier just to stay home.
Right now my agoraphobia feels particularly acute. I have phases like this, and each time it’s hard to take because I naively start to believe I’ve fixed that part of myself when in reality I’ve merely been avoiding risk and creating an artificial life with nothing to be afraid of. The crash back to reality is a harsh one. I’m struggling to read e-mails and texts, and going out without support from my husband makes me feel tense.
I’m not depressed at all, and Little T is a great remedy for overthinking my problems. I look at him every day and I see how happy he is and how much he gets from his surroundings, whether that’s at home with a washing up bowl of water and the contents of the kitchen cupboards, or outside getting muddy with other children. He doesn’t judge me for having agoraphobia, he doesn’t think I’m weak or a bad mother. I make a promise to him each day to help him grow and learn in all the ways I’m able. Some days that might mean leaving the house and getting up to amazing adventures, but most days not. We make up for what we don’t do in the week by spending time together away from home at the weekends, as a family, and that way he gets the best of both of his parents, rather than the scared and exhausted version of his mummy I try so hard to protect him from.
My son is happy and healthy and his life is full of fun and discovery. I give him my everything so he isn’t too badly affected by my illness, but I can’t save him from it completely. I live with that as best I can and hope that one day he can look back on his childhood and the wonderful times spent at home and out and know that I always, always tried.