Being Home Because of Coronavirus Can Make Agoraphobia Worse
In our series What It’s Like, we talk with people from a wide range of backgrounds to learn how their lives have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For our latest installment, we spoke with Megan Lane, a freelance writer in Wading River, New York. In addition to depression, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia nervosa, and ADHD, the 30-year-old has been diagnosed with agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is often simply defined as a fear of leaving home. In reality, it’s an anxiety disorder that involves debilitating fear and avoidance of environments that might make you feel panicked and trapped, among other awful emotions, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can manifest as a fear of leaving home by yourself and avoiding being in crowded, enclosed, or open spaces, but it varies based on the person.
Lane was diagnosed with agoraphobia five years ago after she spent a year without leaving her home. Back then, just the anticipation of walking down her driveway triggered extreme anxiety. During that year, she spent so much on food delivery that her bank account was regularly overdrawn by the time Social Security disability funds landed in her account. She didn’t go to any medical or dental appointments. Her family would visit once or twice a week for an hour or two, sometimes bringing food, clothing, and other essentials. Lane also lost interest in things that once made her happy, like attending yoga classes and gardening.
Since her agoraphobia diagnosis, however, Lane has made slow but steady progress thanks to cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which have helped her face her fears and get to the roots of her anxieties.
Then the pandemic hit. The primary habit Lane had been working so hard to break—cloistering herself away at home—was her only choice to stay as safe as possible. Now, with states lifting lockdown orders, Lane discusses her fears about what this “new normal” will mean for her mental health—and her future. Her answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
SELF: How much had you progressed in your agoraphobia treatment before the pandemic?
M.L.: Before the new coronavirus swept in like a tornado, I made quite a few breakthroughs in therapy. I was leaving my house to attend yoga classes once or twice every week. Yoga has taught me coping skills to use when I’m anxious. When I’m outside, I’m anxious, and when I’m anxious, I practice the same breathwork I use during yoga. It helps slow down my heart rate. Yoga also makes me feel more confident and comfortable in my skin, and the mindfulness involved helps my agoraphobia somewhat, as it reminds me that everything in life is impermanent, including my emotions.
I stopped canceling wellness visits at my doctor’s office. Do you know how many times I’d told the receptionist that my car ran out of gas? I’ve lost count. But I was getting better and meeting some of my treatment goals.
I also visited my mom and sister frequently. They live close by, which is nice and convenient. I went grocery shopping, clothes shopping at the mall, and, every other week, I’d treat myself to a one-hour massage at a spa near my home. Nothing too exciting, but I was out and about more often.
I embraced the outdoors and the anxiety. The anticipatory anxiety never fully went away—nor did the unpleasant symptoms I feel when I go out, like the pit in my stomach, headaches, hot and cold flashes, and rapid heartbeat. But my panic attacks drastically reduced in number. I was down to only two a month, which was wonderful compared to daily attacks before.
What did you feel when lockdown measures were put in place? Relief? Fear of regression?
Honestly, both. I thought being home would serve as a reward for the progress I’d made in therapy. Two weeks into quarantine, the familiar sense of comfort started to creep in. I remembered why I stayed at home for an entire year. It’s sad, but I wanted to remain in quarantine forever. I didn’t want things to change, but of course, life will resume. When I started to really understand that, the fear of regression began to haunt me. I have already regressed more than I care to admit.
Have you noticed an uptick in your agoraphobia symptoms, especially with lockdown measures being lifted?
I can tell that my symptoms are coming back. For example, my mother dropped off some plants for me last week. She knows I enjoy gardening because it makes me feel like I’m one with nature. I grew up with my mom loving flowers and my grandma loving vegetable gardening. I plant all sorts of flowers, but my favorite is fruits and vegetables.
Last year, I turned my backyard into a wildflower meadow, rather than a traditional grass lawn. I grew also strawberries, lettuce, kale, carrots, broccoli, and even loofahs. Loofahs look like cucumbers, but you can peel them and use them in the shower once they are dry. Gardening provides me with a feeling of accomplishment when I see my hard work pay off with homegrown food to eat and flowers to place in vases around my home.
But the plants my mom delivered are still sitting in their original containers on my front porch, about four feet from my door. They haven’t moved from that spot because I can’t stand to step foot outside my house.
What are you doing to manage your symptoms?
I’ve been engaging in weekly teletherapy. My therapist encourages me to leave my house twice a week. She told me to drive to the beach and look at the water from my car and listen to the waves. Getting out a couple times a week will hopefully prepare me for life after reopening, but to be honest, teletherapy hasn’t been overly helpful. It’s not the same as being in person. It’s more of a venting session than anything else.
What has your daily life been like since you’ve been quarantined?
Aside from spending 30 minutes at the beach twice a week, I haven’t left my house since March. Quarantining for this long has changed everything.
I wake up in the morning and spend three to four hours in bed writing personal essays as well as articles about mental health and cannabis. I practice yoga in my living room. It eases my anxieties about the near future.
I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. Recently, I rewatched the first nine seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” my favorite show. Then I watched the new season. I’m usually into horror movies or psychological thrillers, however, comedy promotes happiness. I haven’t laughed so much in a while. Now I’m watching a dramedy on Netflix called “Dead to Me.”
Then, by 8 P.M., I’m ready to end the day and go to sleep. The next day, it’s the same routine.
What’s your biggest fear of returning to “life as normal”?
I hope the regression that has already happened goes away. I don’t want to start back at square one, walking up and down my driveway for therapeutic reasons. Leaving my house might always make me anxious. That feeling may be present for the rest of my life. But I refuse to spend the rest of my days at home.
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