IT HAPPENED TO ME: I've Lost Two Years of My Life to Agoraphobia

I dropped out of college and spent every night of the last two years at home with my family.
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Becky Storey
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I dropped out of college and spent every night of the last two years at home with my family.

Throughout the course of 2014, my 17th year of life, I developed anxiety problems that started with some low-level nervousness and occasionally avoiding social events. Over that summer, I became a messy bundle of panic attacks and beta blockers. By the end of the year, I was missing several days of school each week. I was having meltdowns most nights, desperate to not have to go in the next day; I didn't want to leave the house, let alone travel miles away alone on a train, just to muddle through a series of classes I was too nervous to pay attention to anyway.

On Christmas Day that year, I suffered a complete breakdown. 

In that moment, I had reached my emotional limit. I couldn't imagine having to return to school in January. After weeks of back-and-forth, my family finally agreed that sending me back wouldn't be healthy. Realistically, that was the only solution that meant I would survive to see 18. 

At its very worst, I had planned exactly what to write in a suicide note to my friends and family; thankfully, I'm so utterly terrified of pain and feeling unwell that in some tragically ironic way, it seemed to prevent me from ever taking drastic action.

I dropped out six months before I would have graduated, and I started full-time cognitive behavioral therapy. We're still at it 18 months later. 

Suddenly, I had nothing to do on Monday mornings.

Suddenly, I had nothing to do on Monday mornings.

I was originally diagnosed with panic disorder, which quickly blossomed into full-blown, soul-crushing, life-ruining agoraphobia. Despite it being an awful existence, the "agoraphobic" label brings me so much comfort because now I know there is a name for what I am. While I've never been ashamed to speak out about my disorder, I know that's mostly because no one really seems to know what it is and what it really means for my lifestyle.

Agoraphobia is a sequel to panic disorder; you become so afraid of feeling afraid that you avoid any situation that could make you feel such a way (confusing, I know). For me, agoraphobia means avoiding a whole list of things that should be normal for a young adult: crowds, new places, faraway places, places where escape doesn't feel easy, and anywhere my mother isn't. 

The truth is, it's embarrassing as hell. I am a young adult who should be relishing in my first few years of true freedom; instead, I've spent every night of the last two years at home with my family.

Despite every pushback and earth-shattering panic attack, despite losing two years of my life and everything that I should have been able to enjoy in that time, given the chance, I wouldn't erase any of it. This God-awful curse is the best thing to ever happen to me.

Despite having had to take up a permanent residence in hermitville, I'm technically much happier now than I've ever been. It's hard to explain how being terrified 24/7 can make me happier than I was before all of this descended upon me. It's simply that this illness has changed everything. It's stripped away everything I had and forced me to start from the bottom. Two years ago, I was a lost teenager with no real idea of what I wanted. My motivation and core values were low; I was floating day to day, as most teenagers do. I am grateful that it was put to a very sudden stop; I was forced to grow up fast.

I've become so appreciative of the world around me since developing this anxiety, and I think that's because I've learned to stop taking everything for granted. The truth is, I don't want to end my life — I just want to be OK. Apparently, being OK isn't as easy as I would hope, so instead I look for happiness and a sense that everything is OK in the outside world instead. 

I've become rather immersed in nature, whether it's wandering peacefully through the suburbs or watching ducks on a lake with my family. It is the most calming thought I can have, to notice that the world keeps moving regardless of how I feel. I'm so thankful that I've learned to be more grateful for the world I live in. I know that no matter what, this level of appreciation will stay with me forever.

Turns out outside isn't so bad after all.

Turns out outside isn't so bad after all.

My mental state has also had a profound impact on my family; while we were never a distant group, we're so much closer now. I would happily consider them my friends first and family second. I openly share anything with them, and I know they'll support me no matter what. My brother asks if I'm OK several times a day, and, honestly, it drives me mad, but he means well. And though it's not exactly a choice to stay home with my family, if I ever did get to choose, I know there's no place I'd rather be.

The same goes for the people in my life by choice. Life is short and rough, and I don't have the energy for people who aren't around for good. Every human, mental illness or not, deserves to be surrounded only by those who will love and support them and should never feel guilty for cutting those toxic people out. For me, it was simply a case of doing whatever it takes to keep my heart and mind mellow. The people in my life now are those who have stuck with me since the beginning, even if that means not seeing me for months (or years). I couldn't be more grateful.

I used to be a fairly angry person. I'd jump down the throat of anyone who said something I disagreed with. I haven't lost my strength entirely; I'm still opinionated as hell, and I'll be ready to stand up for what I believe in whenever I'm faced with the need. But I'd consider myself a much calmer person these days. I know that staying level is what's best for me, and I really am OK with that. It's a much happier existence when you stop flying off the handle over every little thing.

After all this stress, upheaval, anxiety, and sadness, I'm finally sure of what I want to do with my life. I am surer now of who I fundamentally am as human being than I ever would have been, and I owe it all to being blindsided by my fragile mental health. I know what I want from life and what I want from the people around me, and I won't give that up for anything. I have my feet planted firmly on the ground, and right now, I am in love with the way my life has turned out, even with the pain of anxiety following me around.

Optimism and appreciation are all I need, and usually they're all I have. When the happiness that would come naturally to a person living a free and simple life is taken away from you, you're left with two choices. You can allow it to break your spirit, lock yourself away in the dark, and question endlessly why this has happened to you, or you can take what you've been given and make the very most of an unsatisfactory situation. 

In no way can I pretend that I don't have days where all I want is to lock myself away, but no matter how awful it gets, I'm somehow always grateful that this happened to me. While I don't believe that this happened for a reason or to teach me a lesson from a higher power, I do believe that every cloud has a silver lining. I know that when my mental illness starts to loosen its grip, my future will be a lot brighter than it would have been had I never had this experience.

If it's on a shirt, it must be true, right?

If it's on a shirt, it must be true, right?

I truly am content with the cards I've been dealt. The way my life is now is exactly the way I want it to be. That said, I think I'm done growing for now, and I'm ready to lose the crippling anxiety when it's ready to go.