She Who RemainsMarch 18, 2010
As I am on the threshold of returning to my practice as a Soul-Centered Consultant for Panic-Anxiety Disorders & Agoraphobia, I have been reflecting on my own journey and the tools and strategies I used to attain a viable recovery in those early years, twenty years ago now.
I scoured the telephone book for support groups, only to ring the numbers and end up chatting to people who were addicted to anti-depressants and tranquilizers and resigned to leading a half-life. Then a highly regarded medical university advertised a free treatment program for agoraphobics as part of a clinical study they were running. I rang, and the catch was that I had to travel into the city to attend the program, which illustrated that even so-called experts had their heads up their arse when it came to understanding agoraphobia. By that stage, I had difficulty just walking to collect the mail from my letterbox.
Then there was the 28-day Home Treatment Program – a correspondence treatment/trial study offered by a medical university in Queensland, which was helpful in describing the physiological anatomy of a panic attack.
On the 29th day, trusting in the effectiveness of this program and the BOLD CAPITALISED promise it made that I would be free from my fear upon completing it, I got in the car for a celebratory trip to my favourite quilt shop; and suffered through rollings panic attacks that were off the Rectum Scale in intensity. I limped back home with my tail firmly between my legs and it was a very long time before I ventured out again.
I wrote a savage letter to the Queensland university and their ‘snake-oil’ claim of recovery, and I learnt an important lesson about discernment. These were the years before home computers and the local library wasn’t exactly flush with books about agoraphobia, so I relied on retail bookstores to send me their catalogues, which I would glean for titles that would be even remotely helpful.
The last time I managed to physically get to a bookstore, I purchased “In Stillness Conquer Fear” by Pauline McKinnon. A Melbourne woman who had endured 8 years of agoraphobia and achieved a full recovery by practising The Meares Form of Meditation. She was fortunate to be a patient of an exquisite healer and psychiatrist, Dr Ainslea Meares, who basically handed the baton to her. Pauline continues his work in teaching and promoting Stillness Meditation to this day.
A short time after reading her book, I saw an advertisement in the weekend papers: it was Pauline, advertising her Stillness Meditation classes and I was in there like Flynn. I had no doubt that what worked for her and many other patients of Dr Meares, would also be my salvation.
The fact that the classes were held on the other side of town, necessitating a 45-minute car journey filled me with fear, yet I had booked in for the evening sessions, and figured that with less traffic on the roads, the journey wouldn’t be so awful. I asked my husband to drive and, frankly, he was a total arsehole about being ‘put out’, yet in the same breath would say that he wanted me to get better.
It wasn’t easy sitting in the passenger-seat and riding the roller-coaster of rolling panic-attacks getting to Pauline’s rooms. At each red traffic light, I died a 1000 deaths and, anxiety tends to hit you in the guts, so I was also dealing with the fear of humiliating myself with a bout of fecal incontinency. This is a very common fear among people with panic disorders, yet it is rarely spoken about.
Upon arriving at Pauline’s rooms, I would then have to psyche myself up to get out of the car and enter a small room with 20 other people, and then once having made it inside, have to ride my panic while waiting for the last stragglers to arrive and for the session to begin.
Fuck it was hard!
Yet within two weeks of meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, I was astonished when one day, I felt the tension I didn’t know I was holding in my shoulders, dissolve – like ice thawing. In energy medicine, agoraphobia is described as frozen fear. It was the most extraordinary sensation.
I made it to five sessions of the initial eight I had signed up for. Two times I just couldn’t leave the house, the third time I couldn’t get out of the car. Pauline was understanding and all she would say was “Be brave”, as we briefly spoke of my progress after each meditation session. She wasn’t a psychotherapist back then, I think she had just started her formal studies.
I was also taking a combination blend of Australian Bush Flower Essences, Confid, which I had purchased via mail-order and which were also working their magic. Starting my studies in flower essences and qualifying as a Flower Essence Therapist were still in my future when I was taking Confid, so I knew very little about flower essences at the time.
One day, I was standing in line waiting to be served in a local shop, and I was hypervigilant, waiting for the first signs of a panic attack to creep up on me as the seconds sludged by. Nothing happened and it was like some part of me was saying “Talk to the hand!” – I stopped expecting to have panic attacks and strengthened my expectation in doing things effortlessly, and so it was.
The road to recovery from an experience of severe agoraphobia is signposted with setbacks and I learned to manage my setbacks; to get back on the horse after I had been thrown. I signed up for another 8 sessions of Stillness Meditation with Pauline and this time I attended the day sessions and drove myself.
In total, it was a journey of 33 months from experiencing the panic-attack that knocked me on my arse to reclaiming my freedom from fear.
During that time, I never stopped feeling guilty for not being able to work and contribute financially to my new marriage. Never stopped perscuting myself for being weak, useless and letting everybody down because I couldn’t attend family functions and meet their expectations.
If I had that time over again, I would have sat everybody down and clearly stated what I needed from them in terms of compassion, patience and support. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but at least I would have given everybody the opportunity to be the best version of themselves. Some people need to be prompted in that respect, while others do so naturally. How the people in my life at that time behaved is their responsibility, not mine.
Like most people with panic-disorder, I became adept at masking my discomfort and would appear to be calm and collected on the outside, when inside I was just managing to keep it together, which only compounded the anxiety I was feeling; the need to appear ‘normal’. Whatever the fuck that means!
When I first started up a Recovery Support Group for Agoraphobics, I would tell the people to came to the meetings to not worry about hiding their anxiety, to leave the room if they needed to and to remember to keep breathing.
You see, when you start to feel anxious, you hold your breath and start breathing shallowly, and hyperventilation is what pushes a general feeling of anxiety into a panic attack. Then you start with the catastrophic thinking and the what if-ing, and within a nano-second, the flight-or-fight response has kicked in and you’re in panic Hell.
Learning to be mindful of your breathing and not engaging in catastrophic thinking is half the battle. Dealing with the feelings of shame, low self-worth and those other trolls, is the other half. Being surrounded by unsupportive people just makes the whole recovery process that much harder. Then you have to ask yourself, why people aren’t supporting your recovery – what’s the payoff for them?
Living within the clutches of a panic disorder is like having a gun held to your head every waking moment of every day. You become a hostage to this invisible force that turns your home into a prison, and which snaps at your heels each and every time you venture away from it. Much is bandied about regarding the power of positive thinking, yet the power negative thinking has, is formidable and positive thinking is fucking useless to combat it: if you haven’t broken the back of the very real physical hold that fear has over you first.
That was my experience and that of people I have counseled. I had to break the panic-cycle through meditation first, which physically relaxed me and lowered my stress-levels, before I could release the catastrophic thinking and start tackling the source of my negative thinking.
Homeopathy 101: the symptoms that appear last are the first to dissipate. Panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia are simply the physical manifestations of a deeper psychospiritual imbalance; the soul’s shout for attention.
When I was consulting a dozen or so years ago, I would be seeing clients who had done the rounds of conventional mainstream psychology/psychotherapy, who had tried the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals and attained no real recovery. So they would sit opposite me with no real expectations, and as they had tried everything else, figured that seeing me wouldn’t hurt. All of them did say that they decided to call my number because I had recovered from Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia; had been there, done that and got the T-shirt!
Every client I saw in those days enjoyed a significant improvement in their condition, most were able to return to their employment and to participate in social obligations that they had been avoiding, several ended toxic relationships they had been in, while others strengthened their personal boundaries. All of them achieved a result commensurate with the effort they made.
You see, there is no magic pill, no miracle cure, or esoteric secret involved with recovering from panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. It is sheer bloody hard work with a lot of persistence, perseverance and patience tossed in.
To get from being completely housebound to effortlessly travelling wherever you like, is a slow process of pushing the habit-of-avoidance envelope open, inch-by-inch everyday. Walking half-way down the street, walking to the end of the street, walking to the next corner, walking around the block, walking to the corner of the next block – ticking off the seemingly mundane goals and building confidence to go that little bit further the next day.
I came to understand that my external recovery progressed in lockstep with my inner journey, and if I experienced a setback in widening my comfort zone, that it was time to turn inwards and root out a core belief or a perception that had risen to the surface. Sometimes I just had to acknowledge it, and mark it for further reflection, and I would be off-and-running again.
I wasn’t as dedicated a journal-keepeer then as I am these days, yet what I did write during those years is damn painful to read now, because it shows that I didn’t have anybody in my life then, that acted as a mirror to help me see my positive qualities. I should have been in therapy, yet my husband bitched about the cost – $80 an hour back then. We could afford it yet it is telling that my husband cared more about money than he did about facilitating a speedier recovery for me.
When I felt able to drive again, I would take off in my car and just see how far I could go before hitting the invisible perimeter of fear that would compel me to turn back. Slowly and surely I would travel further and further afield and maintained the attitude of my trips being ‘an awfully big adventure’, which meant I was under no pressure to get to a designated destination. The journey was the destination.
I became a creature of the night and with the proximity of all-night supermarkets, was finally able to relieve my husband of the burden of grocery shopping. So I would zip out at 2am when there would be no queues at the check-outs and quite enjoy myself. With time and persistence, I returned to the world of daylight – although by nature, I am more nocturnal than diurnal.
If there was somewhere I wanted to go during the daytime, I would undertake a reconnaisance trip during the night and check out the lay of the land. These were the days before mobile phones, so if my car had broken down, that would have been interesting. The Gods must have thought I had enough on my plate without tossing me a curve-ball like that.
Recovery is a two-steps-forward, one-step-backwards process that my husband didn’t have patience for, so I simply stopped asking him to accompany me and continued with my self-directed exposure therapy on my own.
After 19 months of extreme agoraphobia and 14 months working on my recovery, I had reached a point where I only felt minimal anxiety some of the time when I went out, and had regained my pre-agoraphobia confidence levels.
Recovery isn’t about never feeling anxiety or never having another panic attack again. Recovery is about not being thrown off-balance by feelings of anxiety or being bitch-slapped by a panic attack. Rather, recovery is about listening to what the anxiety is telling you and whether your external life is in congruency with your inner life, and, if not, to do some soul-tending, ride the boundary fences and check that nobody is trespassing or draining your energy.
It is not uncommon for people who have recovered from an initial episode of agoraphobia, to experience a relapse because they have gone back to approaching life in the same manner that they did before. Six years ago I had a relapse, and I was far more gentler and forgiving of myself than I had been the first time around. The agoraphobic relapse didn’t mean that my first recovery was not successful, it just indicated that I needed time out from the world to undergo another journey, a further metamorphosis, a deeper cleansing of ancient hurts and retrieval of fragmented energy.
It’s been a long arduous journey and all the way my guiding mantra has been a pithy quote from a science-fiction book written by Frank Herbert: the Bene Gesserit Litany of Fear.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain