When I was 21 I was a bright, slightly directionless graduate, with my own band, an extreme social life, and really interesting purple hair. Suddenly I started experiencing upsetting "dizzy spells" whenever I was in an enclosed public space (bars, malls, on public transport).
These "spells" were so severe that I'd frequently faint. I began to avoid the places that triggered them, and soon I found I couldn't leave the house at all without suffering acute attacks.
It turned out that these "dizzy spells" were actually panic attacks, and the doctor diagnosed me with depression, panic disorder. and agoraphobia, and signed me off work. I had to quit my band and my shitty bar job and move back in with my parents to start therapy.
In total it took me four years (and one relapse) to learn to conquer panic attacks, get out of the house, and fully get over agoraphobia. Now, over a decade later, I travel freely without issue (although I still have to control my depression and anxiety).
Here's what an average day looked like back when I was housebound.
My alarm goes off. I wake up and pad down to the kitchen, where, by the light of the fridge, I wolf down a midnight feast of cold spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate, and a banana.
I have lost over 15lbs since I started experiencing panic attacks. Raiding the refrigerator in the middle of the night (while my body is mostly asleep) is the only way I can actually eat anything these days, so I try to make my midnight meals as calorific as possible.
I'm not anorexic – it's just that I spend my days either in the vomitous, fainting grip of an actual panic attack, or nauseously anticipating one. Imagine how unwell you can feel before an important exam or interview, and you'll have some idea of how I feel about food all day.
The familiar tense nausea starts tightening my throat mid-banana, so I give up the ghost and go back to bed instead.
After several hundred cigarettes, lots of dry heaving, and a great deal of pacing, I finally run out of ways to avoid leaving the house. Outside it's a grey, nondescript sort of day, which jars badly with my jittery, keyed-up state.
You wouldn't know it to look at me (I have to light a cigarette at the bus stop to keep my hands from shaking, and I jiggle my knees helplessly throughout the journey), but I have actually conquered buses. Before I started recovery I couldn't get on a bus without fainting, vomiting, or feeling like I was going to do either.
Then, on the advice of my therapist, I began a gradual process of desensitisation – over a series of weeks I walked to the bus stop and stood there until my panic level dropped, then I rode the bus for one stop, then two stops, then three, etc. – until bus journeys triggered high anxiety rather than full panic.
Today I am leaving the relative safety of the bus and visiting the mall, the site of my first ever panic attack. About a year ago – when I was a different person; a person with a life and friends and places to be – I'd gone shopping with my mother when I came over all dizzy in a pharmacy and ended up crashing into a display of breast pumps and passing out.
My mother likes to tell this story a lot.
Now that I've been educated about the physiology of panic, of course, I know that the world was only seeming to spin and warp, and that my stomach was only seeming to claw its way out of my throat. And I was only experiencing these effects because my body had wrongly perceived danger around me, and was pumping shit tons of adrenaline into my system to help me deal with it.
Knowing all this, however, doesn't stop it all from happening all over again. Everything is too bright and I feel as though the floor is swaying and as though I'm going to keel over. Worst of all, though, I feel like such an idiot for being terrified out of my wits in nothing more sinister than a suburban shopping mall on a weekday morning. I try to control the symptoms with the breathing exercises my therapist taught me (inhale for three, hold for four, exhale for six, for at least two minutes), and it works, sort of.
As dispassionately as possible, I evaluate my rising nausea, blinding dizziness, and rapid heartbeat, and carefully write "9" on the printed sheet of A4 I have with me, under the words "PANIC LEVEL".
Tomorrow I will return to the mall. The hope is that I'll be able to write "8" on my panic sheet, although in reality it'll probably take several weeks.
I go home to drink sugary tea and smoke cigarettes until the shakes go away.
Panic attacks are obliteratingly horrible – like violent storms that destroy your mind and body for a while. Being housebound with panic, however, juxtaposes these traumatic interludes with long tracts of suburban boredom.
Loose Women is the most interesting thing on TV. The endless cycle of washing up becomes oppressive; you start to set your watch by the sound of the boiler powering up or the neighbour's car pulling out of the driveway.
I feel I have two states of being: sheer panic and total atrophy.
To try to combat this, I am a) reading every book in the house (currently I'm working my way through my father's quasi-pornographic pulp sci-fi collection, all improbable planets full of tiny green aliens and pneumatic robot babes), and b) working on my piano skills (in the last year I have improved by two grades through daily practice).
I take my spaniel out for a ramble through the woods behind my house around this time every day, before the forest fills up with kids out from school.
We crash haphazardly through the undergrowth forest like a couple of loons, but I really enjoy it – happy dog leaping about, fresh air rushing through my lungs – I almost feel normal. And it's nice to tire myself out with physical activity rather than constant tension.
I come home laughing and covered in twigs.
After more smoking, dry heaving, and pacing, it's time to leave the house again. Although I now leave the house multiple times a day rather than never, it's never easy.
My mother drives me to my weekly psychologist appointment with me clinging to the passenger door, fighting down the rising bile and begging her to turn back. But she doesn't. We've been through this. Although my symptoms would disappear the minute I walked back into my house, giving into panic is counterintuitive in the long run, so she drives on while I weep and we finally arrive at the psychologist's office in one piece.
As ever, the psychologist sessions don't seem that valuable. We spend a lot of time picking through my past trying to find out how I became a person whose panic is on a hair trigger. I'm too close to it, though. Much, much later – and on my own – I start to intuitively join the dots and connect what's happening to traumatic events in my childhood, an assault in my teens, and other encounters.
For now, though, the sessions are worthless, as I'm too concerned with the business of beating the panic in hand rather than seeing where it came from.
I make my weekly call to my friends, all impoverished graduates who live far away and can't visit often. At first it's a heady rush of greetings and gossip, and I start to feel connected and like my old self again, but then they hit me with all the stuff that's happening without me.
The band I was in before I got sick is doing well. People have started exciting new relationships with people I've never met. One friend has just come back from a fabulous holiday in Sicily, a place it would take me about a decade of desensitisation exercises to be able to visit.
I start to feel a little down, especially when they ask my news. "I can play piano at grade six now!" doesn't sound that big an achievement when you're talking to someone who's just signed a record deal.
But then I realise that, as panicky and unpleasant as today has been, I actually went to a mall today, and survived. Just a few months ago I couldn't leave the house.
I'm getting better, I tell them, set my alarm for 2am, and go to sleep.