public places and open spaces
I switched on the light and headed into the bedroom. As I prepared to say my prayers, I noticed that something felt very different in this moment. The walls that surrounded me in this previously confining space…on this night, they felt to me as though they didn’t even exist. I was reminded of the touch of the cool evening air during the early part of the summer. I could almost sense the welcoming chill surrounding me. I moved towards the window and gazed outside. I truly had to remind myself that it was the early part of February. Taking a deep breath, I made another scan my surroundings. This wasn’t the same place. I knelt down and paused, and as I did so, a smile began to grace my face. Wanting to make certain that I understood what was happening, I took it all in. The black cloud that had been following me relentlessly was now beginning to fade. The weight that had burdened my chest for the past year was diminishing. I could breathe. The walls were vanishing, and I was being invited back out into the world. In an instant, I began to feel alive again. Things were finally falling into place. I became completely overwhelmed with gratitude.
I thanked the Lord repeatedly for my experiences that night. I kept shaking my head in amazement. The hardships that I had endured throughout past year had been completely worthwhile…there was nothing more powerful than this moment of peace. Even if I found it to be short lived…even if in the morning everything was different, it wouldn’t matter. This was brilliance. This was divine. And something assured me that this was only a taste of what would follow if I continued to believe in the process and trust in God’s plan for me. I recognized that I would need to take some steps on my own; in fact, I felt that I was being called to do so. Earlier that day I had completed my first run on the treadmill in nearly three months. I faced my fears, trusted my faith, and I was then rewarded for it. This was my invitation to take the opportunity to start living again. I couldn’t pass it up. I was ready, and it was time.
This opportunity was a long time in the making. I lived for months on end feeling so completely restricted by fear that I could not foresee any way out of the confining solitude surrounding me. I just continued to work on finding myself and developing my faith, and I prayed for the best. I kept reminding myself that things would come together in His time, not mine. I knew that if there wasn’t an opportunity presenting itself, then there was probably still more work that needed to be done. So I turned my focus inside. And I kept searching for answers, refining myself and my priorities in life.
I’m not here to tell you that this period of my life was by any means pleasant or enjoyable. During this time, I found my bottom. And the walls began to close in on me, quickly. My anxiety had worn me down to the point that I could barely function physically. I truly struggled to exist at times and my mind deteriorated quickly as a result. I lost confidence in myself, and that was devastating. I was tormented by negative thoughts telling me that I was dreadfully ill. I pictured myself leaving on a gurney, and I carried a phone with me everywhere in anticipation of the moment I would need to make that call. Thankfully, I believed in God’s ability to grant miracles, and so that’s what I prayed for most nights. That’s what kept me going, and it was exactly what I was going to need. Nothing else was going to save me. I was being taught the true meaning of patience and perseverance.
In the darkest moments of this battle, I began to struggle tremendously with agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is defined as “an abnormal and persistent fear of public places or open areas, especially those from which escape could be difficult or help not immediately accessible.” This is truly the most difficult and personally devastating form that my disorder has ever taken. Agoraphobia was not completely unfamiliar to me. There were moments in California during my first bout with anxiety when I felt its effects in a pretty dramatic way. But the things that I encountered this fall went well beyond those experiences. I was dealing with something pretty extreme in nature.
Agoraphobia doesn’t happen overnight. Let me give you a bit of an idea as to how some of this unfolds. For me, it becomes an issue following a long, chronic period of intense anxiety. When your nerves are under such tremendous stress, it takes very little to startle them and throw your body into a full blown panic. It could be as simple as a car pulling out in front of you, a line at the grocery store, or a dramatic reaction from someone around you that heightens your own emotions. Imagine a guitar string pulled nice and tight…the slightest pluck of that string can produce a sound that lights up a room. That’s how it is for someone with chronic anxiety whose nerves have been sensitized.
The body’s reaction becomes so intensified, that for even people like me who have a familiarity with panic, each occurrence feels more devastating than ever before. Each time that you encounter it, you feel wholeheartedly that “this could be it.” You picture yourself on the way to the hospital. You think that perhaps you are losing your mind and you fear that you’ll need to be institutionalized. And then, you do what your body implores…you run. You flee the situation and, shaking with panic, you head back to your comfort zone where you can survive the attack. And then, your subconscious begins to decide for you that it might be best for you to never leave again…
And so this is how it starts. Have a bad experience at the grocery store once, and each time you decide that you need to visit there in the future, your mind recalls that memory and says “no, no, you stay put, you know exactly what could happen there.” Trips to even similar places quickly fall victim to those memories as well. You begin to think “what if what happened to me at the grocery store happens to me here?” And so the list continues to grow. Confined spaces are truly a problem. Take for instance the car or an airplane. Neither is easily escaped when panic ensues. So you begin to avoid travel. One by one, you blacklist everything that had previously been a part of your daily life, until you are left with only the walls that surround you – the comfort zone. And in time, even those walls close in on you. And you’re left in a very sad and lonely place. You begin to forfeit your life altogether and fear that you’ll never rebound from this experience.
These choices to avoid interaction with the outside world are devastating to your psyche. But when fully in the grips of agoraphobia, you don’t feel that you even have a say in the matter. The mental blocks become so deeply entrenched that you can’t seem to find a way around them. And so often it’s easiest just to give in and play along. It’s like being in a completely abusive relationship. You forfeit your ability to think on your own and you surrender to the evil desires of the fear which is determined to keep you handcuffed forever. Because it becomes the only way you know how to survive. And “real” life becomes very unfamiliar. All of your time is spent in isolation in one so called “comfortable” place. So when confronted with ordinary things, you become terrified. You used to love to go to lunch at that restaurant, but now the mere thought of visiting there scares you to death. Crackers become a more appetizing lunch than a good meal, because you have a pantry full of them… “see, there’s no need to leave.”
I’ve experienced the worst of this, and while it’s very humbling and revealing to speak about these experiences, I do so to provide comfort to others who feel like they are alone in this battle. I’ve stood in lines at places like WalMart with a handful of things and have quickly run to put them back and dart out of the store. I’ve avoided every place imaginable. I’ve been afraid to get in my car and drive to an ATM a couple blocks away. Last year I drove roughly 25,000 miles…this year, barely 3,000. I’ve abandoned lunch with my own mother mid-meal, multiple times, out of fear. I missed a great childhood friend’s wedding. I’ve avoided air travel and even the pew of my own church on Christmas Eve. I’ve spent Thanksgiving alone. I began shopping at Rite Aid to avoid the grocery store. I feared driving to the other side of town due to the extra time it would take for me to get back home, and started doing everything within a stone’s throw of my apartment. And my fears became so overwhelming that even the idea of doing something outside of my environment would make me physically ill.
Even my own place would soon fall victim to the fear. I began to feel panicked when I’d need to walk to the mailbox, and so for several days, I would avoid it. I’d need to speak to myself constantly to accomplish simple chores like taking the trashing down the hall or dropping the recycling in the garage. I became very fearful of the shower, because it was a very confining place for me, and I had many bad experiences there with panic. I didn’t stop bathing, but I would rush in and out, and would keep the phone on the edge of the tub, just in case my anxiety became too much for me to bear. As you all know, sleep often was an issue as well. And at my lowest, and this is disturbing for me to say, I became fearful of even walking. I was experiencing an array of devastating things physically, and so I had myself convinced that I was suffering from a debilitating and life altering disease. When I’d walk, I’d feel shaky, off-balance, and often times, in pain. So I began avoiding it due to the fear of what I might feel. I spent most of my time at my desk, on the couch, or in bed.
Now, some of you might be thinking, this guy needs some serious help. And a couple months ago you probably would have been right. Thankfully, I received that help. God is helping through this. Things are beginning to change, miraculously. But it’s taken patience, and more than anything else, trust. I’m not here to say that medication or supplements are wrong; we are all unique and have different needs. But I’ve never been medicated, and I quit all natural supplementation on January 1st, deciding to trust wholeheartedly in my faith to heal me, and since then, I’ve been doing better than ever. So I encourage you, no matter what your healing regimen, to always keep your faith as a part of the process. It’s worked wonders for me…not overnight, but in time, when I was fully prepared to accept and embrace my transformation.
I share with you my story to give you hope. To say that “I’ve been there. I can understand…I can relate.” And I hope that you can recognize that I haven’t quit. I’ve persevered. And I will get healthy. I will be stronger mentally, physically, and spiritually than I’ve ever been. That is the gift that I’m being given. For that, I would do this all over again, in a heartbeat. Embrace the times when you are tested. It will all be worth it in the end. You will find yourself…you will find your strength and your faith…and in your weakest moment, you will paint your own Picasso, and that will become your life moving forward. Remember, the BOTTOM is just the BEGINNING. May God bless.