Sarah's Story: Living with Agoraphobia and Panic Attacks

I first remember things changing when I was 18 years old. I was at work and I had a falling out with a boyfriend and felt like I couldn't breathe. My hands filled with pins and needles and as I stood up to get some fresh air, I passed out.

I also hyperventilated:€“ something that I had never experienced before. I was taken to hospital to be checked out but I was fine. A couple of months later, I passed out again, this time in a department store when I was just walking around.

A few years later, my social life started to become affected. I'd be going out to meet friends, get to their house to pick them up and then I'd feel '€˜ill' and have to go home. I had been experiencing emetophobia for many years (the fear of vomiting)€“ and I was terrified that I was going to be sick or, even worse, do it when I was out, in front of people.

The catalyst to all my problems came in July 1998. I was five months pregnant with my son. I'd not felt well that day and just put it down to the pregnancy. I was outside having lunch and I felt dizzy. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor again, having fainted, but this time it was worse than ever before. I was taken to the hospital and they told me that my black out was caused by my baby lying across my main artery. Little did I know that this was going to be the beginning of a long fight against panic attacks and agoraphobia.

From then on, my situation got progressively worse. I immediately stopped driving for fear that a panic attack would take over or that I would faint, putting my son's life and my own life in danger. Going shopping became an experience I dreaded as I became increasingly anxious about when or where I would have my next panic attack.

Sarah and her son

In October that year, I gave birth to my son and thought that these feelings would disappear as they were related to my experience of pregnancy. How wrong I was! Weeks and months passed, and it got so bad that I couldn't leave my front room. I would sit in my house with my new born baby, calling my then-partner 15-20 times a day, panicking. I felt trapped.

It was around 2 years later that I decided I needed help. I still didn't know the name of what I was experiencing, so I spoke to the doctor and begged for someone to come out and see me. I was referred to the local mental health team. Firstly, I started seeing a psychologist and I didn't really get very far. Then came a CPN and then I proceeded to be shipped from pillar to post between therapists. After a few sessions, I would have started to build up a connection with a therapist, only to be told that I'd be seeing someone else the next week. This went on for quite a while and in the end I told them not to come anymore because I just wasn't ready to fight this... "Agoraphobia". I didn't really understand it, so how could I fight it?

Then one day, I decided to try and go out. My mum came round and I managed to get into her car. It took me three long hours, which involved lots of driving forwards and even more reversing, to go a distance that would now take me only 2 minutes to walk. But I did it.

In 2003 I got involved with a new partner and my panic seemed to slowly take a back seat. My relationship was going well, I was excited about life again, and I was persevering through the panic to go short distances -€“ I was even driving again. I resumed CBT in 2005, but after 18 months of no panic, it struck again. I had a panic attack when driving and before I knew it, I was back to doing my shopping on the internet, too scared to go out. My relationship then turned very nasty as I stopped going out. My partner became emotionally abusive and the abuse continued for three years before we broke up.

Feeling so alone in my illness, I decided to start making You Tube videos, hoping that someone, anyone, would be able to relate to what I was going through. I was craving support and understanding, something that I wasn't getting from the "real world". I hope that they help to support others that need it too.

In June 2009, I started seeing someone new. This man knew all about me before we were together and was really supportive and sympathetic. Up until then, my only “safe” person was my mother, I'd only been out with her, so I basically had to put my trust in someone else and that was very hard. We started off exactly how I did with my mum, just driving short distances, then the short distances turned into longer distances and I went to his house where I was eventually able to stay - I'd not stayed anywhere but my own house in a decade! Slowly I could see improvements. This new boyfriend was helping me more than I could have ever dreamed. I was still having the odd panic attack, but not so bad that it put me back in my recovery.

On a positive note, over the past 18 months I have been to London, the seaside, camping, to see my dad (who lives four and a half hours away), and recently I went to the zoo. The last time I went there was with my mum in 2005 and I couldn't even make it all the way round – this time, without my mum, I did the whole zoo with no problems. Just a few weeks ago, I braved the Bluewater shopping centre for my birthday. Last year I went to Lakeside with my mother and barely made it in two shops, but this year, I did all of Bluewater which was great for my confidence but not so good for the credit card!

And the best news of all? I am planning my first holiday since 1996. My parents, boyfriend and son are going to Norfolk for a week. I am hoping that I can do this, and if I can, it will be amazing.