Our Guest Blogger, Harry Dean, writes:
Even now, using Microsoft Word to describe my illness, it still seems completely embarrassing how I let it happen. On a packed train or at the wheel of my car, the panic slowly creeps up on me: sweaty palms, quick breathing, an overwhelming urge to escape wherever I am – none of which is aided by myself-critical inner-monologue that usually accompanies these incidents: For God’s sake Harry, you’re 24 years old and behaving like a toddler – grow the hell up. Soon after this the terrifying sensation of dissociation – feeling completely detached from self, questioning the very core of what is real and what is fake in your life – rises up inside of me too. Ultimately these feelings will usually dissipate within a few minutes yet the sheer terror in my mind in those awful moments is something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone (not even people who can’t keep up with my walking pace!) and is enough to cause me to actively try and avoid environments where such feelings could rise up again.
This neatly frames the essence of the agoraphobia that has stalked me now for almost a year. Although the above feelings have only occurred a handful of times, they are enough to cause me to actively try and avoid any situations where escape is either impossible or extremely inconvenient (or indeed would cause me high amounts of perceived public humiliation which, as a very guarded individual, is one of my all-time greatest fears). Even situations where deep down I know I will be fine, such as interacting with co-workers in the office, I allow to be consumed by the overwhelming fear of “what-if?”, leading me to conclude it is just not worth it. This is an illness that has prevented me from engaging in so many of the activities that I used to derive so much pleasure from: playing cricket, travelling abroad, even just going on a night out with friends. Indeed I cannot count the amount of times over this summer I have laid awake at night, unable to sleep, staring at the ceiling in my room reminiscing in awe about 95% of the feats the Harry of 2 years ago (I now regard us as almost completely different people) was able to accomplish without a trace of doubt.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when these feelings rose to boiling point in my brain. My hunch is that such feelings have always laid dormant within me – I’m someone who has always grappled with generalized anxiety and OCD during certain pressure points in my life. Things changed I feel during the lockdowns of 2020; now for the first time in my life my insular, introverted instincts weren’t just being accepted by society, they were actively being encouraged.
While I cannot precisely say when this metaphorical switch was flicked in my mind, I can vividly recall the first time the illness struck me: a week before Christmas last year, standing outside my dentist before a regular checkup, finding myself unable to step through the door. Two days later, the same happened as I went for a haircut (for the first few months of 2021 I happily informed my friends I’d actively made the choice to experiment with long hair, not true). While early January and the new lockdown provided me with temporary relief from social engagements that could spike my new fears, in reality it just made things much, much worse (to be clear – I am not anti-lockdown in any way, I absolutely supported them as necessary, please don’t get the idea in your head that I would happily have countenanced the preventable deaths of thousands more Brits just so I could freely travel to the Brighton PRET and consume an Italian Prosciutto baguette without any mental baggage). By the time lockdown had finished, these agoraphobic tendencies had spread to incorporate most of my life and now, regrettably, there are very few places I can go outside of my village without a trusted companion that don’t cause me serious anxiety in the buildup, and while Ditchling is objectively a delightful place, it isn’t yet quite the booming economic and social powerhouse that can justify such an approach as a sustainable alternative.
I would estimate this is an illness that has caused me to spurn roughly half of the social invitations I have received this year. If I cannot engineer a social engagement to be specifically to my liking, or I fear it might bend in a direction that could cause me mental harm, then I simply will not regard the predicted payoff of attendance: a great time in the company of great people, as worth the days (even weeks sometimes) of sickening anticipation leading up to the big event.
My own twisted idea of pride however completely rules out even the possibility of actually telling people the real reason for my serial absence from all manner of occasion. In my head, it is far better to gain a reputation as an unreliable flake than actually force myself to front up and tell people the true reason for my no-show. As such, I have compiled an eclectic bank of excuses for non-attendance over the last few months, of which some of the “greatest hits” include (and my deepest apologies if any of these sound familiar):
· Inventing a fake group of friends who I have mythical plans with at exactly the same date and time you want to see me.
· Conjuring up a contrived ailment that means I “just don’t want to risk it”.
· Telling people my train has been cancelled and praying they don’t take a cursory scroll of the Thameslink timetable to realize nothing is amiss.
Sometimes I even like to get creative and blend my excuses in with the trends of the time, as seen with this zinger I utilized multiple times in July:
· Not only inventing a fake person but giving them coronavirus and making sure we’d shared a fantasy meetup, ensuring that I must now self-isolate until further notice.
Failing all this of course, I just rely on the old banker of “something urgent has come up at home”. No one is ever going to follow that up.
You’d think my mood having successfully circumvented a tricky social engagement would be one of relief. On the contrary, the dreaded “FOMO” then proceeds to consume me for a good couple of days, augmented by my very real suspicions that if I continue on this current trajectory then not only will the so-called “best years of your life” completely swerve me but that by the age of 30 I will literally only be able to call on my pets for company. These fears drive me to internally promise myself that the next social gathering won’t be missed for any excuse, before predictably agoraphobic voices creep back into my mind in the buildup to the next event and this whole sorry cycle repeats itself.
I would dearly love to be able to tell you that things are currently on the way back, that I’ll be doing my best social butterfly impression by Christmas, all the while regaling colleagues in the office with thrilling, very real tales of weekends just passed. While I have(extremely belatedly) now sought help for this it has also recently dawned on me just how bad I have let my demons become, and how it isn’t just a matter of flicking a switch back and making things fine again. Instead it is a long, arduous process, one that will inevitably lead me into many more feelings of nausea and sweating on underground platforms, outside stadiums and walking to bars before (maybe) I can gain some semblance of normality again. I am nonetheless hopeful though. If I can just get back to half the person I was in March 2020, I will be delighted.
Congratulations on putting up with my thoughts this far, now to the crux of this piece – what on earth is the point of me saying all of this? It definitely wasn’t to elicit sympathy, that’s never something I’ve been in the game of pursuing. Subconsciously I feel this was partly a way of apologizing to those closest to me for my absence from so much of 2021. Most importantly though, I wanted to raise awareness.
Now that (God I hope I haven’t jinxed this) the worst of Covid seems to be behind us, plenty of experts are warning of the impending future mental health pandemic that will afflict this country. Across the world, people are going back into offices, pubs and sporting arenas forever changed by the events of the last 18 months. To them I just wanted to highlight through this piece that what they are going through is much more common than they may believe. To those of you who may have been fortunate enough to avoid the worst of this new epidemic – be kind to others, be patient, be understanding – it is impossible to know the inner demons those you interact with may be going through at any given time.
Ultimately, for those now facing up to such mental challenges – you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. But please don’t suffer in silence like I did for far too long. Having learnt recently that sharing really is caring, I am always open to anyone who wants to talk about agoraphobia or indeed any other mental health issue that may have afflicted them. Whether you’re going through the same yourself, whether you fear for a loved one who might be, even if you don’t feel like talking about it and instead just what to share with me your thoughts on, say, where you think Takehiro Tomiyasu will fit into Arsenal’s backline this season, I’m all ears.
Just remember too in that moment of terror that all feelings, no matter how bad, are completely ephemeral; nothing lasts forever. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, have a wonderful day.