• Choice and agency is so vital to our mental health and wellbeing, and this past year our agency has been utterly eroded by the lockdowns. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
My partner and I started with the smallest steps, into our small front garden, with blankets and books.
By
Matilda Dixon-Smith

9 Apr 2021 - 8:28 AM  UPDATED 9 Apr 2021 - 8:28 AM

I have often struggled with agoraphobia, a common anxiety disorder where a person is afraid of leaving environments they consider to be safe or well-known. I frequently find it nearly impossible to leave the ‘safe zone’ of my house, even to go to the local shops or walk my dog to the park. What scares me most is being stuck in public and being unable to control my response – descending into panic. When the agoraphobia happens, it can be a scary, lonely chokehold on my life. 

Imagine getting ready for a day out: you’ve gotten dressed, put on your shoes, cleaned your teeth and packed your bag. You pick up your keys and ready yourself to step outside the front door and face the outside world – but something is holding you back. 

What scares me most is being stuck in public and being unable to control my response – descending into panic. 

Anxiety begins to coat your throat, thickens your tongue. Perhaps you noticed it when you were lacing up your shoes. Maybe, when you packed your bag, your hands shook. Or, while cleaning your teeth, your stomach was churning in time with the swishing of your toothbrush. And just like that, you can’t make it out of the house today and you’re stuck inside again, afraid. 

The irony, of course, is that my agoraphobia has coincided with COVID and the series of lengthy lockdowns that washed over western Melbourne earlier, where I live. 

In isolation, as my personal bubble shrunk, so too has the world around me. At times, it felt like all of us are stuck in a kind of forced agoraphobia, where the insides of our flats and houses are our ‘safe zones’ and the outside world is deemed ‘unsafe’ for us to venture into. 

Perhaps this has contributed to my growing sense of claustrophobia, but it has also helped me tackle my fears head-on.

Choice and agency is so vital to our mental health and wellbeing, and this past year our agency has been utterly eroded by the lockdowns. Suddenly, often with little warning, we are told we are unable to leave the house except to shop or exercise. We are told we’re unable to travel more than five kilometres. We’re told we’re unable to meet our friends or family. Even sitting alone in a park with the sun is off-limits.

Eventually, the boredom, the yearning to be outside pushed me out the door – and into the garden. 

Eventually, the boredom, the yearning to be outside pushed me out the door – and into the garden. 

My partner and I started with the smallest steps, into our small front garden, with blankets and books. We sat in the sun and watched our masked neighbours passing by our front gate to exercise or shop. We pulled weeds and planted seeds we’d ordered online. We watched our dog play on the grass. And I learned to be outside again.

And once we’d made our way to the front garden, we took bigger steps, further. Soon, we were walking to the end of the block and back. Sure, I was sweating profusely and hyperventilating into my mask, but I was down the end of the block. And the rest of our neighbours were out on the street, walking their dogs, tending to their gardens or just taking advantage of being outside for as long as they could. This little community felt safer to me than it had before. 

Before long, I found that I could walk to a park ten minutes from my house and back.

Before long, I found that I could walk to a park ten minutes from my house and back. I comforted myself with the familiarity of my surroundings: neighbours I began to recognise, dogs my dog knew and loved to sniff, houses and gardens I remembered as we passed them on the street. My bubble grew bigger. 

I’m not ‘cured’ of agoraphobia, and some days it’s much harder than others to make it out the front door and into the garden, let alone to the end of the block. But when we have the choice to be outside, even for an hour a day, it’s important to take full advantage of that time.

COVID can be unpredictable, and the thought of more lockdowns is always one that produces a range of anxiety-fuelled responses. But it’s worth remembering that we’ll always be able to venture outside every day in our little bubbles - even if it’s one tentative step at a time.  

If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.

Embrace Multicultural Mental Health also supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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