There was a time in my life where leaving my house was difficult and painful. Everyday tasks like going grocery shopping or driving to work required not only all of my energy, but all of my courage and determination. As a result of developing crippling panic disorder, I'd begun to fear any situation in which I'd had a panic attack before. After a few short weeks, I had so many panic attacks that I was afraid to leave my house. This fear is called agoraphobia, and it's one of the most common phobias and often stems from other anxiety disorders. Even though I've gotten treatment and my panic attacks are few and far between these days, I can still see how agoraphobia continues to impact my life as a mom.
As a stay-at-home mom, I feel immense pressure to be taking my kids out for new experiences all the time. Before they go to school full-time my kids are home with me, day in and day out. Thankfully, I'm no longer afraid to leave my house. I hardly think twice about taking my kids with me to the grocery store or the library or coffee shop. I can take them to the playground. But there are limitations that I have that I know other parents don't. The playgrounds I visit have to have bathrooms, for example. And I don't go out of my way to go to the better grocery stores even if they are only another 10 or 15 minutes away from my house. I stay where I know, and I rarely deviate from that plan.
I've been plagued with guilt about the fact that I'll never be the kind of mom who decides one morning to drive into the city and take the kids to the zoo or to the many museums nearby. I see other moms do it. I see their kids smiling in the photos they post on social media. But I'm still working on that. I'm working on even being comfortable driving into the city as a passenger with another adult I trust doing the driving. Even still, given the choice between going along to the zoo with my family or staying home, I'd choose staying home every time. I just can't enjoy trips like that, which for me, are really more like exposure therapy than fun family time.
Being responsible for other little humans day-to-day is a blessing and a curse with agoraphobia.
When I was a new mom, the agoraphobia, which had previously been "cured" (or so I thought), came back with a vengeance. It looked different, though. Instead of being fearful of being places where I might panic, I simply dreaded driving in the car with my baby. He hated the car and would scream inconsolably. That's enough to stress any mom out, but hearing his screams and feeling so helpless put me right back into a panicky tailspin. It took me months to get treatment, though, because I thought that any mom would feel similarly. Being in the car, unable to comfort your child, leaking milk while you cry along with him — that's enough to make any mother feel out of control. Except I was slowly getting the idea that other moms weren't suffering like I was. And it took having repeated, intense panic attacks for me to realize I was back at square one.
Being responsible for other little humans day-to-day is a blessing and a curse with agoraphobia. On one hand, they are a brilliant distraction. It's hard to spiral into obsessive thoughts when you have somebody asking you to explain every little thing they're seeing and hearing. But on the other hand, when my anxiety does strike, I feel much more trapped. In order to leave a place or get to a bathroom (the two things I want to do when I'm anxious), I have to round up the kids and try to get them to be cool. ("Why are we running to the bathroom, mom? Do you really have to pee?") And it's Murphy's Law that when you really need them to pay attention, that's when they're at their most distracted. Then again, staying home all day is much less appealing. The kids get bored, and start acting up. I take daily outings with them, even if it's just within my little comfort zone of shops and parks. In a way, I'm forced to continue to work on the exposure therapy portion of treating agoraphobia.
I don't like the idea of agoraphobia defining me. Even more, I hate the thought of my anxieties rubbing off on my children.
The worst part of being a mom and feeling anxious is that while my kids are making memories that I want to be enjoying, I'm often white-knuckled with my teeth gritting. I want to be in the moment with them, to enjoy every fleeting moment of their childhood. And, yes, I realize that that is indeed a lofty and unattainable goal for any mom, but I feel the disappointment acutely when my fears cause me to make decisions I'm not happy with. I don't like feeling trapped, so I sort of loathe the train ride and the carousel at a local park. If I have another adult with me, I'll opt to watch from the sidelines. I wave enthusiastically as they pass, acutely aware that I'm faking the happiness. Part of me wants to be on there with them, feeling the breeze on my face.
Having kids has made me stretch myself in ways I couldn't even imagine. (Literally and figuratively, I suppose.) One day I hope to be more spontaneous, to be able to better put my fears aside to be in the moment. And because I want that so desperately, I'll keep working for it. I don't like the idea of agoraphobia defining me. Even more, I hate the thought of my anxieties rubbing off on my children. It's worth the white knuckles and all the trips to the therapist. It's worth being on medication. It's worth leaving the house. Having kids has motivated me to stay well.