I listened very intently as she expressed both her excitement over her progress, but realization that even a few days of avoiding anything stressful, including the homework I had given her, caused her to doubt herself and, yes, feel some of those pangs of anxiety and panic.
Her homework was to face her fears, every day taking steps to face the situations where panic had occurred. We broke the steps down into very reasonable bites, and they were steps that she could adjust so she felt more in control.
She had in fact, allowed her anxiety to take control of her life. She had been housebound, what we call agoraphobic. She could not shower, so was reduced to a sponge bath at the bathroom sink. She could not wash her hair, which was not only a hygiene issue, but an especially devastating state of affairs as she had always been so proud of her appearance, and one of her special treats was to have her hair cut and styled once a month. So then, although in her early forties and reduced to living with her parents, she was all but a prisoner in her apartment. Her " fear of fear " had grown to the point that she had no faith in herself to do much of anything.
I am sure this is very hard to understand for someone who has never experienced panic attacks, but it has become very common to see in my practice.
If only she or those around her that loved her and were witness to her initial slide onto the abyss of anxiety, and then depression, would have seen to it that she entered effective therapy at the time of onset. Unfortunately, she was an adult when all this began, when she first experienced panic attacks, and in her mind, the answer was medication. Pills might have reduced some of the anxiety, but it did not get to the sources for the panic, so after an initial few weeks of improvement, she relapsed even further into her fears.
I was witness to that slide into hell, but could not stop it from happening as she would not embrace therapy or face the needed changes in her life. Oh, there were causes for the panic attacks. Overprotective parents, a heavy dose of intrusive behavior on the part of the mother, some paternal physical abuse, and a boyfriend who actually reinforced her dependency on him due to his own insecurities, all led to her feeling weak and very emotionally conflicted. Now that she had become so dependent, there was no way she could truly imagine being otherwise, although she was so depressed as to what her life had become.
I was more than thrilled when she contacted me and said, " Coach, I am ready ! I cannot stand this any longer. I got rid of the boyfriend, I am setting boundaries with my parents, I am on very limited medications, and I want a life !
I felt something had truly changed. I actually could sense that her pain at giving up her life had come to a point that it was over-riding her fears of making changes. She was angry, and we could use that anger to challenge each fear, step by step.
Over the ensuing weeks, she took steps to face her fears. She challenged her fears and was able to shower. Within two weeks, she was washing her hair. Recently, after practicing just sitting in her car, realizing she was not going to die no matter what anxiety she experienced, and focusing on the fact that there were still many things she could do, and wanted to do in her life, she drove that car, at night, to a Burger King. Can you imagine how HUGE that was for her ? If she can do what she has done so far, although commonplace for many others, there is no limit as to what she can do if she continues to guard herself from people who would abuse, manipulator control her, if she would refuse to compromise away who she is and what she wants just to please others, and if she continues to face her fears in steps that SHE controls.
"Coach, I use to pray for rain. On those days I felt I had an excuse to go nowhere, and felt less guilt. I tried to convince myself that when the weather was better, I would try to embrace life again. Now for the first time in so long, I really think I can have a life ! "
I hope this true story encourages at least one other person imprisoned by their anxiety, to seek help, embrace the needed changes, and take back their life.
Gene Benedetto, Psychologist