Thursday, June 28, 2007

Agoraphobia -- My Story

We had just finished our warmups for the first game of the All-Star baseball tournament. Our team was ready to play, adrenaline was rushing... the first pitch was about 10 minutes away. I looked at Tom and calmly said, "Coach, I need to go to the bathroom. Be back in a minute." He asked, "Why now?" I answered, "I need to go throw up. All the guys in my family did that before a big game; it's no big deal. I'll be right back." I went to the concession stand bathroom, hugged the toilet for a minute, then came back and played a good game. I was twelve years old.

I had told the truth to my coach -- my family had similar stories of pregame sickness all around. My dad always vomited before his high school football games. I'm pretty sure my uncle did too, before his college games. I figured I was the same way, and this was just a way of settling my nerves before an important athletic competition.

But then it started to get worse. Soon it wasn't just playoff games... I was getting sick before almost every baseball game. And sometimes the nausea wouldn't go away after visiting the bathroom, and I'd be on the verge of sickness for the whole game. Then it spread to my basketball games, to the point that I was leaving the floor during warmups to run to the bathroom. And this was a 13-year-old recreational league... not really a pressure situation.

I got baptized when I was 13, and had been told repeatedly how that was the biggest decision of my entire life, bigger than marriage. I could barely eat for two days before I was baptized, and had the dry heaves 60 seconds before I entered the water at our church.

Soon any new situation brought on the same symptoms -- dizziness, sweating, high heart rate and extreme nausea. On my first day of 9th grade I threw up in the hallway, two minutes after entering the building. First school dance? Could barely enter the gymnasium.

Eventually it continued to expand, and sometimes the symptoms would hit when we were eating out at a restaurant, or going on vacation. It seemed like the only time I never felt sick was at home. It was my safe place. Is it any wonder I never dated in high school? I probably would have had a heart attack while driving the poor girl to the movies. And you can imagine what I thought about a first date at a restaurant, which would require me to be calm enough to eat.

My issues continued throughout my teenage years, and didn't go away when I went to college. My parents were attentive and recognized what was going on, and at some point they sent me a book about panic attacks. It mentioned the word "agoraphobia", and when I read more about it I knew I was reading about myself. New situations, or situations that didn't leave me a quick exit option, completely terrified me. I was a freshman in college... how many new situations do you think pop up during that year?

I surived my freshman year. Barely. I remember the day I was supposed to give a speech to my Honors English class. It was mid-September of 1994, and I was wearing my only suit (blue, of course), walking across campus to go give my speech about the baseball strike's impact on the national economy. Only I didn't think I could actually do it. At one point I stopped, leaned against a tree, and visualized what would happen if I just skipped class. Skipped the whole college thing. Went home, got a low-paying job, and played it safe for the next sixty years or so. As boring as that vision may sound, I seriously considered it. But I didn't follow it. I gave the speech.

I played college baseball my freshman year (as a walk-on) and did pretty well. The nausea was still there sometimes, but not every game. I guess I was more comfortable on the field that I was in social situations or public speaking settings. But intramural sports almost crushed me -- how weird is that? I could play baseball in front of 500 people with no problem, but low-level volleyball in front of 20 friends put me in a panic.

I read the book my parents sent me, and felt their love and thoughtfulness, but I just didn't find anything in it that I thought I could use at the time. Basically I just kept on surviving day-to-day, while trying to have fun without putting myself into places that would bring on an attack.

You may think I'm being extremely open here, but trust me, I'm skipping over lots of other stories. If you've ever been to college, think about all the fun times you had and new experiences you enjoyed (parties, friends, learning, sports, concerts, etc...). Those were a double-edged sword for me.

I graduated from college and was accepted into an MBA program, of which I would be the youngest student. I moved to Houston and started school, and on the first day we were formed into teams and given 5 minutes to prepare a 5-minute speech, followed by a Q&A session. Our topic was the sale of the Houston Oilers franchise, and how it would affect the city. My four other team members immediately selected me to give the speech. Crap. Here we go again. Those five minutes of preparation were among the worst of my life, as I wondered again if I would back out of this whole thing and just go home. But I made it, gave the speech, and eventually gained a reputation as one of the best public speakers of the class. But I never liked it.

I wish I could tell you that eventually I found the secret, the answer to solving the terror of agoraphobia. But I never did. Over time my panic attacks got fewer and fewer, and each new situation I conquered gave me just a tiny bit more comfort for the next one. I was never officially diagnosed, and I never had formal treatment. I also never ended up stuck in my room, with the entire world unreachable from my only remaining "safe place". But I was just a step away, and can certainly imagine an existence like that.

Why am I telling you all of this now? Maybe because on Sunday I'm scheduled to give a 5-minute talk at our church, which has over 900 members. There are two separate services so I'll speak twice, two hours apart and each time to about 500 people. My father-in-law is preaching that day, and he asked me to do a communion focus on the topic of "living for Christ".

I've done this kind of stuff before. Heck, I gave two full sermons at our last church. But this is my first time speaking at our new church, so it's a new situation. The old panic may come back, but I know it can be overcome. Not due to any special tactic or trick -- just the memory of dozens of previous attacks that were overcome, so it can be done again.

It will probably never go away completely, although there have been spans of months without a single glimpse of a panic attack. And what about my kids... how will I approach them if I see them dealing with the same thing? Perhaps I can just start with my own story, and assure them that they're not imagining it, they're not alone, and they can make it through.

My name is Michael, and I've struggled with agoraphobia.


~aj~ said...

Corny as it sounds, I just want to give you a hug after reading that! I've never actually heard the term agoraphobia and I certainly never knew it was something you battled.

I'd say you've done a great job of overcoming it (or at least mostly overcoming it) on your own. I hate to think of all the things you missed out on over the years, but at least it's no longer hindering you from living life to its fullest.

We pray for you on Sunday. I'm sure you'll do a great job!

~aj~ said...

Typo there at the end, but you know what I meant. :)

Hal Johnson said...

This was more than good writing, Michael; it was compelling writing. What strikes me about your affliction is that you've managed to live with it, not through someone else's magic gimmick, but through your own force of will. (Perhaps in concert with lots of prayer, ey?) Great post. Now please write something boring so the rest of us won't feel inadequate.

gobbla said...

That's in interesting affliction you've got. Is it hereditary?

Redlefty said...

Thanks, everybody. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to speak at church today due to illness (not related to agoraphobia).

Hal, thank you. Your own writing has always struck me as the introspective and original type of stuff I want to do.

Tony, yes, I'd guess there's a genetic component. One of the theories is that agoraphobia is actually a physiological issue that begins in the brain stem. In other words, it's not just "all in our head" -- there's something physically different about people who struggle with this. At the same time, though, it's usually treated with biofeedback and "retraining" the adrenal response to situations.

Glad I missed out on all that treatment.

MamaRose said...

Bless your heart, AGAIN, Michael--guess I didn't realize how MUCH you were STILL 'working' on this!!

It might not 'hurt' to join a 'group' of similar folks or even to get some 'therapy'--sometimes they can give you another perspective that will help you.

Panic attacks, I think, are sort of 'related' to Depression, I think--and, of course, we know that I've dealt with that--struggled with it for years BEFORE I went to therapy & am now on meds for it & DON'T even think about it!
That's HOW GOOD my life is now--THANK GOD & all the folks who 'came before me' & figured LOTS of things out--that helped me!

Maybe you didn't come home, in College & getting your Masters because of what your Dad told ya'll--in 6th Grade, I think it was--that you could come back to VISIT after you left for College, of course, but IF you EVER wanted to move BACK in--which you really COULDN'T--you'd have to PAY RENT!!!
Think that helped any?

I don't know about 'speaking' in front of others, but it wouldn't surprise me IF your Dad struggled with some of this MORE than he's told us--so, you could have 'it' from BOTH SIDES--like 'genital'--remember??? Did you hear that recent story? If not, Dad will be more than glad to tell you!


hard.rox said...

I'm a little behind on my readings Michael. Sorry to hear that you've struggled with something like this your whole life. Glad that you've "almost" got it licked.

You must have had ript abz as a kid from all that hurling. ;-D

Bob Devlin said...

I know you have talked about this in past posts but I had no idea that it was so severe. Especially after having met you I would not guess that it affected you this way. It shows what great inner strength you have.