In this personal essay, Katie Meadows writes about the pain of seeing others go outside while she is still locked in.
When lockdown began nothing changed for me at all. While millions of Kiwis pondered a minimum four weeks without schools, restaurants, bars and parties, I would have stayed inside anyway.
I have agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that revolves around an intense need for physical and emotional safety. Many who suffer from it find themselves entirely housebound. While my lifestyle didn’t change during lockdown, I initially found it bemusing and validating to see how people reacted to living with the limitations my anxiety places on me every day. As we got further into lockdown, the memes took a frustrating turn - “the time for introverts”, and offhand comments about how “everyone has agoraphobia now” - it’s the kind of phrasing that comes across as flippant as someone calling their erratic fashion sense “so bipolar”.
Agoraphobia, commonly misinterpreted as a fear of being outside, is defined as an anxiety disorder that causes the sufferer to perceive their environment - usually public spaces and events - as unsafe. More specifically it is actually a fear of panic in general, particularly to experience a panic attack in an unfamiliar open space and on top of that, how that panic will be perceived as and dealt with by the strangers around you. It usually manifests after a stressful and/or traumatic event, but can also develop more slowly as a progression of general anxiety and other co-morbid mental illness. It can range in severity - some people are unable to be in a large and crowded public space like a music festival but have little problem entering public yet familiar environments. Others are completely unable to leave their own home, because it is the only place that allows the comfort of feeling in control of their own safety.
This isn’t to say agoraphobics don’t go outside. It’s entirely possible if your needs for safety are met, like access to a ride home if the situation becomes too overwhelming, or being with a friend who is willing and able to comfort you. I find my agoraphobia operates on a spectrum that’s contextual to the general state of my mental health. My anxieties about what will happen when I go outside my “safe space” can fluctuate widely, from a worry of something embarrassing happening, to what feels like a very real threat of physical harm of unknown origin. It can take me hours to summon the courage to complete a task like picking up my medication, a round trip from my house that takes about 15 minutes, during which I’ll subconsciously pick every uneven part of skin from my hands. I’m extremely short-sighted but I never wear my glasses because it reduces my chances of making eye contact with a stranger, someone who could see the pure panic vibrating behind my sockets, triggering a full blown panic attack, after which all my rationale is gone, and I assume that’s the point when I spontaneously combust.
Agoraphobia has been a stable part of my identity for the last five years. It’s impossible not to factor it into my life and relationships - it’s the elephant that can’t leave the room. I’ve lost friendships to people that don’t understand (“Why can’t you just come over?”), and I’ve lost friendships because I haven’t been able to keep up with the social calendar that enables them. I’ve missed everything from birthdays to concerts to funerals. The levels of my FOMO are, to use some pandemic lingo, unprecedented. While the development of my agoraphobia is a rational progression of my life experiences, I do have self-awareness that it has progressed in parts to an irrational level, as is the nature of phobias. While it’s completely rational for me to have developed a fear of feeling unsafe outside of my house due to my history of sexual trauma, it is irrational for me to eat plain pasta for a week because I can’t walk five minutes to Countdown without thinking I’m definitely going to die somehow.
A lot of the misunderstanding I’ve experienced from people who don’t get my agoraphobia is based on their projection of “free time”. I’m so lucky to not have a 9-5 or get into work clothes, I can just do whatever I want, working on my own time, in my own space, watching movies.
You probably realised during lockdown that finding the motivation to work in your own time when the very concept of time seems endless and unknown is extremely difficult. It’s easy to take for granted the importance of every day minutiae to keep you grounded in reality, and without it, there is a lot of “What day is it?”
I do watch a lot of movies though. Being a freelancer permits me to multi-task and I can smash out David Fincher’s filmography in a day or two (I love Panic Room). I’ve watched LOST three times from start to finish in the last two years, but you know what I’d love to do? Go for a walk in the fucking bush. Get a chai latte with my friends. Go to an art exhibition.
Unfortunately the irrational heights of my absolute need to be in control of my mental and physical safety is yet to triumph over five years of pent-up cabin fever. In Level 4 I saw a growing (albeit indirect) acknowledgement of the bleak reality of being stuck at home; it’s a lot like being a lion at the zoo, pacing back and forth in a tiny prison you never asked to be in. You can see the world outside you from behind the thick glass, but you will never be free. It feels helpless.
Jacinda Ardern legally enforcing my way of life on the entire country was surreal in many aspects. As an anxious person, I’ve weighed up my mortality for the whole gamut of apocalyptic scenarios, all of which I concluded would end in me dying alone in my room, be it from starvation or torn apart by a horde of the undead. However, with the best strategy to survive the coronavirus being Stay At Home, it turns out that I’m actually a highly qualified doomsday prepper. This is my time.
I am the Bane of Covid: you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, moulded by it.
While I would never wish how I feel on anyone, it’s fascinating to see 99.9% of the population experience genuine symptoms of agoraphobia, as people wrestle with the cognitive dissonance of being so close to regular life but restricted by a threat as intangible as my fear of fear itself.
Like a lot of people with anxiety, in the first few weeks of Level 4 I felt remarkably calm as the general public’s anxiety grew to match my regular state of being. With agoraphobia not only being a fear of fear, but also a fear of other people’s perception of your inability to cope with that fear, it was morbidly comforting to know that everyone understood the need to feel safe on a physical and mental level.
While everyone was sharing memes about how happy their pets were to have people around the house all the time, I related more to the pets. In conjunction with a chronic sleep disorder that is most easily described as permanent jet lag, I can go days without seeing my flatmates, which is more isolating for me than any time spent in lockdown. It’s not lost on me how ridiculous it is that a country-wide quarantine gave me statistically more hours of socialisation than I’ve had in a long time. Not to say I haven’t experienced any elements of social isolation - I missed my friends visiting. I missed going out for dinner on one of my good days. I missed smiling at the locals, by which I mean dogs. With one of my flatmates quarantining at their partner’s house, initially I worried a lot about burning out my remaining flatmate. It turns out my worry was completely unnecessary, and four weeks straight of Animal Crossing, The OC, and huge bowls of puttanesca has only strengthened our bond.
I found communicating with others online a little tricky at times, which is particularly strange as someone who has been directly jacked into the internet since 2005, and I can only assume is a result of my nagging irrational subconscious trying to punish me for my seamless transition into quarantine living. Other than that, the biggest issues for me during the age of Corona were my local pharmacy closing earlier and not being able to get new art supplies for a bit. I don’t mean to sound smug - I’m just as surprised as anyone else to have coped so well with a literal pandemic.
With Covid-19 safety procedures closing the metaphorical distance between myself and people who do crazy stuff like “going to the supermarket”, it’s worth thinking about what we can take on from this experience to make New Zealand more accessible for people who struggle with anxiety and other mental and physical conditions that limit the range of their commute.
The normalisation of voice and video calling for educational and business purposes, along with online appointments with GPs and mental health practitioners, is particularly vital, and there’s no reason for these services to end when the pandemic does. My appreciation for video calls also extends socially - any kind of health issue that holds you back from social interaction is devastatingly isolating, and feeling uncomfortable in social situations and wanting to be social are not mutually exclusive concepts. Please continue to reach out to the people in your life who you know struggle with this regardless of New Zealand’s active case status! I promise you there is a middle ground for maintaining a social life outside of mainstream social conventions, it just requires some compromise.
In acknowledging that many people are able to maintain their workload during the pandemic while working remotely, I would love to see more opportunities post-Covid to work from home that don’t turn out to be multi-level marketing schemes. While I mentioned the difficulty of keeping yourself motivated outside of a work environment before, I believe this is a lot to do with the circumstances surrounding why you are working from home. It makes complete sense to find it difficult when it’s something you’re quickly forced to adjust to because of a global pandemic, just as it does to find it difficult because of the shame and stigma around being unable to fit into society’s standards of how an adult should work and live.
I’ve lost out on great job opportunities because of my agoraphobia, even ones that specified the position could be done from home for the right candidate. I understand the perceived risks of hiring someone who is unable to attend urgent face-to-face meetings but I hope that the solutions for remote working utilised during lockdown allows employers to see this doesn’t have to be the case. Insecurity and anxiety aside, I know I’m a competent worker with a lot to prove and offer if an employer was able to offer me the proper support and room to breathe, and it would be ideal if that room was within my own house. The same applies to my pursuit of higher education. I hope that more learning institutions begin to record and upload classes and lectures, which doesn’t just help students with disabilities, but also those who are unable to attend every class because they are busy working minimum-wage shifts to pay for the very classes they keep missing.
I worry a lot about my future. No part of me wants to be like this forever. I’m so grateful for the people around me that treat it with compassion, but I know it continues to create a lot of obstacles for me that make me feel less than. At 28, most of my friends have degrees, something I am yet to achieve. Many of my friends have moved out of the country and I hate not being able to commit to plans to see them. I want to travel, Covid permitting, because of course I want to see outside my bedroom. My biggest fear, above all my other numerous fears, is that I will never move past this, and that I will stagnate.
New Zealand has been at alert level one for nearly a month. I’m happy for my friends and to be able to see them again, and I’m proud of our country, but I’m struggling with what feels like the most selfish anxiety - while the world around me goes back to normal, I’m still inside, and I’m not the only one. It’s also important to note that this pandemic has and will continue to have a real impact on mental health globally. I don’t doubt this Covid-centric stress and trauma will birth some new agoraphobics who struggle to readjust whenever this is over. I can’t bullshit and say the push for this kind of accessibility won’t involve a lot of work, fine-tuning and funding, but it really is empathy that will get us there, something I hope will be a little easier for others to find after taking a month-and-a-half-long walk in someone else’s shoes. Even if it was just up the driveway and back.