Friday, 26 August 2011
I'm going to go out on a limb here. Whoever popularised the expression 'a walk in the park' for doing something easy-peasy did not suffer from agoraphobia.
I find leaving the house pretty bloody difficult at the best of times, but going for a stroll round a park is particularly nervewracking for me. I don't know if that's because the concept of leaving the house because you want to or to have fun is quite alien to me these days or because I was most likely raped the second time in Soho Square in the line of sight of lots of people or because parks are quite wasp friendly. So why did last Monday afternoon find me walking round Holland Park?
Well, I'm having some more therapy (it might make me less mental or it might qualify me for the Guinness Book of Records) and I'm really trying to tackle my agoraphobia. After roughly six years of sitting in the house, I'm bored of it. I've seen every episode of Murder, She Wrote. I've read the entire internet. I've managed to make enough of the immediate area feel safe and established a support network of people who either understand my agoraphobia or don't like to make a fuss about it and suddenly I'm no longer content with being stuck indoors all the time. I can see normality on the horizon and it looks like a nice place to be. I want to be over there with people who go on days out or have jobs or don't have to leave the house two hours early to allow for panic attack time or just like being outside. People who just get on the bus and do stuff at the drop of a hat rather than construct a bizarre life held together tenuously with a tonne of coping mechanisms of varying oddities. People not like me in other words.
So my therapist and I are working on a series of exercises that work on overcoming my agoraphobia and minimising my reliance on control and coping mechanisms. She has been suggesting things like try buying the paper in a different shop to normal or get off the bus early. In a classic case of frustration, making life hard for myself and trying to run before I can walk, I suggested going to an area of London I've never been before and dandering round a strange park by myself. And then if I had time on the way home, I could climb Everest and cure cancer...
I left my day trip to the last possible opportunity before my next therapy appointment and finally found the time in my busy schedule of sitting on my arse when I weighed up the discomfort of having to make up an excuse as to why I hadn't done my homework next day. Realising I have no dog that could have eaten it, I took the Tube to Holland Park with a sense of dread and duty. I didn't quite manage to break a recently realised coping strategy and went fully made up as it (oddly) makes me feel less scared that men will leer at me and of course the use of mascara discourages me from crying with fear in public in case I end up looking like Alice Cooper. But off I went all the same. One incident of hiding on the platform pretending to read a poster, rather than get in the lift alone with a slightly strange man, two double checkings of the map in the concourse and a brief lurk at a bus stop to re-read the map later, I reached the park.
My reasoning behind Holland Park being a good place for this activity was that it would be full of posh people, excellent signposting and nice manicured lawns from edge to edge with nothing larger than a box hedge for crazed rapists to skulk behind. Unsurprisingly like all assumptions, there was little actual fact to back this up. Everyone looked much like all the people I've seen in other parks (albeit with more pedigree dogs), signposts appear to be banned and there are fucking great hedges everywhere. The whole place is like a nature reserve crossed with a Crimewatch reconstruction. I mean, it's lovely. All green and leafy and like a forest rather than just a patch of grass like most parks. And it has a bloody great pen of pigs milling about being all oinkworthy and cute. Great stuff, unless like me you are convinced that going into a park is the most dangerous thing you can do outdoors and like to be able to see everything clearly and not have any chance of anyone sneaking up on you. Plus all that privet is like a street party for wasps.
I walked from one end of the park to another with grim determination and a knot in my stomach. Even though it cloudy and overcast I kept my sunglasses on. I tried to think things like 'what a lovely tree' but everything kept going a bit blurry and feeling like it was swimming around me as I attempted to not just curl up in a ball and wish myself somewhere else. I felt immediately better when I got out onto the street, but I was still so flustered and upset and panicky that even wandering into the High St Kensington Waitrose and staring for ages at all the types of cheese couldn't soothe me. And while the high number of stiff upper lip posh folk probably made the park less scary, it also meant a lack of pubs in which I could resort to a stiff drink to take the edge off. (Yes, I know alcohol solves nothing long term.) Instead I made myself go into lots of shops and look at things to distract me from that feeling of impending death I was having.
And it kind of worked. An hour later I'd impulse purchased several items of clothing (which turned out to flattering and not black when I got them home. Apparently fear is what my wardrobe has been missing.) and discovered that eating some lunch would make me feel less wobbly and sick. I pootled home feeling like I'd almost enjoyed myself. Despite that, I couldn't have been more relieved to get home and lock the door. I could physically feel the tension drop away as I turned the key. I spent the next hour or two reminding myself what fun it had really been and how nice it was that I hadn't died/cried/vomited/punched anyone or run away screaming, but then at just after 7.30pm, I had to go to bed because I was so exhausted I was starting to stagger and slur my words. I felt I deserved a lovely long deep sleep to perk me right up again.
Unfortunately I had a good 12 hours of nightmares and flashbacks instead and woke up feeling like I hadn't bothered going to bed at all. One little meander had popped the top off those PTSD symptoms I have become quite good at keeping stashed away. I felt like I had an emotional hangover, topped with a general feeling of being a failure for not even being able to do something toddlers find fun. But rather than stay in, refuse to even open the windows like a really bad agoraphobic day usually makes me feel, I hauled myself out to my therapy appointment for a serious post mortem of the event. My lovely therapist helped me be less bleak about the whole thing and awarded me some CBT gold stars for my mental wallchart. I then surprised the hell out of myself by going to meet a friend for lunch and do dinner with another instead of hiding away back home.
Maybe I'm not as bat-shit as I thought. Maybe parks are just intensely dull places full of slightly weird people after all and no one goes to them if they have a garden? Maybe I'll be able to completely dismiss the idea of art galleries and museums after this week's homework and go up another level at the game of self delusion? So help me out...where outside the house do you go alone to recharge your emotional batteries*? Is it ever fun to go out by yourself?
*unexpected pigs are a plus, not a necessity in the venues.