Friday 1 February 2019

Living with claustrophobia: ‘I’m too afraid to lock my bathroom door’

Aimee Browes shares the everyday realities of living with this debilitating phobia on BBC. Read on: 

I was around 10 when I was first diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and put on medication. It was also at this age that I remember feeling claustrophobic for the first time - though I wouldn't learn to officially call it that until much later.

I was playing hide and seek at a family member's house and squeezed myself into a built-in wall cupboard. But when I tried to get out, the door wouldn't open from the inside. I felt so hot and started screaming and crying. There were people outside trying to help me open the door, but I honestly felt like I was going to die in there. I must have only been locked in the cupboard for about two minutes, but it felt like hours.

A couple of years after that, I was eating lunch with my friends in a classroom at school with a big wooden door. One of our group shut the door and then, because it was a bit stiff, we just couldn't get it open.

My friends found it funny, but I was screaming, crying, and started to have a panic attack. Finally, a teacher heard us and was able to push the door open. After that, I felt the need to check doors and locks wherever I went.

To this day, claustrophobia affects my life on a daily basis.

I can’t go into toilets without a gap at the bottom or top big enough for me to escape through if required. Coffee shop toilets where there’s just one single, closed-off room make me feel physically sick. In hotels, I have to just hope that someone won’t come in because I won’t double-lock the door from the inside. It’s the small things that other people can do that I can’t – I even struggle getting into taxis or other people’s cars if I know the doors automatically lock or if I hear the lock click.

I’ve been in and out of retail jobs since I was 16, and gave it up last year to become self-employed. Working in a shop proved tough because I wasn't able to go into any of the lifts or changing rooms.

It was a horrible experience. Straightforward things like going into a cupboard to get a clothing rack would freak me out completely. I’d have to put my foot into the door while I reached for something to block it so it wouldn't shut. Or I’d have to ask another member of staff to do the task for me.

Lifts are my worst trigger. Even looking at one makes me feel panicked and I can’t touch the doors, never mind get in. I don’t think anyone likes closed spaces, but people tend to think my experience is just a dislike. What they don’t understand is the absolute fear, and the panic attacks and nightmares that claustrophobia brings. People always tell me: “I don’t like lifts but I get into them”, as if it’s something I should just get over. But it’s so much more than that.

Claustrophobia is an irrational fear of enclosed spaces, not the natural anxiety most people experience in a situation where they could genuinely become trapped indefinitely. People living with my condition experience a hugely inflated sense of danger.

My anxiety disorder and claustrophobia can have some overlapping symptoms - although there are parts of my anxiety that are completely unrelated.

Even though the NHS estimates that around 10% of people will be affected by claustrophobia at some point in their lives, being a 20-year-old woman who can’t lock doors or use a lift makes me feel really self-conscious.

Claustrophobia is often treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), but I’m yet to have formal treatment, and instead have just tried to cope with it. That might sound strange, seeing as I’ve had treatment for my anxiety disorder since I was 13 or 14. But my anxiety disorder affected my life in such huge ways - I couldn’t handle large crowds, struggled to make friends, and was trying to diet and basically cope with a million thoughts all at the same time. Things got so bad I actually had to leave school at A-level.

As a result, my claustrophobia took a back seat - because I had always managed to find a way to work around it, it didn’t overwhelm me in the same way.

But now that I'm older, and my anxiety is more controlled, the claustrophobia is more prevalent. I have to arrange my day around my phobia and that’s a huge challenge. The way I deal with it is by finding out what the toilets are like, whether there are stairs as well as a lift, and whose car I’m going in, all in advance.

I’m lucky that my long-term boyfriend, who I live with, is very supportive. He just doesn’t make a big deal of it. Neither do my friends. But when I’m with someone new, I find it hard. I feel so awkward telling a driver that I can’t sit in their car because they have a door with central locking. Instead, I sit in silence and try not to panic.

I try not to let it get me down, but claustrophobia has stopped me doing a lot of things. My boyfriend and I love visiting London and we always see other people’s beautiful photos from the Shard or the London Eye. I can’t bring myself to consider going to either of them, even though I want to so badly – my body and mind just won’t let me.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Just over a year ago, I overcame one of the toughest challenges that someone with my condition can face and took my first ever flight. It also resulted in me getting the first ever diagnosis for my claustrophobia.

I went to see my psychotherapist to talk about my anxiety, and how that would work on a flight. As part of my therapy, she gets me to talk through certain situations that make me anxious, and on that day, a lot of what I was describing were actually claustrophobic situations. Although I didn’t go into detail about it with her at the time, hearing her say those words out loud - "this sounds like claustrophobia" - gave me the confidence to acknowledge it.

Being stuck in a huge metal tube where you can’t even open the windows is usually terrifying for people with claustrophobia, but I finally got on a plane in November 2017.

We were flying to Malta in the early hours of the morning. When I arrived at the airport, still sleepy, I received extra assistance for my anxiety, meaning I could skip the queues for boarding and I would also be allowed to leave the plane first at the other end.

I was fine until I had to get into the tunnel towards the plane. But, when I saw the plane door, I just started crying. I’d made myself believe I'd be fine and reminded myself that so many other people do this. The second it became reality, though, I began second-guessing myself so much.

Eventually, I did get onto the plane, but I felt sheer panic and I hated it. I got through the flight by concentrating on breathing and distracting myself with magazines. I’d also taken medicated tablets that I had from a previous prescription for my anxiety. When the plane started moving, I began panicking again.

 But I did it, and I'm proud to say that I’ve been on a plane again since.

And, despite all these challenges, I have a lot of other things to be proud of too. Although I quit my A-levels to get help for my mental health, I went back to college a year later, and now, at 20, I’m at university studying psychology. I’ve also started my own business and social enterprise which educates people about the role fitness can play in looking after our mental health. This new venture also allows me to work from home, which suits me so much better than working in spaces like a shop or office.

Although claustrophobia rules my life, there are steps that I'm taking to free myself from it. I tell myself that if I can accomplish so much in other parts of my life, I can with this as well. And who knows, maybe one day I will make it up to the Shard.

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