Finding your voice

dan storyEach day during Mental Health Awareness Week, we will be posting a story from someone with personal experience of anxiety. Meet Dan who has experience of agoraphobia.

My next-door neighbour told me once: ‘You should never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.’ It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase, and it won’t be the last, but for some reason it stayed with me and I think I know why.

We all need a voice. Sadly, your voice is one of the first things you lose when your confidence is broken and the world stops making sense. Suddenly, everyone else is speaking for, over, or at you, and no one’s listening because you don’t know where to begin. That happened to me when my anxiety returned eighteen months ago and my world began to shrink. How could I begin to explain agoraphobia? I wasn’t scared of ancient Greek market places (agora-phobia) and when I finally plucked up the courage to phone my doctor, he delivered me with the dreaded words: ‘Why don’t you come into the surgery and we can talk about your options.’ Where had my voice gone and how would I get it back?

As I tried to make sense of my shrunken, new world and what felt like all of its oddities, I found other voices; denial, shame and embarrassment – to name but a few. The soft inner voice that used to guide me through the storm and hold my hand in the dark was gone and I was terrified by the thought that it wasn’t coming back. I spent all Christmas with my hood up. When I found the courage to get past the front door, it was only ever in
my jogging gear; running seemed like the only way I could deal with the panic and disguise my symptoms. I needed a way of coping, some kind of distraction, and it
came in words, lots of them; different shapes and sizes, different sounds and meanings.

By spring I’d written my first proper poem and my confidence had grown enough for me to enrol on a creative writing course run by The Open University – I was a phobic scholar and things were looking up. My head became full of poetry and the voices of dread that
were telling me to ‘leg it’ were being smoked out. Not only had I discovered a passion in life, I had something to tell other people when I was batting those awkward questions: ‘So Dan, what have you been up to then?’ Don’t get me wrong, things weren’t suddenly easy, but I felt like I was filling up my days, and yes, my voice was coming back.

Agoraphobia lends itself to the lonely, old world of a writer, and perhaps in that respect it doesn’t encourage me to push my travel boundaries very far. My world outside is still full of rat runs, thumping heart beats and escape routes, but I understand my life a lot more these days and I’m getting much better at explaining things to both myself and other people – so that’s a start!

Now I wouldn’t expect anyone to walk a mile in my smelly, old trainers, let alone go anywhere near them! But I would like to think that people are starting to hear my voice again; it could be in a poem, or perhaps even a text message, but it’s there, and it’s allowed me to stand up and start talking about my attachment to this cruel and isolating condition, while also helping me to feel connected with others facing similar challenges.

Is it just me
One day I looked up…
and the clouds were falling ill,
the birds were singing off
their keys
and the trees were icy still.

One day I looked up…
felt the world was quickly
the sky was empty of its blue
and the stars were quietly

According to the Mental Health Foundation, agoraphobia affects between 1.5% and 3.5% of the general population in its fully developed form; in a less severe form, up to one in eight people experience this.

If you, like Dan, have experienced anxiety and want to help support us provide essential services to thousands of people affected by anxiety every year, please text ANUK13 followed by the amount you’d like to donate (i.e. £1, £5, £25) to 70070. Any amount, no matter how small, really will make a difference to those affected by anxiety.