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After spending years of her life indoors due to mental illness, Anna Gekoski had finally reached a point where she felt well enough to go outside, visiting shops and restaurants without panicking. And then lockdown happened.
On March 23, she found herself powerless once more. But this time, the barrier to freedom wasn’t her mind, it was the government-enforced restrictions due to a global pandemic.
The criminal psychologist from Brighton, who’s in her 40s, felt mixed emotions after the lockdown announcement – while she knew it was necessary to keep people safe, she also felt scared: what would it do to her mental health?
“I’d already spent so many years imprisoned in my house in self-isolation,” she says. “I had no external barriers to going out, but my mind wouldn’t let me. Then, having got better – and loving going out every day – I suddenly had the government telling me that I wasn’t allowed to. It’s ironic really.”
Gekoski has had agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, since her early 20s.
Agoraphobia usually arises by associating panic attacks with the places or situations where they occurred – and then avoiding them. In some people, it can happen randomly, with no trigger. In others, it’s related to issues like a fear of crime, illness or being in an accident.
“It began when I was about 18 and at university,” says Geksoski. “Out of the blue I started to have the odd panic attack. I used to shake a lot, feel sick, and then I’d either feel very hot or very cold. Accompanying this was a feeling of utter dread, and the complete certainty I was about to drop dead.”
The panic attacks occurred more frequently and Gekoski became trapped in a vicious cycle of fear – she would panic about having panic attacks, and it would kickstart an actual panic attack.
She’d have them in lectures and seminars at university, in cinemas, theatres, on holiday, and in shops and supermarkets. Over time, she stopped going to these places. “Gradually your world just shrinks and there are fewer things you can do,” she says. “Eventually my home became the only place I felt safe.”
Gekoski, who lives with her husband and two dogs, has been agoraphobic intermittently throughout her adult life, but the height of it came in her mid to late thirties when she couldn’t leave the house – for days, weeks and even months. If she did manage to leave, she couldn’t go anywhere alone.
Four years ago, she had a breakdown. She wouldn’t go in her own garden, refused to see friends and family, and spent all day in bed. She was admitted to a private mental health hospital for a few weeks – soon after, she began to rebuild her life very slowly.
The last few years have been “incredibly happy ones”, she says. Getting her dogs, Mavis and Bernie, has been a huge help. “They made me get out, even when I didn’t want to, as they needed to be walked. Looking after them distracted me and made me think of something other than myself.”
She’s also visited new places like pubs, restaurants, shops, the beach, parks and hotels. “If I stop doing these things for any significant amount of time then I know I start to get anxious and slip into old habits,” she says.
At the start of lockdown, Gekoski sat down and figured out how she was going to cope with being indoors for the foreseeable future – again. She looked at what strategies she could put in place to make sure she didn’t regress in her recovery.
While it’s been tough – some days she hasn’t wanted to get out of bed – she has been determined not to go back to how things were. She’s been working a lot remotely, which she’s grateful for as it’s provided a welcome distraction from her anxiety.
Gekoski has also used her government-allowed exercise outings to go on long evening walks with her dogs. Instead of taking them to the parks where they used to go, she’s been exploring the woods and local countryside instead.
“I’ve always hated the idea of rambling or hiking – and the thought of being out in the middle of nowhere made me anxious – but now, I’m actually loving it,” she says. “I’m discovering new places, enjoying being amongst nature in wide open green spaces, and chatting to my dogs as I go.”
Anna’s coping strategies in lockdown
Getting out of the house daily, while sticking to the rules.
Sticking to a set routine – and not working from bed!
Being aware of triggers.
Keeping socially connected.
Since the easing of lockdown restrictions, Gekoski has met a friend for a socially distanced walk, too.
However, she’s eager for lockdown to end so she can move forwards with her recovery once more – rather than feeling like it’s paused. “It can’t come soon enough,” she says. “I know it has to come in stages so we keep the infection rate down, but I need to get out and start living my life again.
“As soon as restrictions ease, I’ll be out doing what I can, as soon as I can – and working on getting right back to the point that I was at before lockdown.”
Anna is a Time to Change champion. Find out more here.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.