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LOCKDOWN DIARY: The anxiety of being out when we hate being in

OPINION

Neurologist and psychiatrist Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal was a professor at Berlin University in the 1800s where he lectured on mental disorders, found innovative ways to treat the insane with more humane methods that excluded restraint and where he also treated patients with anxiety and other psychological disorders.

In 1871, Westphal started to recognise a pattern of complaints from at least three of his male patients. They expressed they had fears of crossing large open public squares and other public spaces as well, and on approach to these spaces, these men would be overcome with heart palpitations, trembling, dizziness and even an immobilising fear of dying.

All these symptoms are common in anxiety sufferers, but what was new to Westphal was that he had never before been presented with patients who experienced anxiety specifically triggered by public spaces. This inspired Westphal to publish his seminal work on what we now know as agoraphobia – a name Westphal assigned to the condition which has its roots in the Greek name Agoraphobie – a neologism that literally means fear of the marketplace.

Subsequent to Westphal’s research, many other neurologists and psychiatrists have furthered their investigations in the field of agoraphobia and today we definitively understand agoraphobia as an anxiety disorder which is characterised by not only an intense fear of geographical locations, but also of any situation they feel might be difficult to escape. People with agoraphobia are known for avoiding public transport, movie theatres, queues etc. and just the thought of having to engage in any of those tasks can, in some cases, prevent individuals from leaving their homes.

Agoraphobia isn’t as simple as just saying “these are people who are afraid of being outside and so never leave their homes”. It’s more complicated than that. Many agoraphobes do leave their homes, but still have anxieties and fears. Agoraphobia is the combination of an anxiety toward a phobic stimulus and the deliberate avoidance of those stimuli, which may cause an inability to function.

Why am I fascinated by this? Well, because of coronaphobia. Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one second implying that we’re all now going to become certified sufferers of agoraphobia, but I have started to realise the exponential dread and anxiety I feel every time I step out of the house to buy but one potato or whatever it is that is desperately needed.

I hate being in crowds and around too many people. It’s not because I am agoraphobic, it’s because I am a textbook socially anxious wreck, but I do like to get out of the house. Being in lockdown is… noisy. With everyone at home and someone doing DIY down the road and someone always in the kitchen cooking who knows what, there is never a silent moment of clarity. So, getting out to do a grocery shop on occasion should provide a welcome little escape. But it doesn’t, does it?

My general 1 to 10 degrees of anxiety starts like this… at first, I am glad I can go somewhere, even if that somehow is a badly stocked Spar at a strip mall. Then the practicalities of the trip fall into place. Have I got my facemask and gloves? Did I remember to refill my little mobile bottle of hand sanitiser, is it in the car? Once this checklist is done, my anxiety level is already 3 degrees up and I haven’t even pulled out of the garage yet.

Then, out there, in the world, which is supposed to be quiet, but really isn’t, a whole host of phobic stimuli presents itself. Queues, for one thing. I have never seen so many in my life. And then, of course, it’s not just a matter of standing and waiting, it’s the paranoia of measuring out the metres between myself and the next person. Wondering why they aren’t wearing their mask properly, or not at all. And on top of it all, just the general fear of the air itself.

Is corona watching me? Is it here right now? Will I leave without it as I arrived, or will it accompany me back home? My anxiety is now at the umpteenth degree, I have stopped counting the levels, I have peaked and all the other symptoms of agoraphobic fear plus anxiety have kicked in. Heart palpitations. Shortness of breath. Dizziness. You name it. I have it. And I have not even bought my potato yet.

Then I arrive back to the comfort of home with its humming hairdryers and zinging lawnmowers of the neighbours next door and I think “Well… at least this anxiety in here isn’t as bad as the anxiety out there and one day lockdown will end and we won’t always feel so panicked about being outside; and leaving our homes will be pleasurable again”. But will it?

If you’re not afraid of going out, it’s because you’re not afraid of getting ill. And well, you should be. You should be very afraid of getting ill because that threat is very real. And it’s even more real to people who are elderly or who have pre-existing conditions or other chronic illnesses. And if you’re not one of those people, you definitely know someone like that, or maybe even live with them. So, just in case you were unsure about whether you had anything to be anxious about to begin with, you do.

But more than that, these fears can turn us into permanent homebodies. They really can. Nothing is going to be normal ever again. We have changed the way we think about touching, interacting and engaging. Our president said it himself the other night: kissing is simply a thing of the past. And so are many other things.

One of the other things that’s in the past, for me especially, and maybe for you too, is to release myself from my homebodiness with absolute freedom and at will. No. I will always be scared. And my pre-existing general anxiety disorder just makes me more scared.

Psychologists have started to advise that anyone who has a fear of entering the world again when we’ve reached a stage of normalcy start to devise mechanisms and game-plans to address their specific anxieties. For example, if you work in a call centre and the mere idea of walking back in there with hundreds of co-walkers in close quarters breathing over telephones and all over you makes you want to crawl into a cave and eat your own arm in order to survive instead of going out to buy that potato, well then, the advice is that you talk to HR or your boss and hope they are more amenable to making conditions feel safer for you.

Other life-coaches are advising that we think of re-entering into the world as a fun creative project, thereby removing the dread aspect of it all. “It might mean investing in a few pairs of vintage kid gloves or fancy designer face masks and starting a new trend in your social circle,” says Chicago-based therapist Amy Daramus.

I don’t know about that. I don’t know about any of it. What I can say for sure is that sitting at home and doing a damn collage about how fun it’s going to be to get out again, while wearing a fun pair of plucky booties and a neon Donald Duck beak-shaped mask isn’t making my anxiety any better. In fact, it’s making it worse. And frankly, I don’t have time to think about glue sticks and project paper and magazine cutouts because I need to have a 45-minute panic attack about finally going out to get that damn potato.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.