My Life and Times as an Agoraphobic

By Colin M. Hammond MBE

In 1979, at the age of 34, I joined the N.H.S. at Napsbury hospital, near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. Napsbury was, at that time, a large psycho-geriatric hospital of some 1500 beds. My role was that of Domestic Services Manager, i.e. providing a cleaning service. I had approximately 200 staff under my management and I controlled an annual budget in excess of 1 million pounds. The position was one of much responsibility and the accompanying stress. I can only assume that the next few years put a lot of pressure on me and the stress of the proposed contracting out of domestic services from the N.H.S. created an exceptionally arduous period.

One Saturday, in May 1982, I had planned to visit a recently wed friend in Birmingham. The same day was also my daughter’s wedding – my first wife and I were not in touch, I only heard about the wedding from my father – I had not been invited to the wedding so I was rather upset. Early that same morning an incident occurred between a patient and a member of my staff at the hospital. Consequently I had to go into work and resolve the matter. I thus embarked on my journey, from St. Albans to Birmingham, in a state of much stress and anxiety.

The day went off very well until the return journey. On reaching the outskirts of Coventry I was suddenly overwhelmed with fear. I felt I could neither go backwards or forwards. My wife managed to drive me to a nearby police station where a policeman thought I was having a heart attack, so did I, I thought I was dying. He called an ambulance and I was whisked off, with blue lights flashing, to the local hospital. At the hospital I was given a multitude of physical tests which all proved OK I was not dying because physically there was nothing wrong with me. The hospital said I was probably having a ‘panic attack’ which explained my racing heart and high blood pressure. They called in a psychiatrist who, after talking to me for a considerable period, confirmed that I had suffered a full blown panic attack. He slowly got me to relax and all my bodily functions slowly returned to normal. This took several hours so he gave me some tranquillisers and, very slowly, my wife managed to drive us back to St. Albans, with my panic subsiding and then peaking all the way. It was a horrific journey for both of us. Without my wife, Marion, I don’t think I would have made it.

On the following Monday I visited my G.P. who put me off work for 2 weeks because he said I was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Following this period I returned to work which, because we lived in the hospital grounds, was close at hand and thus manageable. However, I soon discovered that any longer distances, like walking along the long hospital corridors or travelling to other sites within the grounds caused me to panic and feel very frightened and sick.

I went back to my G.P. who arranged for me to have an appointment to see a psychiatrist. However, this was at another hospital some 4 miles away. Come the day I tried to go but, I couldn’t get very far due to the constant panic. I rang the psychiatrist and explained the situation and he advised me to go back to my G.P., which I did. He was very angry and told me I was wasting the time of busy people and that I wasn’t ill enough to require a home visit by a psychiatrist and that if I didn’t go to see the psychiatrist it was my problem and there was nothing he could do. I was devastated and just didn’t know what to do.

After a couple of weeks I decided to take matters into my own hands and I rang the psychiatrist. He was most helpful and arranged for a Community Psychiatric Nurse (C.P.N.) to visit me. This she did and duly reported back to the psychiatrist. They diagnosed that I was suffering from panic attacks which prevented me from going out. It was then arranged that the C.P.N. would visit me weekly to help me overcome the problem. Week after week we went on a little walk but returned home as soon as I felt anxious. Unfortunately, as I know now, she didn’t know anything about how to properly treat my problem. She was doing her best but, I wasn’t getting any better. It was not her fault that she hadn’t been given any training about helping people with my problem.

We kept this up for about six months but regrettably I was, if anything, getting worse. In November 1982 my boss sent for me to see how I was getting on. I had to admit that things were getting worse and he pointed out that my work was suffering due to my anxiety. However, my boss, Tony, was brilliant and very understanding. He said that there was a “Behaviour Therapist” working in our hospital group and would I like to see him. I must point out that because I worked at a hospital and even lived in the grounds I did not come under the “catchement” area of that hospital so Tony had to pull some strings to get me an appointment with the “Behaviour Therapist” in our own group. I didn’t really know what a “Behaviour Therapist” was but, I was prepared to try anything. A telephone call, from Tony, resulted in the therapist agreeing to see me. I suppose it was like colleagues helping each other rather than a formal N.H.S. matter. The therapist’s name was Kevin Gournay and, as I am sure you will realise, he is now Professor Kevin Gournay, the president of our charity  ‘No Panic’

During this ‘dark’ period of my life, my stepmother died and my father came to live with us. Marion and he were very supportive but, I wish he hadn’t kept on telling me to “Pull myself together”. I would have if I could!! I didn’t want to live my life in that way. Life was extremely difficult and the future looked very bleak. My world consisted of only the hospital grounds. Anyway, Kevin came to see me and immediately diagnosed that I had an illness called agoraphobia. It was such a relief to find out what I’d got and that it was just another illness. He insisted on my taking 6 weeks off work and having complete rest. He also told me that I had to very, very slowly reduce my intake of Tranquillisers. I had been on them since 1969. However, that is another story.

Kevin returned to see me in early 1983. He explained what a “Behaviour Therapist” did and how my recovery would be achieved. He made an appointment to see me the following week and said we would go and have a cup of coffee somewhere. I wasn’t too worried about this as there was a small café in the village and I felt I could just about manage that, as long as we went in a car. I thus returned to work in the middle of January 1983. Kevin duly arrived and I was ready, feeling quite pleased about going to the café. Big mistake!! Kevin had other plans, we were going to Enfield, some 12 miles away. I was absolutely terrified and told Marion to find the insurance papers as I was convinced that I would never get home alive.

Kevin told Marion to stay at home and off he and I went in his car with me still panicking and expecting to die at any minute. I don’t think I have ever been so frightened, it was the most horrific two hours of my life! However, much to my surprise I did go into the centre and have the cup of coffee and a biscuit. We left the café and out of the blue Kevin announced that he was just “nipping off” to buy something and I should just stand and wait. Panic again! I wanted to run into a shop and plead for an ambulance or a doctor but, I didn’t. Kevin returned and we drove home. I had made it, much to my surprise and, physically I was fine, just totally exhausted. Kevin explained that he had carried out a “flooding” exercise to prove to me that my worst fears wouldn’t happen and do you know? He was RIGHT.

Kevin told me about self-exposure which, he said, meant facing up to my fears on a gradual basis and we agreed on a recovery programme. I should explain, here, that we moved house in December 1982 that meant that when I returned to work, in January 1983, I had to travel about a mile. I couldn’t make the trip, on my own, for some time and Marion would sit outside my office, in the car, for the whole day as I didn’t feel safe if she went away. I’m lucky I met and married such a great little lady.

I started on my own self-exposure, firstly by getting to the ground floor of the block of flats, where we lived, and then by daily walking around the block  day in, day out, come rain, wind or snow. I would have my “Walkman” on my head, playing my relaxation tape, and bouncing a tennis ball to stop me thinking about how bad I felt. I must have looked very strange with my tape on my bald head and bouncing a ball, like a geriatric hippie but, I didn’t care. If that was what I had got to do to get better then so be it. People would give me some funny looks but, I would stop and explain what I was doing and why. Although I don’t for one minute think they really understood I had made new friends who, when they saw me, would shout encouragement or if I had got further than they had seen me get before they would congratulate me. This help and support was marvellous as it gave me encouragement to go further and also I wasn’t at all embarrassed by them knowing what my illness was. It may have been an illness which is little understood but in those early days my recovery method gave us all a few laughs. Eventually, as Kevin had predicted, the anxiety began to drop and, as I now know, it always does. I practised driving a little, on my own and as the weeks went by I got further and further. I slowly increased the distance from home that I walked and even went on a bus, just one stop and standing on the platform, courtesy of a kind bus driver who I told about my illness. It wasn’t very far but, it was a start. I told everybody I could find about my illness and I probably bored the pants off most of them, much as I do today!!

Kevin came to see me week after week and reviewed my progress in the diary that he had insisted I keep. The diary was a “Godsend” because not only did it show what I did when but, I could look back and get confidence from reading what I had achieved. Kevin, the little devil, occasionally took me on more “flooding” trips. To say I didn’t enjoy them is somewhat of an understatement but I understood why he did them. I could have cheerfully throttled him at times but underneath I knew he had my best interests at heart. After about 4 months I could drive to work on my own and stay there. My staff were marvellous and helped me through the bad times. Once again by telling them it reduced the fear because you are not always on your guard trying to hide things away.

Over the next two years I gradually expanded my boundaries and life was beginning to get back to something approaching normal, whatever that is. I even got back to playing table tennis, a sport I have loved since I can’t remember when. I was fortunate enough to be quite good at it and had played at county level and was ranked in the top 50 in the country. I may sound quite big-headed but I am what I am. (Most people still think I am big-headed and the fact that we have no doors in our house is neither here nor there.) Anyway playing table tennis involved quite a bit of travelling but things were getting a lot easier. Would you believe it, I told all my table tennis colleagues about my illness too. In late 1984 Kevin did his usual “flooding” trick. He was due to give a lecture at Birmingham University, some 90 miles from St. Albans and he thought it would be a good idea if Marion and I went with him but, I’m not so sure that I felt it was a good idea. He is full of jolly little wheezes. However, I agreed to go. To my surprise it was a “doddle” and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. However, there was one slight “hitch”, my car blew up in Birmingham and a “A very nice man” from the A.A. put the car on a trailer and we all travelled back to St. Albans in his lorry. Even this didn’t cause me any anxiety. Who’s a clever boy then?

In about the middle of 1985 I decided I didn’t like the way things were going in the N.H.S., so Marion and I decided on a change of career. I should explain that Marion was also a senior hospital administrator but had had to give up work in 1982 due to heart problems. We decided to buy a shop in Telford where Marion’s son, by her first marriage, lived with his family. A wool shop came up for sale and we bought it and changed it into a “chippy” (I love chips so it seemed like a good idea) We moved up in January 1986. We came by ambulance as I still wasn’t too good on motorways without Kevin – he inspired me with total confidence – The trip was as easy as falling off a log, I had improved much, much more than I had realised. Things were on the up and up and life was really very pleasant again.

We opened the shop in March 1986. Life was good again. After a further few months of reinforcing my self-exposure I soon adjusted to my new life. I could do anything I wanted – go to restaurants, the cinema, shopping, drives in the country etc. Everything I attempted I could do without any anxiety or fear.

This situation went on for nearly 5 years but, at the end of 1990 Marion was taken seriously ill with her heart. This is when they fitted her heart valves. At the same time our “chippy” wasn’t doing too well due to the recession and in early 1991 my agoraphobia came roaring back with a vengeance and I also developed monophobia, fear of being alone, with it. This meant that Marion had to sit in the shop with me. Things went from bad to worse, it soon became obvious that we couldn’t continue with our little shop. It was killing Marion which in turn was making my anxiety worse. We kept having to close the shop due to my panic attacks and obviously our customers were going elsewhere.

We put the shop on the market and sold it in June 1991 although, we lost a lot of money as we had to let it go cheaply to get a quick sale and also the recession affected the value of business’.  For about 6 months we just recuperated and then we began to wonder what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. Obviously I hadn’t recovered enough to go out and get a job and Marion was nearing retiring age anyway. We decided that we would like to try and help others tackle their anxiety disorders. I joined Phobic Action, as a help-liner and put a small advert in the local paper –hence the birth of ‘No Panic’. Originally we had only planned to operate as a small local charity but, the word spread and we found we were getting enquires and calls for help from far and wide. The rest is history, No Panic has grown and grown and thanks to all the volunteers who have joined us we now help many sufferers and carers.  So the proof is here; The initial four volunteers has grown to some 90 and the charity now has a membership of over 1500 located mostly in the U.K. but including quite a few from other parts of the world who have got to know about the work of No Panic.

No Panic now offers a full range of services for people who suffer from Panic Attacks, Phobias, Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder and any other anxiety related issues. We provide literature, CD’s/DVD’s, a membership scheme and “contact” book service wherein members are able to make pen-friends or phone friends with other people who have similar problems. We also offer telephone and email  recovery groups which are of special benefit to people who live in rural or isolated areas where access to local face-to-face self help groups or statutory support is very limited. 

The telephone/email recovery courses that No Panic use are based on cognitive/behaviour therapy and anxiety management as the basis for recovery. Whilst no therapy guarantees success, this method has at the present time the highest success rate. You are expected to face up to your fear on a step-by-step basis. You are not thrown into your worst scenario and left to sink or swim.  The progress you make will depend on the amount of effort you are prepared to put in. It is a gradual process in which slowly but surely you desensitise your body and mind from your fears.

How can No Panic help?

No Panic specialises in self-help recovery and our services aim to provide people with the skills they need to manage their condition and work towards recovery.