The longest journey

Just walking to her local shops can give Lauren Ambler palpitations. But now she faces a trip to Canada

“We need to talk.” Four words that strike fear into the heart of any wife. What was he going to tell me? Was he seeing another woman? Were we bankrupt? What came next was far more shocking. “I want us to go to Canada.”

How on earth was a woman with agoraphobic tendencies, who has never been further than northern France, never set foot in an aeroplane and who has palpitations during shopping trips to the Trafford Centre in Manchester, going to manage a trip to Canada?

Before 2002 I would have relished the opportunity but I wasn’t coping well after a series of family illnesses and a bereavement. I was hitting the bottle (of Rescue Remedy) and developing a dependency on Quiet Life tablets, neither of which took the edge off the crippling anxiety. In the morning I would wake with a feeling of impending doom.

At the hairdresser’s one day my hands went clammy, my heart started pounding and I was sure I was having a heart attack. The feelings were so overwhelming I had to leave: complete with dripping wet hair. I began to avoid going out. Walking to the postbox at the end of the road on my own was frightening; a trip to the supermarket became excruciating. It was easier to stay at home. At least if I were to faint or die, I could do it in private.

Living with panic and anxiety is like living under siege. Fear of panic occurring is always poking through your subconscious. A little voice reminds you not to let your guard down. If you do, this might be the time when you go mad or die. Author and doctor Claire Weekes calls this “second fear” – you’ve had one panic attack, now you fear more.

Beta-blockers helped, but not everything was so effective. My GP referred me to a psychiatric nurse whose contribution was to tell me to pull myself together and do some exercise.

The only way I was going to get over the fear was by facing it. My husband would cajole, bribe and beg me to leave the house. We would start small and build up. A drive in the country one day, a visit to a shopping centre by the end of the week.

Months of practice meant, eventually, I could face a ferry trip to France. Luckily, the gods smiled on me and it was a smooth crossing. That’s not to say I didn’t feel alarmed when the boat listed slightly, but that initial wave of panic did not turn into a tsunami. I thought the worst was over: if I could make it over to France the possibilities were endless. But they weren’t.

There seems no rhyme or reason to when panic hits: foreign country, no problems; local supermarket, back to square one. There is no pattern, no set routine.

The trick, I suppose, is to remember how far I’ve travelled. At one time I was paralysed with fear when faced with the prospect of shopping. Hard work and determination have taken me as far as France and, who knows, with time it may take me to Canada.

Lauren Ambler is living with anxiety and panic

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