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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 11:00 GMT
'Escaping my invisible prison'
Julie Stead
Julie can't even drive to the next village
Every time Julie Stead walked out from her front door, in her eyes, she entered a highly dangerous world.

Despite being completely physically well, she believed that one wrong turn could actually kill her.

Julie, 33, has suffered from agoraphobia for more than a decade, and the panic attacks that accompany it have robbed her of jobs, friends and most kinds of social life.

Before it developed, she was widely-travelled, outgoing and independent - but at its height, she could not leave the village in Yorkshire where she grew up.

I can't go any further because I'm afraid I'll have a panic attack - it's like there's a perspex wall in front of me
Julie Stead
The public perception of agoraphobia is that sufferers have a fear of open spaces - in Julie's case, however, the key factor was distance from home.

Over the years, she began having panic attacks during which she thought she was going to die.

Gradually, these began to happen when she was nearer and nearer to home, eventually leaving her "confined" to the village.

Julie's condition - and the therapy she is using in an effort to beat it - is the subject of a BBC documentary broadcast on Wednesday.

Virtual prison

Even going to locations such as the village shop or garage unaccompanied proved an ordeal.

She said: "I can't go any further because I'm afraid I'll have a panic attack - it's like there's a perspex wall in front of me.

"I can see through it, over it, round it, but I can't get through it, I daren't go any further."

Now she is completely dependent on her mother Carol, boyfriend James and neighbour Sue for companionship, as other friends have tired of the limitations her condition has imposed upon her.

What prompted her finally to seek professional help was a desire to have children, and the knowledge that if this happened, she would have to have the ability to travel at least to nearby towns.

I dread ending up as an old woman who hasn't left the village for years
Julie Stead
"I'm conscious all the time of my biological clock ticking away.

"I always wanted children by the time I was 35, and now I'm less than a year away.

"At the moment I'd never be able to go to hospital for scans and check-ups so it's just impossible.

"I dread ending up as an old woman who hasn't left the village for years."

Walking alone

Hypnotherapy and psychotherapy have not helped, so, in a last-ditch attempt, over a four month period, she enlisted the help of a specialist in agoraphobia therapy, in a bid to extend her "boundaries".

The early results are promising - she is now walking solo around the village every day, although setting foot outside this boundary is a challenge she has not yet faced.

"I did have a panic attack a month ago which set me back a bit, but I'm back on track now.

"My therapist thinks the distance thing is going to kick in at some point because everything else is working right.

"My life at the moment is work, sleep, walking my two dogs and being with my boyfriend."

House move

However, the therapist is keen for her to break through those boundaries, and perhaps even drive as far as the nearby town of Wakefield.

And another big day awaits Julie - she is moving house, a major obstacle to any agoraphobic, and moving in with her boyfriend.

She said: "At the end of the day I suppose it's a case of not losing heart, just keep going but at your own pace.

"To others with agoraphobia I'd say try and get some help from somewhere. Plague your GP and don't take no for an answer."

"ONE life - Scared To Leave Home" went out on BBC One on Wednesday, 5 November, 2003.


SEE ALSO:
Agoraphobic marries - at home
05 Aug 98  |  UK News
Award for 'stay-at-home' gardener
27 Jan 03  |  England


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