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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Freedom boost for panic disorder
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Agoraphobics feel trapped by their condition
Ray has not been to the West End theatre for about 25 years, despite his yearning to see a play.

He finds it difficult to do most things people take for granted, like walking in the park or going shopping.

Ray has suffered from agoraphobia - a fear of open spaces and public places - for the best part of his adult life.

He is overcoming his condition and now wants to help others do the same with a new scheme to help agoraphobics "walk to freedom".

Ray's agoraphobia started out of the blue 24 years ago when he had the first of many inexplicable and irrational panic attacks.

His life would never be the same again.

He said: "One day at work I started to panic. I didn't understand what it was and tried to ignore it.

"It didn't make sense."

I could have been in a chip shop and something would cause me to panic, but I couldn't explain it
Ray, recovering agoraphobic
The panic attacks became more frequent and began to destabilise him.

"I could have been in a chip shop and something would cause me to panic, but I couldn't explain it."

A pattern started to emerge whereby he was forced to avoid situations and places because he feared the onset of a panic attack.

It became progressively worse - and a panic attack could happen anywhere at any time.

Turning point

He was forced to give up work because he could not leave the house.

His long-term relationship disintegrated and his condition became so severe that he became room bound - unable to leave his bedroom, except to use the toilet or visit the kitchen to eat.

Ray, 57, only realised what was wrong when he read an article in a magazine about agoraphobia.

I reached a point where I was able to label myself a 'recovering agoraphobic'
Ray, recovering agoraphobic
Until this turning point, he had been suffering alone for a year.

Although it was another year before he received professional help, after being referred to a therapist by his GP.

A lot of his therapy was "very painful".

He said: "I had to discuss personal issues and it was quite traumatic."

His recovery started about three to four years into his treatment.

"I reached a point where I was able to label myself a 'recovering agoraphobic'."


But it was a very bumpy road.

"I have had setbacks since then and still have setbacks."

At his worst, he was housebound for two months and he developed an addiction to Valium after taking the drug for four years, although he is now drug free.

His experiences led him to launch the charity "Successful Failures" to give help and support to agoraphobics.

Although still in its infancy, his plan is to train volunteers to work with agoraphobics with the aim of creating a support network for them.

Volunteers will be paired up with sufferers and take them out on a regular basis to build up their confidence and help them eventually brave the outside world alone and "walk to freedom".

Ray's professional team includes experts from the Wolfson Institute of Health and Human Science and Thames Valley University.

Personal struggle

He finds it amusing that he spent so many years being confused and unable to make sense of his condition and now finds himself taking an educational role.

Ray said: "The aim is to get volunteers to come forward and attend these workshops and then link them up with an agoraphobic to work with them and help them to get through it.

"It could be as simple as just going to the shops with them or accompanying them to the park.

If you set a big goal and the person runs away, you could be reinforcing their agoraphobic response
Nadine Field, consultant psychologist
"It has taken four years to get off the ground, but it is so badly needed."

Consultant psychologist Nadine Field thinks Ray's project sounds promising, but believes the volunteers who take part must be trained to expect failure as well as success.

She said: "Any programme has to be achievable.

"If you set a big goal and the person runs away, you could be reinforcing their agoraphobic response.

"Volunteers will have to be trained to know what to expect and what these people's reactions could be.

"They will have to be set realistic goals."

Sense of humour

Ray is also planning to set up "safe houses" for agoraphobics - where they can meet in a safe environment and gradually work through their demons and recover from their illness.

Ray has already identified one possible venue and hopes it could also become an educational resource centre where health professionals and students can learn and understand more about the condition.

Ray may be recovering, but he still has good and bad days.

"It's still a bit of a struggle," he said.

He gets out about once or twice a week - usually to go for a walk, but he still has to rely on family and friends to do his shopping.

He hasn't worked for 24 years and has resigned himself to never holding down a job again.

But he is still able to laugh and said that having a sense of humour has helped him get through this protracted difficult phase.

"I do believe I will be 100% better one day and be able to do Christmas shopping and walk on the beach or go for a walk in the country. "

He knows he will have left his agoraphobia shackles behind when he can walk along Shaftesbury Avenue and take in a show.

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