"Even the thought of going into my garden made me panic" 

Claire Ledger had her first panic attack while shopping in her local high street. 

Claire, 26, was unable to explain the experience. She initially believed that it may have had something to do with where she was, so she stopped going there and began to shop elsewhere. When she had a similar attack in another location, she stopped going there too.

Within five months, she had stopped going to so many places that it was only at home that she felt truly safe. She left her job as a nurse and spent the next two-and-a-half years indoors. She read, watched TV, surfed the web and cared for her husband, who is in a wheelchair. She never went outside. 

“When I had the first attack, I didn’t know what was happening,” says Claire, who lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire. “I was in a shop and I felt faint all of a sudden and had to crouch down to avoid collapsing. I was shaking and felt sick.”

She went to see her GP who initially thought she was suffering from stress. Claire had just begun a new job, had recently married and was undergoing IVF treatment.

“Every time I went out after that I got this feeling again,” she says. “Everywhere it happened, I avoided that place. Instead of thinking it was me, I associated the panic attack with the place where it happened. I was such an outgoing person, the idea that it was all in my head never occurred to me.”

She was eventually diagnosed with agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, which is estimated to affect 30 people in every 1,000 at any one time in the UK.

“I got to a point where my stomach dropped as soon as I woke up,” she says. “It’s like a feeling of grief and despair. You’re shaking, tired and you don’t really feel there. It’s like you’re watching yourself.

“I tried to get through it, but I reached a stage when even the thought of going into my own garden made me panic. It was like coming up against an invisible wall.

"It was hard on my husband. He’s a big sports fan and likes going out to watch live events.”

The couple’s elderly neighbours would help out with getting food and household supplies. “I felt ashamed that someone in their 70s was doing my shopping,” says Claire.

She became determined to seek treatment and went on a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). She found the treatment helpful, but it didn’t change her thought process.

What made the difference was sharing her experience with people in similar situations, who she got in touch with through support groups on the internet.

“You feel like a freak,” she says. “Talking to other people in the same position was what helped me the most. We worked on breaking down our boundaries together.”

She became friends with a woman in another town and they would make the same trips together in their respective neighbourhoods, slowly increasing the length of their journeys.

“We would call each other before leaving the house and we would remain on the phone to each other until we got back in,” says Claire. “Even though she was not there in person, her voice was really reassuring.”

For the next two years, this was how Claire expanded her boundaries from her doorstep. “My husband changed our mobile provider when he saw the bills I was running up,” she says.

Claire has learned to cope with her moods and has now regained enough confidence to go back to work.

“It’s important for people to know that you can recover,” she says. “You may think it’s like a death sentence but the treatments do work. I never thought I’d return to work.

"I still have my down days, but I’ve learned to accept that you can’t feel your best every day.”

Page last reviewed: 15/08/2014

Next review due: 15/08/2016