This time of year, I often find my Instagram saturated with photos of friends’ holidays and I am filled with mixed feelings of sadness, fear and embarrassment: I have never been on holiday with friends, with a boyfriend, or by myself.
I have also never willingly stayed over at a relative’s house, or spontaneously missed the last train home at night, lived away from home for university, or been on a school trip. I can count on one hand the number of childhood sleepovers from which I didn’t have to be picked up.
I have suffered from really aggressive panic attacks for as long as I can remember, triggered either by being away from home overnight, or by my parents going away and leaving me in the care of a relative. When they first occurred, they were dismissed as the symptoms of a "difficult child" but as they failed to fade away with age it became clear that there was a deeper problem at play.
Now, at age 24, I have almost wholly conquered the panic attacks that happen when my parents go away, but I am still unable to stay somewhere without them. The last time I attempted to spend a night away from home, at my boyfriend’s flat, I had one of the most violent and horrible panic attacks I can remember: three hours of convulsing, unable to speak beyond endlessly muttering or wailing "I can’t do it" as waves of terror washed over me, until eventually my boyfriend had to take me home because he couldn’t bear to see me like that anymore.
It has been suggested by various therapists that I have panic disorder, or an extreme phobia. There’s no known trauma in my childhood to pin the fear to. But try to make me stay in a home that isn’t my own – without my parents – and I will panic. I will eat as little as possible, to hold back the waves of nausea; I will cry at any moment, overcome by a sense of abandonment and betrayal – that I am being put in a situation I can’t handle by people who know that; then I will have a panic attack which I worry will never end, until I inevitably exhaust myself and pass out.
I have had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) twice on the NHS, as well as cognitive hypnotherapy privately. While the latter helped me to learn some grounding techniques, the former never really tackled the root of my attacks, instead focusing on the general anxiety disorder I’d developed in my late teens – which I’m certain happened because of the shame I felt at entering my 20s and still being incapable of leaving home. The "cognitive" focus of the therapy is also ineffective in tackling my attacks, because I can never pinpoint a negative thought that occurs before the panic sets in; instead, a feeling of terror comes on with no warning, and I feel violently sick. If I don’t have a chance to rationalise the fear, then my breathing becomes aggressively short and my body starts convulsing. I cry until I think I’ll be sick, and react as though something awful has happened or is imminent. It's like a combination of feeling abandoned and trapped; that there’s no way out of the spiral and that no one can help you.
Some people talk about being afraid their heart will stop in a panic attack. I don’t have that. I have no real awareness of what is happening to me, or may happen to me, physically. Instead, I get momentary snatches of fear that something will snap in my brain, that the terror won’t stop, or I’ll be taken to hospital because no one can get me back to my former self.
Day to day, I can suppress the worry that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Luckily, because rents are disgracefully high in London, I’ve been able to use that as an excuse for still living at home and I have friends who live at home too, which helps to normalise my situation. I have a job that doesn’t require me to travel and makes me feel important. But when my mental health takes a slide, it all comes rushing back: at 24, I’m too old to be the way I am; I need to stand on my own two feet, for myself, my family and my boyfriend. I fear that the incredible patience they all offer me will run out and I feel as though everyone is moving at a faster pace than I can keep up with. I need more time to fix the problem. It makes me wish I could be young and struggling with housing, rather than being still at home and stifling my parents’ future. But that feels monumental, as though I’m rushing towards a deadline I’m not capable of meeting yet.
I have only told a handful of people about my panic attacks, and I often downplay them. Because as much as people can be concerned or sorry for me, I am yet to meet anyone who truly understands, or who experiences the same thing. It is easy to feel horrendously childlike as you tell someone who lives with their boyfriend, or in a flat with their friends, that you can’t stay away from home. I can sense – whether it exists or not – a relief that they don’t have the same issue, and I’m left wishing I didn’t struggle with something that was so necessary for adult development. Occasionally, people who really can’t put themselves in my shoes will make jokes about it – that I’ll never move out – and it takes a great deal of strength not to cry. It is debilitating, depressing and feels endless and exhausting.
I recently enrolled for more CBT, only to be put on a six-month waiting list, and I don’t know what other therapies exist that could help. I fear it’ll never go away, and I only let myself dream of living a "normal life" when I feel emotionally stable. I feel as though I am swimming against the tide, while everyone I know is safely on land. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting closer to them, but other times I feel as though I’ve always really just been drowning.