When Sheila’s daughter was 6 years old, her bus service to school was discontinued because they lived just over the border. Sheila explained, “I knew that I had to drive her, but it was torture. I drove her in the morning, and barely made it. Then, all day, I kept thinking that I would have to pick her up in the afternoon – this could trigger twenty panic attacks a day! It was a horrible way to live, but still, I couldn’t have been more devious in keeping my phobia a secret from my daughter”.
It’s been more than twenty years, since I worked with Sheila – she called me recently, and now, at the age of 65, she wants to reveal her story in the hope that it will help others - she especially wants you to know the secret of how she has beaten panic at its own game for all these years.
Sheila’s agoraphobia began acutely at age 25 when her parents moved to the west coast. She had felt attached to her loving but somewhat “strange” mother. For the first time in her life, Sheila felt that she was alone – she became agoraphobic that year.
By the time I met her, Sheila had been phobic for twenty years. During that time, she had tried all kinds of treatments with no results. She was against drugs but was so desperate that she eventually volunteered for a drug study. Sheila described another one of her treatments: “The psychologist took a group of us into the community to do in-vivo desensitization therapy. They wanted us to face our fears directly in order to become de-conditioned to them. The problem was that I was too proud to fully admit my problem. I dealt with it by “acting like I was in control”. I was so convincing that everyone was asking me what to do. The psychologist even joked that I might as well run the group - “They were getting better, but I was still agoraphobic!
And so it continued. Just the thought of having to leave her house could bring on an attack: her heart would pound in her chest. She would begin to perspire and be unable to catch her breath, all of her muscles felt painfully tight. Panic would set in and she would lose herself to feelings of dizziness and nausea – but the most horrifying thought was that she was going to lose her mind.
Sheila was raised in a secular Jewish home. She was not educated in religious practices nor did she want to be. She is, however a spiritually-oriented person. That is, she believes in a G-d of her “own understanding”, a “higher power” that is essentially good. This lent to her personality a noticeable optimism - despite her worsening condition.
Sheila understood that the first hurdle in her recovery was her pride. At first it wasn’t easy for her to surrender herself to the idea that her recovery could only come through surrender to a “higher power”. At first, even light relaxation was perceived as a hateful submission and an intrusion upon her need to vigilantly chart her own course. After several attempts, she began to experience muscle relaxation and deeper breathing. It helped to give the credit to G-d, who was immediately rewarding her willingness to “let go” with some tangible relief from tension. In time, she began to enjoy letting up on some of her control and letting “G-d” take over. For instance, she experienced the difference between exerting herself to breath as opposed to letting G-d breathe her.
Fueled by the complete unmanageability of her life, Sheila became receptive to visual imagery sent by her “Higher Power” to guide her. She started to believe that G-d was sending her His Divine wisdom during her states of relaxation.
One day I asked her what images were coming to mind. “I see a foot-bridge”, she said. “The bridge is going over some water. On the other side of the bridge is a clearing and behind the clearing is a forest”. I asked her if she would be willing to cross over that bridge. She replied, “I can take a few steps…but that’s about all”. She was encouraged to ask her Higher Power to help her to go further. It took time. She practiced at home, and began to report small accomplishments in traveling with less anxiety. After a few months of working this way she proudly announced that she had driven herself to my office. This was a turning point – she had realized that she had reached a level of functioning that she had not experienced in years. Even so, the old Sheila would not have been happy with this result for long. But instead of complaining, this is what she said to G-d: “G-d, help me to accept myself whether I have anxiety or not… help me, kind G-d to be kinder and less demanding of myself… help me to just accept things the way they are now…and please just stop me when I start wishing that things be different than what they are”.
A few months later, I began hinting to her that we were coming closer to the end of our work. Once again, we returned to the bridge scene to gage Sheila’s readiness to stop. This time when I asked her to picture the bridge she became visibly excited. “What happened”, I asked her. She said with conviction: “I did it. I’m not agoraphobic anymore. I walked over the whole bridge.” She literally sobbed with joy:
“I’m really going to be ok!”. She continued across the clearing…took a few steps into the forest and stopped. That was far enough.
Sheila reports having had no relapses of her phobia in more than 20 years. incident while shopping in Macy’s about 6 months ago (Macy’s had been a major trigger for her). She said, “Suddenly I started to panic. I have no idea where it came from…but then I said to the panic. Oh come on, you again. You know you’re absolutely ridiculous…after all these years? G-d, tell him to get the heck out of here! The panic ran for the hills, it knew better than to mess with G-d”.
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Zev Ballen, LCSWhas been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He is licensed in Israel and the State of New York. Zev has the endorsements of prominent Gadolei Yisrael such as the Nikolsburger Rebba, Shlita, Reb Yitzchok Fagelstock, Shlita, The Kasaner Rebbe of Forshay, Shlita, Rav Shalom Arush, Shlita, and Rabbi Lazer Brody, Shlita. He resides with his family in Jerusalem where he learns in Rav Arush’s Kollel and maintains a part-time practice. You can write to Zev Ballen at: email@example.com call him at: 845-362-8600 (US line) or 054-840-9499 (Israeli line).