By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – Scientifically-speaking, agoraphobia is the fear, terror, and dread of public spaces. Susana Lopez (50 years old) suffers from this phobia and hasn’t left her house in six years.
HT: Some people believe agoraphobia begins to manifest itself during childhood and adolescence. What was your life like before this ailment?
Susana Lopez: I always lived in a happy home, since I was a little girl. I have two brothers: one currently lives in Spain and the other is living in Cerro (Havana). They are older than me, so I was always the most spoilt. I didn’t have any trouble socializing as a teenager. I’d go to parties with my friends, to the movie theater, beach… things young people do. Then, I went to university and got to study the degree of my dreams. I got married when I was 24. My daughter Lucia came completely unexpectedly. She’s always been our greatest treasure. I can tell you we were very happy, so I don’t think this fear of leaving the house has anything to do with my childhood and teenage years.
HT: When did your first symptom appear?
SL: I can’t even remember there ever being a first symptom. My daughter fell in love with a young man who wanted to leave the country. At that time, I began to live everything super intensely. I couldn’t focus at work. I imagined the worst-case scenarios. I began to disagree with her and my husband on everything. I became a nag. At work too. I was working in Old Havana and it was really hard to get to daily. Sometimes, the clock would strike 9 AM and I’d still be waiting at the bus stop. It was one of those times that I realized my heart was pounding. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t imagine going into the office and feeling everyone’s eyes on me, censoring me in silence for my lateness. I understand now that I wasn’t in control of my thoughts. This situation has played out lots of times.
HT: Were you sleeping well during this time?
SL: No. I barely slept a couple of hours. My nights were hell. I’d imagine myself on a full bus, being pushed and shoved by passengers. Wading through the crowd that I had in front of me to get off, onto a street that was already packed with people at this time, and of course my work colleagues, who were always surprised to see me outside working hours. All of this would leave me without breath, I’d shake. I’d sit up in the bed panting for air. This situation led my husband to start sleeping on the sofa.
HT: Did your family realize what was happening to you?
SL: My husband didn’t understand. In the beginning, he thought I was hysterical because I wasn’t getting enough sex, then he thought that they were symptoms of menopause… The reality is our life was chaotic. There was drama all around me, I thought I was going mad. I couldn’t even go to the store. I’d get a sharp pain in my chest just thinking about it. The pain was so intense that it felt like a heart attack. There were times I’d shout so much at my husband that he ended up packing his bags and never came back. He still thinks I’m crazy. He says that my pupils would dilate so much when I’d get mad that I looked possessed. Given the situation, I had to delegate the responsibility of going to the Mercomar store in the Monaco neighborhood and to the root vegetable stall to my daughter. The day I had a panic attack in the line to buy bread and fainted was the day I stopped going out. That’s when my daughter called a family meeting.
HT: Your daughter was the first one to realize that your situation was serious then.
SL: Yes, she was really concerned, she’d looked up my symptoms online. My husband didn’t want to talk about it but he finally accepted. As he spoke, I could feel my head spinning. They were more scared than I was. He gave a deadline to find a doctor. With him away, my fear of leaving the house became real. I couldn’t even go to the door. That’s when I asked for leave from work until a doctor could see me.
HT: Did you voluntarily choose to go to the doctor?
SL: I didn’t go. I refused to leave under any circumstance. Lots of family members started looking for a friend that was a doctor that could come and help me. Until a psychiatry specialist appeared and accepted to come see me at the house. I was diagnosed with agoraphobia after the first consultation.
HT: Tell me about the treatment.
SL: The first part of the treatment had to do with getting to know yourself. Something like accepting my limits, my fears. Finding tools within ourselves to survive. I really got to know myself when I picked up reading again. I’m still taking flower essence drops. I entered the world of Yoga and meditation. I read a lot of philosophy and discovered a great passion for research.
HT: What’s your family life like right now?
SL: My daughter and her husband live with me. They take care of buying food and I cook, I take care of all of the chores around the house. I have learned to live with my illness. Maybe I’ll feel like I’m ready to leave the house one day. But I’m enjoying my house, family, and dog for now. I had to ask for leave from work. I try to keep positive. Sometimes, I imagine that life outside these walls is no longer a threat, but I’m still not ready to check for myself.