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I lived in terror just like star Kim; PRISONER OF FEAR: HOW AGORAPHOBIA CAN SLOWLY DESTROY YOUR LIFE.

Last week at the Oscars, Kim Basinger revealed she won her award despite a terrifying bout of agoraphobia that imprisoned her inside her own home.

She's not the first Academy Award winner to have a fear of large, open spaces. When Nicholas Cage was a sufferer, he turned into a virtual recluse away from the Hollywood high-life.

More than two million people in Britain live with this debilitating condition, which can make living a normal life impossible.

Natasha Weale meets sufferer Catriona Gibson to find out how agoraphobia almost destroyed her life

Little Catriona Gibson was a happy, outgoing girl until she was bullied by a teacher.

Overnight, the eight year old turned into a scared child who faked illness to get out of going to school.

Now 21, Catriona still lives with the legacy of that terror.

For the Glasgow student became agoraphobic as a teenager and was too terrified to leave the house.

Enrolling at college brought the memories of that childhood terror flooding back to Catriona and she began to suffer panic attacks.

She said: "I would try and walk to the end of the street, confronting my fear, but I would just end up in tears and return home.

"It was too hard to do by myself. One minute, I was fine. The next, my world was falling apart. It just seemed easier to stay indoors than go outside and risk another panic attack."

For three months, Catriona holed herself up in her room, refusing to go outside.

She said: "Agoraphobia made me become a virtual recluse. Everything I had once lived for suffered as a result. My social life became non-existent and I lost so many friends through it.

"I knew I was wasting my life away, but I didn't know how to overcome my phobia."

Her parents Mary and David were worried about her health but their concern reached new heights when she refused to go to college again and subsequently dropped out.

She added: "It was the turning point for me because my parents insisted I went to counselling. They didn't know how to help because they didn't know what was wrong.

"All they wanted was for me to start living again, instead of being cooped up in my room."

In desperation, Mary and David sent her to a hypnotherapist.

Catriona said: "I didn't know whether it would work but I was willing to try anything.

"It took an awful lot of persuading to get me out the house but ,once I'd had the first session, I really thought it might help."

Within a couple of months, Catriona felt much better. She added: "I started to regain my confidence and felt I could cope better when stressful situations were thrown at me.

"Seeing how much it improved my life was amazing."

Each session consisted of one-to-one therapy with the hypnotherapist, followed by a spell under hypnosis.

Catriona explained: "It was so much easier talking to a stranger. I knew she wasn't judging me and it gave me the chance to finally admit my fear.

"My hypnotherapist was the first person I told about being bullied at school. It was her that suggested there could be a link with me being agoraphobic and being bullied at school."

That brought back all the awful memories for Catriona.

She recalled: "I never knew why my teacher picked on me but she made my life a living hell.

"I don't think she will ever know the lasting damage she caused me.

"All the abuse caused me to develop a phobia towards school, feeling as if the other staff had somehow let me down.

"I did everything I could to avoid going. I never told my parents what was going on and, because of that, I think they just thought I was a very sickly child."

After leaving school, Catriona thought her phobia would disappear.

She was wrong. Instead, her condition worsened and she was left to contend with panic attacks, dizzy spells and excruciating stomach pains.

She said: "When I started college, the past came flooding back to me.

"I remember the first time I had an attack ...I was on a bus going to college when this panic just started rising up in me. My heart was racing and my head felt like it was going to explode. All I knew was I had to get off the bus."

That's all in the past now. And, although Catriona no longer needs hypnotherapy, she believes if she hadn't received the help, she would still be a slave to her fear.

She added: `It was ruling my life. I knew I was the only person who could do something about it and, thankfully, I did.

"I'm a much happier and confident person today. I've started a new course and I've made some great new pals. The quality of my life is so much better now.

"Of course, some days are harder than others. If I'm going out on a big night and I start to feel edgy, I use self-hypnosis to calm me down.

"I can do anything I want to and I want to make the most of my life.

"I used to hate feeling so trapped. The fear controlled me. Now I'll never let agoraphobia come between me and my lust for life again."

Panic starts the decline

Agoraphobia is regarded as the most common single phobia.

And it is not just simply a fear of open spaces. The phobia manifests itself in a number of ways, including the fear of going out or being along, fear of crowds, public places and public transport.

The Phobic Society says agoraphobia results from panic disorder. It can be defined as when sufferers become afraid of being in any place or situation that they might not be able to escape from in the event of a panic attack.

Around one third of panic disorder sufferers have agoraphobia.

Sufferers can find that their boundaries become smaller and smaller very quickly, setting off a number of symptoms. These can include high levels of panic and anxiety, palpitations, cold sweats, dizziness, weakness in the legs, abnormal breathing and a feeling of throat constriction.

The condition is usually treated in two steps. First, drugs are used to suppress the panic attacks - SSRIs, particularly Seroxat.

Secondly, behavioural desensitisation is used to help the sufferer travel beyond their current boundary.

Almost two-thirds of all agoraphobics are women. Most sufferers are aged around 26 when the symptoms appear.

A spokesperson for the society said: "Evidence suggests that, in many cases, agoraphobia CAN start after a major change in the patient's life situation.

"It can be an illness in the patient or a relative, traumatic scenes, or incidents in shops, streets, or buses.

"But what is clear is that these factors don't materially affect the subsequent course of the illness."

For more information, contact the Phobic Society on 0161-881-1937.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Weale, Natasha
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:1260
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