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My life was ripped apart by fear of open spaces.

SHEILA Harris's world was ripped apart when she started to suffer from agoraphobia, a pathological fear of open spaces.

She lost her job, her independence and her life as she knew it when for 18 months she couldn't even bring herself to step beyond her own front door.

If she even glimpsed outside, she suffered massive panic attacks and would feel dizzy, breathless, sick and terrified.

She used to constantly plague her husband at work, begging him to come home, because she was too afraid to be left in the house on her own.

She was suffering from an acute form of agoraphobia and years later, she still doesn't know why.

Sheila, 59, from Kenilworth, said: "I have no idea how it started but I put it down to hormones as I faced the menopause. It just crept up on me. I used to be an active, outgoing person but I was slowly changing.

"I gave up my job as a book keeper because I just couldn't go to work and I started to feel an overwhelming sense of fear if I left the house.

"Even worse, I then felt fear just moving from room to room. The more I stayed in, the worse it became."

She constantly rang her 60-year-old husband Robin to beg him to come home.

She said: "He was very good and understanding with me. It is difficult for anyone to fully understand if they haven't felt the fear, but he did his best."

But her condition was a shock to her children, 38-year-old Geoff and Julie, 34.

She said: "They had trouble with it. I used to be such an outgoing person, always the one that made the decisions, a real go-getter.

"I ended up the complete reverse of my previous self."

Yet 10 years later, Sheila is now the secretary of First Steps to Freedom, a Kenilworth-based society for phobics, and has no qualms whatsoever about leaving home.

She has beaten her demon.

She said: "I see those as dark, sad days, but they're behind me now. I still feel extremely lucky every time I leave the house."

The real breakthrough came when her husband bought her a car.

She said: "Somehow the car was like an extension of the house and I felt safe in there."

Going to a selelp group, and meeting other agoraphobics, also helped. There she met Lesley Hobbs, the co-founder of First Steps, and they talked about setting up the charity.

"We decided there was nothing for people in the Midlands so Lesley set up First Steps. We started as a Midland charity but now we're national. We now have 1,200 members."

The charity helps agoraphobics and people who have panic attacks, as well as those suffering from obsessive compulsive behaviour.

The group is well supported. Comedian and patron Jo Brand is holding a concert at the Warwick Art Centre on May 24, with all proceeds going to First Steps.

Sheila said: "Talking to other people in the same boat was a lifeline to me. I want to be able to do the same for others."
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:May 17, 1998
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