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Agoraphobia group helps people deal with panic disorder

October 05, 1997

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

Last month, 39-year-old Kathy Greenough went shopping with a friend at the Valley Mall in Hagerstown. She stayed for three hours and bought $200 worth of clothes.

For most people a shopping trip is no big deal. For Greenough, who suffers from panic disorder and agoraphobia, it was a very big deal.

It was the first time in two years that she had gone shopping anywhere but in a catalog.

"I was like a kid in a candy store," the Williamsport resident said.

Greenough's debilitating panic attacks began 20 years ago, after a series of tragic events. When she was 18, her troubled young husband committed suicide shortly after Greenough gave birth to their baby. There was another suicide in the family.

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"To this day, I can't stand surprises," she said.

The panic attacks began and turned an outgoing, daring tomboy into a fearful recluse. She sought psychiatric help. She tried to live her life with the specter of fear surrounding her. She had a degree in communications. She had things to offer. But she found fear in control of her life.

Four years ago, Greenough said the panic attacks worsened and she withdrew altogether, afraid she would have more attacks in public. She became agoraphobic.

"I was literally a prison in my own home," Greenough said. "It was a living hell."

Greenough married her current husband Richard in 1994. Last October she said they came to Hagerstown where they lived with her parents. They had one room in an unfinished basement. Greenough said her condition deteriorated.

This February, Greenough said she started having severe heart palpitations. They scared Greenough so bad she went to the hospital - again and again.

"I'd run to the emerency room with this smothering and choking sensation. I had this horrible fear of dying, or going crazy. I couldn't breathe," she said.

After she went there in panic six times in one week, Greenough said she was told that there was nothing more the emergency room could do for her.

"I was frightened, confused, lonely and exhausted," she said. Greenough was averaging only two to three hours sleep a night. She sought help at two mental health facilities here. She said she didn't feel she was getting the help she needed at one, and the other wouldn't take her because her insurance wouldn't cover her treatment.

"I felt abandoned," she said.

On March 24 Greenough picked up the phone and called the Washington County Mental Health Center in Hagerstown. She was in tears. She told them she thought she was dying.

Greenough said a therapist came to her parents' home, took her by the hand and literally led her outside and to the Mental Health Center, where she is now getting help.

"Until then, my life was a living hell," Greenough said. "I was paralyzed with fear. I would just lay on the couch. I couldn't move. I hate dirt but I couldn't clean ... ." The Greenoughs now have a place of their own. Greenough's panic attacks are being controlled by medication and she is learning to deal with the symptoms.

"When my heart starts to race, I remember to tell myself I'm not dying," she said. "For the first time in many years I feel alive again."

Greenough now takes a nightly walk outside - even though it can be a frightening experience for her - and she has made a second trip to the mall. "Afterward, I walked into a store by myself and ordered a Sprite," she said, smiling broadly.

Her next goal: Go out to dinner with her husband. Because of her fear, it's something the couple hasn't done since their marriage.

Greenough urges anyone who thinks they might be having panic attacks to seek help immediately.

"First they need to see a medical doctor, because the symptoms mimic some life-threatening diseases," she said. "They have to rule those out first."

If they find they have panic disorder or agoraphobia, Greenough stressed how important it is to get counseling immediately.

Greenough said her support group will help those who are diagnosed with panic disorder or agoraphobia cope with their illnesses, and the stigma still attached to them.

"This is a lonely disease," she said. "A lot of people who know you can't handle it. It either frightens them off or they say `I can't put up with this,' " she said. "It's important to these people that they know they're not crazy."

Greenough is talking with the local fire department about using their meeting room," she said. "Of course, confidentiality will be guaranteed."

People interested in joining a support group can write Greenough at P.O. Box 487, Williamsport, MD 21795-0487.

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