Jenna O’Keefe, 32, lives in London with her boyfriend, Tom. For eight months she found the thought of leaving her house crippling, until she developed a confidence plan that changed her life.
I’ll never forget the feeling of waking up at 6am, knowing I had to travel across London to a client meeting and just sitting there crying, thinking, 'Oh God, I can't go, I'm going to let everyone down.'
It wasn’t the high pressure pitch I was about to deliver for my job in an advertising agency that fazed me, I’m a confident person, I love public speaking and I'm very sociable. It was the thought of leaving my home and my safe space that had become crippling. I had to travel a lot for work and I found it so anxiety-inducing, it was horrendous.
I wouldn’t sleep, and when I did get some shut-eye, I'd wake up at 4am and think about how I would make whatever journey I had to do the next day. It became really difficult, but I had this mentality of 'you can't let people down, you have to keep going,' so I managed to stop it from really taking hold. I had to go to work, I had to push through, and I kept it closed away. No one around me would have realised anything was wrong.
I was never anxious as a child, though I got quite badly bullied at school and, looking back, a lot of that was repressed.
The first time I had feelings of agoraphobia was in my early twenties when I started working in London in a couple of difficult jobs where I didn’t feel supported.
I had my first panic attack at 21 in Westfield. I desperately needed the toilet and only just got there quick enough. That became the start of toilet anxiety, an irrational fear that you're going to need to go to the toilet whenever you're out of the house, and a condition that is closely linked to agoraphobia. It came out of nowhere and I started to feel I wasn’t safe unless I was somewhere that I knew. But I just put how I was feeling down to work stress and carried on.
It became worse and worse until I left that job in 2020 and took on an easier role – and then we went into lockdown. I had 10 months of feeling ok because I was at home all the time, and I even started my business as a confidence coach.
I had my first panic attack at 21 in Westfield. I desperately needed the toilet and only just got there quick enough. That became the start of my toilet anxiety.
It was only after the lockdown lifted when we started socialising again that I realised, 'OK, this isn’t normal, something is wrong.' I was so confident in myself doing what I was doing online, but if I had to go and meet somebody in person for a coffee, it would be so difficult for me.
I couldn’t explain it away as stress any more because my business was going well and my job was easy, but I found it so difficult to leave the safe space of my flat. That’s when I realised it wasn’t about work, it was something more. I couldn’t even go to Sainsbury's without feeling incredibly anxious and it was literally on my road.
I really struggled for around eight months. We lived in a one-bed place with no sunlight and I hated being in the flat, but I hated being outside the flat more. One day, my boyfriend Tom and I went for a short walk. We were holding hands and he was talking to me, but he felt really far away and muffled.
I just panicked. This feeling just came over me like, "I need the toilet, I need to go home." He looked at me and said, "You're not okay, are you?" We ran back and I sat on the bed, burst into tears and said, “I don't know what I'm going to do."
It was so awful. I looked at Tom and thought, 'He's going to leave me. Who would want to be with someone like this?'
It was so awful. I looked at Tom and thought, "He's going to leave me. Who would want to be with someone like this?" But he was fantastic. I explained to him that, when I was away from home, it felt like I was about to jump out of a plane. That was the physical reaction in my body. Even if I was standing in a shop or in the post office, that's how it felt. That really helped him to understand.
He didn't push me, he just said – and he still does say – "just do what you can do today." That was so helpful and a huge part of the healing journey. When you realise that somebody loves you, no matter what, it makes everything easier to handle.
I felt stronger to try and go a little further away from the house and edge out of my comfort zone. I thought, “My world doesn't have to be this small. I can be an adventurous person who goes on holiday and has fun and doesn't constantly look for the toilet.” Enough was enough.
Discovering myself through therapy
I started therapy in January 2022. It was a 10-minute walk over Tower Bridge and, as I walked over the bridge, my palms would be sweating, my heart would be racing and I'd get to the therapist's office and just burst into tears. One time I was ringing the buzzer and the receptionist had gone to the toilet, so it took 10 minutes to get in and I had a panic attack because I felt I wasn't in a safe space.
I'm a big advocate for therapy, but I didn’t just want to sit and talk about my problems, I wanted to take action.
Therapy made me realise that my agoraphobia was tied up with a feeling of shame. The fear of being outside the house was the fear of something happening to me and people looking at me and me being ashamed.
At home, in my safe place, nobody could shame me, nobody could think I was gross. We pinned that back to when I was bullied at school. Shame is such a heavy emotion that can do so many things to us psychologically, so I had to unpick and rework my relationship with shame and decide it's my choice to feel shame or not to feel shame.
I'm a massive advocate for therapy, but I didn’t just want to sit and talk about my problems, I wanted to take action. I knew that the only person who was going to fix this was me, and the only way that I could do that was by doing the things that terrified me.
I made myself a confidence training plan. I wrote down things that scared me, from ‘easy’ – like going to Sainsbury’s – to ‘medium’ – like meeting a friend for lunch – to ‘difficult’ – like hosting a live podcast in a studio. I’d number things on this anxiety scale and keep stretching out of my comfort zone.
Within six weeks, I'd worked myself up to do the scary stuff. I hosted that podcast in person in a studio with the lights and the cameras. I was so proud of myself. I'd done the scary thing. Then, what was the next step? I just kept going until I didn't feel the anxiety on a day-to-day basis anymore and, last November, I hosted a big event in front of 60 women. Halfway through the day, I thought, ‘I haven't even been for a wee.’ It was a massive, mind-blowing moment to me – the biggest day of my career and the anxiety just wasn't there.
I’m about to go skiing, which is a massive thing for people with agoraphobia and something I would have dreaded but now I am so excited.
It's not the type of thing you can completely get over in six months, and I think it will always be part of me, but I never feel out of control now. I might get a bit anxious but I’m not planning my route or researching to find out where the toilets are. And it gives me a deep level of empathy and understanding of my clients as a confidence coach.
I feel like I've gone through this for a reason and, if I can help somebody else and say, "You're not going crazy, your life is not over, this doesn't have to be your identity," then great.
When I look back, I feel so sad for that girl. My world became so small, so quickly. But, last year, I went on holiday to South Africa and, this year, I'm travelling around the States.
I’m about to go skiing, which is a massive thing for people with agoraphobia and something I would have dreaded but, now, I am so excited. I’m having all these experiences that just did not feel possible for me before. I’ve finally got to become the person I always knew I could be.
Jenna O'Keefe is a confidence and business strategist, helping female founders to achieve their ambitions.
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