For Mental Health Awareness Month, locals are sharing their personal mental health stories
Growing up in Queens, New York, Mark Dema dreamed of traveling abroad, but a fear of going away from home consumed him. In his 30s, he realized that fear had a name: agoraphobia.
As a teacher in the Hudson Valley, he would hear fellow faculty members traveling to places he always wanted to visit, but couldn’t because of this crippling fear.
“You start getting depressed about other people sitting in a faculty room and telling you how they went to California, to London,” he said. “I wanted to see all these places so desperately.”
The now-71-year-old went on a windy road to get to where he is today.
Dema described his first panic attack when he was around 20 years old.
“Your stomach drops, and your face gets kind of pale,” he said. “It’s a disoriented feeling, like you’re in a fog.”
The experience made him feel as though he was crazy.
“People didn’t know about phobias,” he said. “You can’t tell them about it.”
In 1988, he decided to seek treatment for his condition. He saw an ad in the newspaper for a therapist based near where he lived.
The therapist turned him on to TERRAP, an instruction-based treatment designed by Dr. Arthur Hardy in 1975 to combat anxiety for all who suffer, regardless of whether or not it comes from childhood traumas.
The treatment was a good fit for Dema, who believed that his anxiety was genetic. Dema’s mother and maternal grandmother both had similar bouts with anxiety.
Once he completed his course in TERRAP, Dema put his agoraphobia to the test. He took a trip to Boston with his then wife.
“I was in total state of panic, sitting with her,” he said. “But what I didn’t notice was that my anxiety level only went so high, and eventually it came back down.”
One big thing he learned during his TERRAP course was the need to be motivated to make a change.
“A big thing is motivation as to where you want to go,” he said. “If it’s a place where you don’t really want to go to, it’s going to be hard to overcome the agoraphobia.”
After Boston, he then visited a beach two hours from the Hudson Valley area.
“I loved to boogie board, ride the waves,” he said of the experience.
He was able to tackle his big dream of visiting California in 1996. He took a trip cross country, and while he experienced panic on different occasions, he worked through it with the help of exercises he learned at TERRAP.
By the time he reached Lake Tahoe, California, he blared out the Mamas and the Papas’ 1965 classic “California Dreamin.'”
“We crossed that border, and I could not stop crying,” he said. “I was listening to the song for a half an hour.”
Years later, he became a tutor to a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome. To show his gratitude after the student starting passing English class, his father wanted to take him to London, a place the longtime English teacher and tutor had always wanted to visit.
“I told him, ‘I can’t get on a plane,'” he said.
Dema visited his therapist once more to help him overcome this fear. They revisited the tools he learned during his initial sessions, and he was off on his first ever flight.
While the trip was a success, he continued to battle agoraphobia, especially when it came to traveling abroad.
When he started dating his girlfriend, she gifted him with a European vacation. He had not been on a plane in a long time at that point, which he found difficult to tell her at first.
“One of the things about having agoraphobia is wondering what people will think,” he said. “One of the fears is you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of people.”
He eventually took the trip, which took him all around Europe for 14 days.
In October of 2019, his college-age daughter Victoria wanted him to visit her while she was studying abroad in Athens, Greece. He had not been on a flight in nine years at that point. This sent him into a tailspin where he decided to have Xanax prescribed by his primary care doctor.
He slept through the nine-hour flight just fine, and enjoyed the time he had with his daughter.
“She hugged and kissed me and said, ‘Daddy, are you gonna be alright?” he recalled. “I said ‘Victoria, I slept on the plane! Let’s go to dinner!”
Dema is grateful for how far he has come, but explained that he is always working on his agoraphobia.
“I’ve gone from a guy that didn’t go an hour and a half to one who has been to Paris and Amsterdam,” he said. “Like any other therapy, it’s a tool. It’s just like if a doctor teaches you about how to rehabilitate your shoulder: if you don’t do it, you’re not going to be able to lift your shoulder up.”