CHESTERFIELD: Singing helps Hellen find freedom again

Hellen Booth (67) with her son Andy Booth (37).  Picture: Malcolm Billingham
Hellen Booth (67) with her son Andy Booth (37). Picture: Malcolm Billingham

Hellen Booth had to miss her own father’s funeral because her agoraphobia made her terrified of leaving her home.

But when her son Andrew managed to persuade her to join his community choir, he set her on the road to recovery. The joy of singing with others helped the former secretary from Newbold, Chesterfield, conquer the illness that had ruled her life for 15 years and this summer the 67 year-old stood on the stage of Sheffield City Hall to sing with her choir before a packed audience.

Q. Joining a choir changed your life and cured you of agoraphobia. That sounds too good to be true...

A. It does indeed. It has totally changed my life from the very lonely state of being home alone, too scared to leave the house to being out there in the big wide world (or at least a corner of it) and meeting up with lots of lovely people.

Q. What made you do it? It must have seemed very daunting...

A. My grandfather was a music teacher and ran Carolare, a large choir in Chesterfield in the 1930s, which closed soon after his retirement. My son loved music and aged 20 he reformed Carolare. After a couple of years, he invited me to join, believing it would help me to break through the barrier and get out of the house again. The thought of it terrified me. I worried about physically being able to get to the practice venue, and also I felt sure I would be out of place with a group of people who were all excellent singers. But after much stress and worry, I decided to give it a go.

Q. How did it feel, leaving the house for that very first choir meeting?

A. I was in a state of panic for a few days before even attempting to go out of the door but I was determined not to let people down. On the appointed Sunday, I made arrangements to be driven to the practice venue, even though it was only round the corner from home and, with my heart beating louder than a drum, and a lot of encouragement from my son and my husband, I made it inside. I was placed next to two ladies of a similar age to myself who immediately offered friendship and support to me. They made my first choir practice a very happy experience

Q. How had your agoraphobia started?

A. In 1984, on a beautiful sunny day, I was walking into town to do some shopping when, quite suddenly and horrifically, I felt that all the buildings surrounding me were turning into jelly and moving in front of my eyes. My first reaction was to put it down to an odd feeling and tiredness but when the same thing happened again in less than an hour, I thought I had better pay a visit to the doctor.

Q. What did he say?

A. Despite the fact that I was young and healthy with everything going for me, the doctor decided I was suffering with depression. I started on a course of medication but within two weeks I had begun to suffer up to 50 panic attacks a day and another couple of weeks later, I was so scared of everything and everybody around me that it resulted in me locking myself into the house and not daring to venture out at all. I had developed full-blown agoraphobia.

Q. Have you ever discovered why it happened to you?

A. Not at all. I’ve heard people say it can be attributed to an unhappy incident in childhood but I can truthfully say nothing bad happened to me, ever.

Q. Can you put into words what you were afraid would happen if you went outside?

A. It’s very difficult. It was a feeling of full on anxiety; sweating palms, feeling physically sick, legs not wanting to move and feeling faint with my heart racing. But, I suppose, the only thing I was really frightened of was of making a complete fool of myself in front of strangers by acting in an irrational way.

Q. How did it affect your life and that of your family’s?

A. This miserable state of affairs lasted for about 15 years with my husband and son having to leave me behind whenever they went anywhere.

Q. How did it make you feel, not to be able to join in family events? What did you miss doing the most?

A. It made me unhappy. I felt like a burden. My husband had to do all the shopping and ferrying around while I just stayed put. I’m very lucky that he was so considerate. I missed family weddings and parties. The worst thing was missing my dad’s funeral.

Q. That’s so sad. What happened?

A. Exactly the same as happened every other time. I was left alone at home.

Q. Did you feel guilty that as a mother you weren’t able to go to your son’s school events and important family occasions?

A. Of course. My son was very musical from early childhood and I missed all his school concerts. I felt bad that I wasn’t there supporting him but also I missed out on hearing the live performances.

Q. Do you think the public fully understands what agoraphobia is, and how it affects people? Is there compassion?

A. No, not at all. Even a close member of my family used to say that I was just being awkward when I couldn’t go out. I admit it does sound totally irrational to say that you can’t get out, but the reality is a very frightening and debilitating condition.

Q. How has your life changed since joining the choir?

A. My confidence grew week by week and after a few months of learning the songs and becoming used to getting to practices (I never missed one) I managed to stand in front of an audience and perform my first choir concert. As the choir grew, my circle of friends was expanding and I braved myself to start going out to local concerts with them.

When my son decided to set up a second choir in Sheffield in March, my application form was the first one in. Getting to rehearsals in a big city 12 miles from home was a whole new challenge but I did it. I even sang at the Chorus choir’s end of term concert Steel City Sings in the City Hall recently. That morning I wasn’t completely sure that I would be able to cope, But when I stood on that stage, I felt I’d achieved what not so long ago would have been impossible.

I wouldn’t class myself as totally recovered, but I am now able to travel considerable distances. I can’t thank my son enough. And my friends and relations who support and encourage me.

The Chorus choir has given me my life back but I’m not the only one it’s helped. Quite a few members have physical, mental or emotional obstacles to overcome and I know, that like me, they are all drawing strength from the strong bonds of friendship and togetherness we all feel. If anyone reading this feels that they would benefit from that same strength and the joy of making music together, please come along and give Chorus a try.