'Going to a restaurant was terrifying'

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The Independent Online
"I lived a life of pretence, not allowing people to know I was suffering," Ian Leonard said. "I wasn't really alive at all." Mr Leonard, now 36, has suffered from social phobia for 14 years, writes Glenda Cooper.

He started having panic attacks when he was 22, although he had always been shy. "I was one of these people who would sit at the back of the class and avoid putting my hand up," he said. "If I was asked a question I'd go to pieces."

At work, as an environmental manager for a council, he felt equally insecure. "I felt I had inadequate social skills and very poor conversation. I'd go to work ... with a dry mouth and a racing heart. I'd imagine people were looking at me all the time."

By the time he was 24 his phobia was so bad that he went to a GP, who diagnosed him as suffering from anxiety neurosis. He stayed in work but had difficulty taking on responsibility; even normal social occasions became fraught.

"Going to a restaurant with my partner was terrifying ... I felt everyone was looking at me and when I picked up my knife and fork my hands started trembling. I was afraid that if I discussed it with anyone they'd come with an ambulance and a strait-jacket."

Things came to a head in 1993, when he had such a severe panic attack on the Underground that he thought it was a heart attack. Last year he had the most miserable Christmas ever after being diagnosed as clinically depressed and leaving work. At his doctor's surgery he saw a leaflet for a self-help group which he could only bring himself to attend at first with a family member but gradually went by himself A year on he feels a different person. "I don't believe there's such a thing as a cure, only recovery," he said.

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