When Ye’vette Toms was 5, she panicked any time she had to leave her house or separate from her parents.
Her feelings of anxiety only increased as she got older, and if friends invited her to a movie or concert, she made excuses and said she was either grounded or she had to babysit.
“Once I was a teenager, I would suck it up and go to the movies, but it was a battle,” she said. “I had to battle panic the whole way there, and I would act normal. My friends had no idea I was sitting there panicking.”
Toms understands now this was the beginning of agoraphobia, a mental illness that has progressed to the point where she is homebound and can no longer leave her apartment complex. The 44-year-old Winter Garden resident wants people to understand what life is like for an agoraphobe, so she has started a vlog on YouTube called “You Know Where to Find Me.”
“Agoraphobia starts out as panic disorder,” she said. “I went to Publix, and I had a panic attack. … So, I just avoided Publix.”
The same thing happened at Aldi, so she stopped shopping there too.
“The panic attacks got so frequent and so often that my walls just closed in, and it took about 10 years to be fully homebound,” Toms said. “The pandemic pushed it over the edge. I have asthma, and I have agoraphobia, so I could not wear a mask. I was attacked verbally every time I would go in public. One person coughed on me.”
Toms, her husband, Benjamin, and their children live in the Inland Seas apartment complex, where she feels completely isolated from the life she used to have. Until last year the family lived on Seminole Street, one block from downtown Winter Garden, and Toms said she never felt the depression that now engulfs her.
She said she was comfortable traveling within a one-mile radius of her home.
“When we lived uptown, and when I could go in my mile, there was no such thing as depression,” Toms said. “I had church, I had the Dollar Store, I had Dollar General, and I had Publix and the thrift stores and … the Edgewood (Children’s Ranch) thrift store.”
She was content with the limits she placed on herself.
But her life changed when the Tomses were forced to moved out of the house they were renting and all they could find in their children’s school zone was the apartment — more than one mile from downtown.
“I miss downtown,” Toms said. “I’m going to get emotional just talking about downtown. We could see Crooked Can. Even if I was homebound, I could go to Crooked Can downtown. I miss the farmers market so much. I totally miss the golf cart parade at Christmas. And I could do those things when we were over there, but when we had to move, I don’t know, my brain just, I’m just in stuck mode, and we’re exploring that in therapy. I just can’t make it downtown.”
Toms said once they moved into the apartment, she didn’t want to leave.
“When we moved, it was so traumatic that once it got dark no one could talk to me or touch me for the first two months of us living here,” Toms said. “Once it got dark, all I could do was sit and breathe, I was in a massive panic. I couldn’t sleep.”
For the first two weeks after they moved in, she was in such a panic she didn’t allow her husband to leave. She still can’t be home alone because the what-ifs start infiltrating her mind.
“What if I choke, what if I have a heart attack, what if I trip and I hurt my back?” Toms said. “I’ve actually had those thoughts. If I’m home alone, I don’t eat.”
One month after moving into the complex, Toms still hadn’t left the apartment.
“And then two months passed and three months passed,” she said. “And then I went to the dock and had a panic attack, so I haven’t been to the dock since.”
She would love to own a golf cart.
“If I had a golf cart, I could go places,” she said.
Her children’s friends have a golf cart and occasionally take her for a spin around the parking lot. She can comfortably ride to the complex office and to the mailbox.
“Riding around in a circle in a golf cart is like the wind in my hair,” Toms said. “I’m not used to going fast anymore … so when you’re in a golf cart that goes 30 mph, I’m like, ‘Slow down!’”
Toms is a Disneyphile but is unable to fulfill her desire to enjoy the theme parks — so she “visits” by watching Walt Disney World YouTube vlogs. She has made it a game of telling her husband what she did that day: “I went to Southern California and got to do the backstage tour” or “I rode Tron today.”
Her last physical trip to Disney was a decade ago.
Toms is grateful for her husband, who has taken over all of her previous responsibilities such as taking their children to doctor’s and dentist appointments and doing all the shopping.
“You just cannot help it,” she said. “You’re always in fight or flight mode.”
GOING WITH THE FLOW
When the Tomses filed their income taxes last year, the Internal Revenue Service mailed a refund check to them. Her identification card, similar to a driver’s license, had expired, so she couldn’t cash the check. She also can’t apply for a job working from home without an ID.
“My husband was like, ‘You’re going to have to go to the DMV,’” Toms said. “I freaked out. At that point I hadn’t left the apartment complex in five months, and I had been homebound in the other house about a year.”
She learned about the state’s Florida License on Wheels program and wrote a letter requesting the mobile come to Winter Garden. She even got Laura Coar, the director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, involved in bringing the FLOW mobile here.
“I was just praying, and I was like, ‘God, I can’t go to the DMV,’” Toms said. “I saw how far it was. Just driving there and getting out of the car and being present and being in this big building with all these people. … When you’ve gotten so bad that you’re a homebound agoraphobe, how can you go to the DMV?”
“JUST DEAL WITH IT”
Well-meaning people often tell Toms to “just go outside” or “just deal with it.”
“I’ll say something like, ‘I really appreciate you encouraging me. I really wish it was that simple. Can you imagine me staying in the house for 10 years if all I needed to do was calm down?’” she said.
Mental illness is an invisible disability, she said.
“If you saw someone with cancer, would you just say, ‘Stop having cancer’? If you saw someone in a wheelchair, would you say, ‘Just get out of your chair’? she said. “Because people can’t see your disability, it doesn’t exist, and it literally is all in your head.”
THE HEALING PROCESS
Toms’ vlog shows the everyday life of someone with agoraphobia. She hopes it will begin her process of healing.
“There’s such a stigma on people with mental illness,” she said. “I have a 67-year-old stepmother, and she said to me last week, ‘Don’t tell people you’re mentally ill.’ That generation suffered in silence. And there are a lot of people who are suffering in silence. And I know it sounds cliché all these people who want to give voices to one thing or another, but I want to give a voice to people with mental illness.”
She is aware of the statistics and wants to break the “curse.”
“I read this in a psychology book that once an agoraphobe is homebound, the less likely they are able to reintroduce into society,” she said. “The longer I’m in this bubble, the longer it will take for recovery.”