Wish I Could Be There

wish i could be thereThe feeling of panic that overwhelms the sufferer of a phobia must be one of the most unpleasant feelings that we are routinely forced to endure. I think that being set upon from behind and strangled must be akin to it – the increasingly laboured fight for breath while the heart hammers in terror, digestion deliquesces, vision dims and dizzies, sound is cut off and comes from far away. But worst of all, the urge to turn and run, fuelled as if by the energy of a nuclear explosion, has to be ignored. The phobic must sit and smile and try and look normal, while inside chaos rages, the Titanic sinks, great earthquakes rent the foundations of the self. Oh yes, I speak from personal experience.

Which is why I had to get hold of Allen Shawn’s amazing memoir, Wish I Could Be There, as soon as I heard about it. A composer, pianist and writer, Shawn is also an agoraphobic, afraid both of entrapment in subways, tunnels and lifts and the wide open emptiness of fields, car parks and bridges. He has a lot of trouble travelling on a road he has never taken before and struggles to get on a plane. Having fought against it for most of his life and not really got very far, he decided to write about the experience of being phobic and about some of the possible circumstances and causes that might have produced it. The result is one of those rare books of insight and compassion, utterly clear-sighted about the condition and a piece of admirable literary non-fiction as well.

Shawn says an awful lot of very useful things about phobias, not least that they have only a passing relationship to anxiety or nervousness. He points out that in his regular line of work, he often has to cope with the sort of public performance that scares the pants off most people. A phobia is quite different: ‘to describe the reaction simply as a mental phenomenon is misleading. By the time it constitutes a ‘problem,’ it has become a habitual response of both body and mind, as automatic as an allergic reaction and equally impervious to willpower.’ It’s provoked as much by physiological changes in the body – often almost imperceptible ones – that are ‘mistakenly interpreted’ as threats to our survival as it is by the symbolic or associative properties of an experience. ‘I remain dumbfounded,’ Shawn writes, ‘at how automatic, instantaneous, and severe my reactions are, not to mention how trivial the triggers can be.’ And it has been tied to certain personality traits:

phobics tend to be perfectionists, they tend to have an exaggerated need to please others, they tend to seek certainty and… many of us have in common the “need and ability to present a relatively placed, untroubled appearance to others, while suffering distress on the inside.” This describes me rather well.’

Yup, Allen, like looking in a mirror for me, too.

Whilst I found the more theoretical parts of this book full of interesting insights, I have to say that it’s Allen Shawn’s descriptions of his family that really engrossed me. He writes so well, with such generosity and tenderness, about a family that was shockingly unique and awkward to live in. Shawn knows that his father, an editor, suffered from similar phobias and that his mother may have done too – genetic inheritance is very much a part of the phobic landscape. But there were other factors that he believed may have had an impact. He was born with a twin sister, Mary, who had some severe form of autism compounded by other psychological problems that resulted in her removal to a care home when they were both eight. This was the fifties, and so nothing was said about the sudden and irrevocable absence of Mary. She was there one day and gone the next, and from then on they visited her very rarely. Allen Shawn was aware only later in life of the deep impact this had on him.

As someone who had grown up trying to decipher my mysterious sister, I was exquisitely attuned to implicit messages about how I should behave. The result was that I held in my feelings and my problems, and they grew without my even knowing it.’

To add to the underlying tensions and stresses of the household, his father kept a serious long-term mistress of whom they were abstractly aware in the form of their father’s odd double life: ‘it wasn’t uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend, four or five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life.’ Something more, then, to keep under wraps, more seismic, churning emotions to be denied in the very act of living alongside them. ‘Cheerfulness that masks hidden anguish can be even more frightening than the messy truth,’ Shawn writes.

From my perspective now, the idea that as a child I felt the presence of dragons at the end of each corner of the known conversational world seems relevant to the development of my agoraphobia. That so much was off-limits seems pertinent to my current dread of exploring the unknown.’

Yet he is quick to defend his family from blame, too, insisting on the large number of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who all suffered from phobias of one kind or another, without such family circumstances to generate them. These are factors that in hindsight seem to have had a part to play, but his implication is that if you are born with a phobic mindset, you’ll find the reasons for that strange underground fear one way or another.

Ultimately, I think we have to see phobias as existing in the same existential constellation as dreams – overdetermined places where the knotty pathways of mind and body meet, a strange and sometimes sadistic way of processing more fear and dread than we have words for, a process whereby false correlations take on the power of divine judgements. And yet another curse on the heads of those who are sensitive and creative: ‘If they didn’t cause so much suffering, we could come to appreciate these strange revulsions as touching evidence of the human imagination,’ Shawn suggests, ‘spontaneous projections from our inner selves.’ If you are phobic then I strongly recommend this beautiful book, for all sorts of surprising and comforting ways of looking anew at a crippling problem.

 

 

 

House Party

When I was a very small child and happened to be off school for the day, my mother and I would watch a television programme in the early afternoon that was called House Party. There would be one lady hosting and all her friends would come round and make stuff in different rooms of her house. In the dining room several people would club together over some raffia work or macrame. In the kitchen there’d be baking going on, and as a semi-permanent fixture in her lounge someone would be sticking seashells onto a lamp base. Seashells seemed to feature a lot; it was the seventies after all. I cannot tell you how much I loved this programme. I thought it was the height of sophistication and depicted an utterly desirable lifestyle.

Well here at Litlove Towers we have been enjoying a variation on the above theme for the past week, which might be described as House Party in the Internet Age. Mr Litlove is spending the week in New York for work purposes, and I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Apart from anything else, I find it very hard to sleep when he is away, and thought it was quite likely I could go for a whole week without speaking to anyone else in his absence. It just so happened that after he’d told me, the phone rang and it was my friend, Caz, and after moaning to her about his trip she said, ‘Would you like me to come and stay with you?’ Caz works from home too and we’ve been friends since we were 11, so she’s been through the chronic fatigue years and knows my little ways. Then my son got in touch to say he thought he’d come for a visit. And so we have been hanging out together with our various projects, sometimes one to a computer, sometimes employed in more unusual and eccentric ways.

See, Caz is a keen (and brilliant) photographer who likes to extend her skills whenever possible. At the start of the year, given that she never liked taking selfies, she set herself the challenge of a self portrait a day. When she arrived she said to me: ‘You’re not shy, are you?’ in a way that was evidently rhetorical, and so I have ended up taking part in them too. On Tuesday, I was very proud of us as we tackled the woodburning stove (usually Mr Litlove’s domain) and managed to get a fire started despite insufficient supplies of newspaper and cardboard. This gave Caz the idea for a face-down-Tuesday picture, which she set up before the eyes of my entirely unfazed son, who commented that he knew the ways of the internet and was therefore not surprised to see his mother’s friend gracing the carpet. I thought back to House Party and wondered how surprised those old party-goers would be to see how far we’ve come from the days of macrame and seashells for entertainment.

Yesterday was Adventures with Pumpkins day. Caz had brought her jack o’lantern with her and we spent a fair part of the afternoon carving the beast up and boiling two enormous pans of pumpkin cubes for the required mush. It’s that part of the recipe that says, ‘take 250g of pureed pumpkin’ without reminding you it requires three hours of work to even reach that stage of readiness. However, it did provide an occasion for another selfie. I grated some pumpkin for muffins that afternoon, and today or tomorrow we’ll bake a pie.

Mr Litlove has been skyping us around lunchtime (early morning for him in New York). Yesterday he had an all-day conference that began at 8.30 and ended with a party in the evening. He said there was an intriguing moment during the mid-morning break when a rapper had been commissioned to give a guest appearance. The first rap did apparently contain some appropriate words for those in the industry of targeted advertising, but the second was obviously more his own personal work about getting by in the ghetto, which Mr Litlove thought provided an interesting contrast to the business of the day. Mr Litlove had eaten his body weight in finger foods and sushi, without any more substantial meals passing before him, and the party had been a lot of people packed sardine-like and yelling at one another over the top of the loud music. He did sound rather hoarse this morning, it has to be said. Usually he has a ball on his work trips while I have a lonely, sleepless time. I could not help but feel that on this occasion, I had by far the better end of the deal with my house party, and we haven’t even begun with the seashells yet.

 

(You might also like to see Caz’s photo a day project, featuring some amazing details from the walks she’s been taking around the area.)

 

Mr Litlove and the Animals

A little while back, Mr Litlove and I were in the study chatting, when a look came over his face that I recognised very well. In translation it reads: Oh. My. God. Do I tell her or not? If there should be any confusion in those who know me over the correct response to this question, the answer is: YES, TELL HER NOW. But knowing my husband as I do, I simply leapt off the sofa where I had been sitting and put some significant distance between myself and it. Just as well; scampering gaily over the back, mere inches from where I’d been moments before, was a spider the size and heft of a mouse.

Quite what happened next, I’m not sure, maybe I blacked out. But when I was fully functioning again, the spider was gone. Mr Litlove had wrestled it into submission and chucked it out the front door, without having indulged in his usual fun trick of dropping it once to give it a sporting chance. St Francis of Assissi could not have been more efficient.

This is something I admire tremendously about my husband: he is remarkably fearless about animals. We put this down to our upbringings in very different locations. Before we were married, Mr Litlove used to say that the distinction was perfectly exemplified by the headlines of the local newspapers in our respective counties. While his paper would say something like: ‘W. I. Triumph In Jam At Local Fête’, my local paper would read: ‘Body Of Gangland Killing Found Dumped Off A12’. Suffolk and Essex share a boundary, and we lived about five minutes either side of it, but even so, I felt very much the urbanite compared to his rural location. But what the newspapers didn’t say was that Suffolk had more than its share of carnage; the war was, however, between man and beast.

Mr Litlove grew up in a large house in the countryside where nature ran rampant. His family had always had cats whose job it was to keep the vermin population down. Occasionally they would get ambitious and take out a few rabbits as well. One of my fondest memories of my much-missed father-in-law is of sitting at the breakfast table with him by my feet, wielding the dustpan and brush and saying ‘Don’t look down! Don’t look down!’ as he removed the remains of whatever creature the cats had consumed as a midnight feast. (My favourite cat story from that time is of the whole family sitting down to tea at the kitchen table when the fridge door opened and one of the cats fell out.) To stay in the house was to feel very close to nature; always something rustling in the eaves or scuffling around the skirting boards and there was often the patter of eighteen toes behind you. In the brief period when my mother-in-law had no cats the house was inundated with mice. She bought a humane mousetrap only to find in the morning that its captives had eaten their way through it to freedom.

So anyway, Mr Litlove grew up removing half-eaten carcasses, and chasing out the lucky ones that got away.

We don’t have much of a mouse problem where we live now, but we do look out onto the village pond, a reasonably large affair with its own share of wildlife issues. We have a large population of ducks, who sometimes take it into their heads that all they want to do is cross the road (obviously some evolutionary rivalry with chickens). A couple of weeks ago I was working at my desk and noticed a woman had stopped her car, holding up the traffic, in order to get out and herd a few wayward ducks back onto the bank. The next time I looked up, I saw one had been too foolhardy; its crumpled body lay in the middle of the road.

Mr Litlove walked in at that point and said: ‘Oh we can’t just leave it there like that.’ And he went and found a plastic bag and took it away for a more decent disposal. I couldn’t have done it myself, but I was so glad that he did. Perhaps, by comparison, it was less upsetting than the discovery back in summer of not one, but two dead rats (or what remained of them) in our shrubbery. At the time, we looked at our cat, who returned the gaze levelly with his usual withering scorn. ‘Nah,’ we both said, ‘not likely.’ We’d seen our cats with mice before – they were fascinated but clueless. (Harvey was too lazy and Hilly was even spooked by butterflies.) Still the unenviable task fell to Mr Litlove again to do the necessary with the corpses.

His finest hour, however, was undoubtedly with a whole, live bird. Every day a casting line for a Hitchcock movie sits on the apex of our roof, throwing a very entertaining shadow onto the road below. Once in a while – drunk on autumn berries, or after a bit of argy-bargy up there – it so happens that a bird falls down a chimney. In the past they have been small enough to fly out into the room and, eventually, out of an open window. But one autumn, on a day when my son was at home recovering from an illness, we heard the heart-wrenching sounds of a bird fluttering in panic behind the brick walls. At first it was a distant scrabbling, scratching sound, but as the bird made its wretched way down the chimney, the noise grew louder and louder. It was awful, and I wondered how we’d put up with it until it finally died. But when Mr Litlove came home from work, he listened for a moment and then went and found a tea towel which he wrapped around his hands before fearlessly shoving up them up the chimney. When they emerged, they (and the teatowel) were wrapped around an enormous pigeon that struggled a bit with the indignity of the situation, but allowed itself to be taken out the back door and set free. ‘I thought it had to be sitting on the ledge up there, wondering what had happened,’ Mr Litlove said, a little out of breath from the exertion.

My son watched with wide eyes. ‘And that,’ I told him, from my safe distance away, ‘is one of the reasons why I married your father.’