Thirty-plus years we’ve been together and still I don’t know you. Intimate stranger, phantom limb, as unreachable as you are familiar. You have sculpted my desires, my ambitions, been a mockery of the free will I was always told I had. I cannot think without you. You and me baby; we’re a neurotic two-step.
Agoraphobia. I want to write the word in the middle of the page, leave it stranded, surrounded with nothing but icy white space. My attempt at revenge. From the Greek agora meaning “marketplace”, phobos meaning “fear”. The translation doesn’t quite cut it. I balk at its limitations. An insufficient word for a condition of insufficiency.
You did not come to me overnight. Like any stealthy lover you took it slowly. A block of time both dramatic and banal. You introduced me to fear, fear became aversion and aversion contorted itself into the core of who I am. It was subtle and unstoppable. Like surf drifting up the shore.
And then one day I was too afraid to leave the house and I heard the word and realised it was being used about me. Agoraphobia, my zero sign. Signifying everything.
Tell people you are claustrophobic and they touch your arm and nod in sympathy, maybe share a respectable neurosis of their own. They tell you they, too, have difficulty with lifts, the tube, basements. They share your pain, flattered that you should trust them with an admission of vulnerability. They may even like you more, read claustrophobia as a symptom of sensitivity, an extension of the artistic temperament.
Tell people you’re agoraphobic and it brings the conversation to a standstill. They become uncomfortable. You have overstepped the mark (ironic, given the fear is precisely that). It is a vulnerability too far, one that needs to be spoken through tight lips, with lowered eyes. I am agoraphobic. It is not a sentence to be taken lightly, casually tossed into conversation.
It is less a confidence than a confession, a coming-out.
I remember our first date. (Who could forget it?) A coach on the M6. It is the mid-80s and I am 19. I have been to my parents’ house for the Christmas vacation. Warwick university is my new home, although I’m not sure if you could use the word “home” about somewhere I’d been for a mere four months.
The fear descended the same way the mist falls on Scafell Pike – as though it had been there all along, waiting in ambush. It banishes all thoughts, insists that your body be governed by its most primal impulses. I am suddenly at a funfair, an internal carnival whose control settings are not my own. A roller-coaster lurch in the stomach, the tightening twirl of the solar plexus, an offbeat disco of the heart. The other passengers stare, shuffle, whisper. They seem a long way away, even though they are all too close. The coach has no bathroom.
Through the window, car after car after car, the motorway a picture of horrifying symmetry. There is nowhere to shelter, nothing to keep me safe. My throat is constricted, tongue stuck like Velcro to the roof of my desert-dry mouth. Cut to Manchester bus station, stumbling into the public toilets, sobbing and shouting in a cubicle. Too much breath now, can’t stop it coming, breath like a whirlwind. So why can’t I breathe? Eventually – 15, 20 minutes later? – I breathe, at last. Unlock the cubicle door.
My world was dismantled in the space of 40 minutes. I look again at the face in the mirror, splash cold water over it. I feel I have signed a non-negotiable contract.
It is weeks since that episode on the motorway. I appear to be asymptomatic. I lose myself in work, films, drunken nights in the union bar. But the panic attack has changed me, left an imprint as indelible as a birth mark. My nervous system has moved to permanent high alert, ready for battle. Fear is now familiar, my abnormal normal. I develop a new game. It is called What If? I can’t stop playing it. What if the panic happens again, somewhere where there is no escape? Motorways, open roads. No houses, no barns, no shelter. What if is a never-ending question. Anticipatory anxiety, the textbooks call it. A record stuck in its groove.
And then it does happen again. In a shopping precinct. And again, on a bus into town. And again, during a lecture. What if? is replaced by Where Next?
I become haunted by a painting I once saw by the artist Ivon Hitchens. It was a dazzling splurge of 70s psychedelia, a raging mesh of mouthwash foam and cheap acid pink. The image seemed larger than the canvas, seemed to burst out of the edges of the frame. It was one bad, bad trip. The painting was simply called Outside.
It is easy to be agoraphobic if you never leave campus. And if you never leave campus it is easy to become agoraphobic. On the doorsteps of my halls of residence is a launderette where I don’t do my laundry. Next to it a burger bar, supermarket and bank. It’s like living in an out-of-season holiday camp. Life exists within a 50-yard radius. I am surrounded by arterial roads. The labyrinthine swirl of the overpass, the ring road disappearing into a vanishing point. Neither urban nor suburban but inter-urban. The university looms up out of nowhere, a mirage. Shimmery red buildings, grey concrete, cold, cold steel.
Coventry is the nearest city, the place George Eliot came to live when she was still Mary Ann Evans. In Daniel Deronda she wrote of her heroine, Gwendolen Harleth: “She was ashamed and frightened, as at what might happen again, in remembering her tremor in suddenly feeling herself alone when, for example, she was walking without companionship and there came some rapid change in the light. Solitude in any wide scene impressed her with an undefined feeling of immeasurable existence aloof from her, in the midst of which she was helplessly incapable of asserting herself.”
A few years later and I’m back home living with my parents, helplessly incapable of asserting myself. I’m told my whole future lies ahead of me, a phrase that feels like a threat. It’s my 21st birthday: the key to the door. So why can I not leave the house? When is a door not a door? It’s the earliest joke I can remember.
As children we would knock on doors and run away, stand on the street corner and wait to see who answered. It seemed astonishing that a mere slab of wood, two inches thick, could separate a cobbled street from a domestic world of firesides and fitted carpets. A parallel world a mere door’s width away.
I open the door and walk three, four, five steps. The world tilts, spirals, crushes my chest. I turn back. And close the door behind me.
“Close the door behind you.” It must be one of the most oft-delivered lines on screen. The words guarantee drama, the preface to a sacking, an accusation, plotting and subterfuge. They are the buildup to lines like “this must never leave this office” or “strictly between us”. It is a defining moment. Shut the door behind you, something is wrong.
In 1898, a doctor wrote in the Lancet: “I have referred to the possibility of recognising the agoraphobic as he walks along the street. Apart from the coarser evidence of his suddenly pausing to lay hold of a paling or to place a hand upon a wall, he will hardly ever be without a stick or umbrella, which you will notice he will plant at each step at some distance from him, in order to increase his line of support.”
More than 120 years later and the good doctor could easily have been describing my support group. When we meet we are invariably laden with props: walking sticks, headphones, gloves, caps, sunglasses, bags. We seem incomplete without them. Props stabilise our instability. Unable to trust our perceptions, we turn to objects instead.
The group has more than 20 members, although we barely reach double figures at any one meeting. Our youngest is in her early 20s, our oldest in her mid-80s. Two-thirds are women, all of us are white. (Extremely white, complexions the colour of putty.) People get dropped off in cars, the occasional taxi. Getting there is the therapy.
There is the middle-aged man, pot-bellied and goateed. He worked as a security guard in a shopping mall. He says he was trained to look for anything suspicious, but after a while everybody and everything looks suspicious. The job started to make him dizzy, gave him headaches. He no longer goes to work, feels faint at the thought of shopping precincts, shops in general. He says, “There are too many fucking people.” There is the elderly lady who talks about the fall she had one Christmas, how it robbed her of all confidence. And the young girl who got beaten up in the city centre. And the executive-looking man who had a car crash. And there is me, a 50-something man with round glasses and a paperback stuck permanently in his jacket pocket. He says he has a pathological fear of wide roads and open spaces, the problem being that anywhere can seem wide, everywhere can feel open.
We go round the room and talk about our week. We call it “checking in”, as though we were at a hotel or an airport. We trade one-liners. Agoraphobia: the more I practise the worse it gets. Agoraphobia: don’t leave home without it. We recommend Indian head massage, reflexology, vitamin cocktails, herbs, oils, reiki, acupuncture, flotation tanks, hypnotherapy, aromatherapy, homeopathy. Over the years I have been a short-lived convert to all of them. I am both infinitely sceptical and eternally hopeful.
Psychoanalysis has proved perhaps the most useful, though it is hard to come by and offers no guarantees. (Is this why I like it?) I enjoy the narrative somersaults, the way a session can make my own language seem strange and unexpected. I have a daydream in which I meet Freud and tell him he is now mostly taught as a branch of literary and cultural theory, that his books are nowhere to be found on the shelves of a psychiatric profession for whom psycho-analysis is either empirically discredited or politically disreputable. I tell him we have robbed the word “dreams” of its oneirism, its shocking surreality. He thought of them as the royal road to the unconscious, we think of them as fodder for the ad man – a tangible thing we can realise, fulfil, be. We are, we are told, living the dream. Which raises the question: what becomes of our actual dreams?
Freud was well acquainted with agoraphobia and had already treated three agoraphobics by 1897. He viewed the phobic scene – buildings, streets and plazas – as symbolic of repressed fears and desires. It is not the empty environment from which we recoil, but ourselves – or rather those parts of ourselves which lie buried, hidden, and which we transfer on to the objects and spaces around us.
“In the case of phobias one can see clearly how this internal danger is transformed into an external one,” he wrote: “The agoraphobic is always afraid of his impulses in connection with temptations aroused in him by meeting people on the street… In his phobia he makes a displacement and is now afraid of an external situation.” A phobia is a drama in which our unconscious gets brought to life.
There are theories that Freud himself was agoraphobic. In The Search Within, Theodor Reik, fellow analyst and disciple of Freud, recalls walking with him in their native Vienna: “We crossed a street that had heavy traffic, Freud hesitated as if he did not want to cross. I attributed the hesitancy to the caution of the old man, but to my astonishment he took my arm and said, ‘You see, there is a survival of my old agoraphobia, which troubled me much in younger years.’”
Freud the agoraphobic. It’s a tantalising admission; it does not feature prominently in our collective portrait of the man. Does it discredit his readings of agoraphobia, or validate them?
It was in an essay of 1897 that Freud made his most controversial claim about the condition. “Agoraphobia seems to depend on a romance of prostitution,” he wrote in The Architecture of Hysteria, “a woman who will not go out by herself asserts her mother’s unfaithfulness.”
Fear of the streets is a fear of the kind of woman she might become on the streets, the promise and the threat of her own sexuality. Streets represent the opportunity for illicit encounters, for the woman to become the prostitute she both envies and fears. Streets produce street-walkers. Freud’s diagnosis may sound jarring today. Yet, for better or worse – for better and worse – his impact on our understanding of agoraphobia is with us still. We may no longer be Freudians, but we accept that people have a past and that their past stays with them. We believe in reasons, even when those reasons do not seem reasonable. Encounter an agoraphobe in fiction or film and we instantly suspect something about them, sense something is not right. A character’s agoraphobia is always a prelude to their backstory.
And it is the backstory which always intrigues, that gives agoraphobia its anti-charisma. In Sue Townsend’s play Bazaar & Rummage, a social worker tells her client: “You’ve got to face up to it sooner or later. Whatever it is that’s keeping you in.” “We know what it is, it’s agoraphobia,” says the client. “That came second,” says the social worker, “what came first?”
Over the years the following diagnoses have been offered to me by the medical profession: vestibular neuritis, temporal-lobe epilepsy, labyrinthitis, vertigo, disturbed heart valve, post-traumatic stress disorder, Ménière’s disease, acoustic neuroma, motion sickness and migraine. As I write this I hear the words of Chekhov, that wise doctor-writer: the greater the number of diagnoses, the more incurable the ailment.
I was halfway through writing my memoir on agoraphobia before I realised it was a memoir about books. Or rather that I was writing a memoir about the ways in which the two had coalesced, how books had become refuge and reflection, had helped to make sense of an experience that would otherwise have remained nonsensical. Agoraphobia is not just the dread in my stomach as I walk down the garden path; nor is it limited to hyperventilating panic in a supermarket. It is also to be found on my bookshelves.
The first book I fell in love with had an agoraphobe as its hero, although I didn’t think of him as either at the time. To my 12-year-old eyes, Boo Radley was simply To Kill a Mockingbird’s oddball, the one who saves Scout. I never stopped to think about just how singularly freakish a character he is. When Scout asks if it’s true that Boo is kept chained to a bed, Atticus answers: “There are other ways of making people into ghosts.” A malevolent phantom is how the children think of him, thrilling to their descriptions of his yellow teeth, popped eyes and diet of raw squirrels.
Back then agoraphobes were other people. But then came Covid, and my phobia became state-sponsored. I’d spent years being told by health professionals how important it is for me to leave the house. Now those same professionals were telling me how important it is for me not to.
“Stay at home” read the guidelines, from plea to instruction to threat. I didn’t need telling twice; I’ve had a lifetime of practice. As the new normal proves to be neither new nor normal, it remains to be seen to what extent the past two years have made agoraphobes of us all.
On Agoraphobia by Graham Caveney is published by Picador on 28 April at £12.99. Order it for £11.30 from guardianbookshop.com