Well, this post was initially inspired by a comment made by the Jobbing Doctor on my last post. (By the way, such thoughtful and thought-inspiring words are not in the least uncommon on his blog – you really should check it out, if you don’t already.) In that last post, I was writing about a certain sensation of rootlessness that’s come over me as a result of being in the latter stages of saying goodbye to my childhood home. In his comment, the good doctor said that he had felt somewhat the same about his father’s home, but that he now has a similarly strong attachment to his current home. Zoe said a similar thing in her comment, and both of these comments made me realise that I absolutely don’t share those feelings.
In some ways, that’s just what you’d expect – where the jobbing doctor has been in his house for, he says, 26 years, I’ve been where I am now for quite a bit less than five. Other things contribute to that feeling too – this is a rented flat, and it’s in a tower block. That said, I have a permanent tenancy agreement which means, provided the rent keeps getting paid, and so long as I don’t change my name to Fifi L’Amour and start running a brothel, I’m very unlikely to be evicted. Equally, although the housing association are in the process of demolishing quite a lot of their high-rise stock and replacing it with low-rise housing, my particular block is clean, and well-looked after, and popular with the tenants. The housing association have major renovations planned over the next several years, which means they’re not even considering it as a candidate for demolition.
There are lots of reasons I should feel an attachment to where I live. The flat came completely empty, apart from a basic bathroom suite and a few kitchen units. That means that everything in the place – carpets, curtains, furniture, kitchen appliances – is mine, and the whole flat is decorated to my taste (think lots of warm, sunny, relaxing colours).* My neighbours are quiet, but friendly, and easy to get along with. There’s every reason why I feel I should be able to relax and trust that this flat is my space, that it’s not going to be taken away from me, that I can feel safe here.
But I don’t feel like that. I feel on edge, uncomfortable, as though my whole existence here is balanced on a knife-edge. And it’s occurred to me that this isn’t just about the place where I live, it’s affecting the whole of my life. Everything seems to feel up-in-the-air and temporary, and, thinking about it, I’ve been feeling that way for as long as I can remember.
It’s actually quite hard to explain how fundamental this feels. Some of my edginess is easy to explain. I’ve still got to complete my Incapacity Benefit form, and there’s a lot of uncertainty that follows on from that. It’s not all that long ago I was mildly attacked when I was out walking, and that’s also created an (understandable, I think) increase in my anxiety levels. But I feel a low-grade dread (or worse) about doing everything.
The thing I’ve pretty much just realised is that it’s not true to say that I have some kind of over-arching anxiety, and that makes everything difficult. Rather, every single thing I might do, or think about doing, has its own fears and dreads attached to it:
- Going shopping – going outside my “safe space”; contamination from touching and handling items that have been touched and handled by other people or other contaminated items; the pressure of fitting in with social standards, not seeming “weird”, especially in my responses to all this potential contamination
- Eating – food poisoning; choking
- Watching tv – exposure to illness; contamination (being close to something via the tv is the same as being physically close to it, with all the same risks of contamination and infection)
- Cleaning my teeth – poisoning; dislodging or loosening teeth which I subsequently choke on; discovery of a major dental problem (I haven’t been to the dentist for well over 15 years)
- Reading – contamination from the physical book; reading about something is the same as experiencing it myself, so if I read about someone having cancer, I become convinced – certain – that I also have cancer
- Checking email – contamination via contact with a keyboard which is connected to a phone line which is connected to a network which is connected to computers, phones etc that are touched by other people
- And so on, and so on…
In the rational parts of my mind, I’m aware some of these concerns are rather peculiar, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m absolutely convinced that they’re real. It’s normal, I think, to have a degree of fear about, for example, choking while eating – it encourages you to eat safely – and in that case the peculiarity of my way of thinking comes in the amount of dread I feel, which is out of proportion to the actual risk. Other examples are perhaps closer to straightforward, get-thee-to-a-shrink, weird – like thinking a physical infection can be transmitted via the telephone system. Or like the time when an interviewee on The Daily Show talked about one of his children having flu and I became convinced that I would get it too, and that I only avoided it as the result of an incredibly lucky fluke.
In fact, that’s part of the problem. Every time I do something, and the terrible consequence I dread doesn’t happen, I’m not rewarded with even a brief feeling of relief. Instead I have a sense that I’ve “got away with it” this time. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen next time. In fact, it actually makes it more likely to happen next time, because of the workings of probability.** The sense I get is of having narrowly dodged the bullet this time, but the sniper’s still out there, still has a clear shot, and how many times will I be lucky enough to move at just the right millisecond…?
The consequence of all of this is that I feel like I’m permanently waiting for something terrible to happen. That whatever it is I’m dreading is certain to happen, there’s nothing I can do to avoid it, and that if it isn’t happening right now, that’s just a temporary respite. Sometimes this feeling is right up in my face and dominates the whole of my thinking, other times its much more in the background, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been completely free of it. I think this has two consequences.
First of all, I think it explains why I walk around in a permanent state of what seems to get called anxiety – wouldn’t you, if you felt certain that you were constantly avoiding death by the luckiest of flukes? The second is that it makes everything feel uncertain, unstable, and above all temporary. I think in some ways this is a result of the problems I have, as I’ve hopefully managed to explain above, but I also think that in some way it’s a cause of them too. This permanent, on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling makes it impossible to relax. It’s incredibly stressful, and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that long-term unresolved stress is bad for your mental health.
The solutions would seem to be obvious. One possible one would be to concentrate on relaxation techniques – but that doesn’t work, because even if I was somehow able to achieve a state of blissful relaxation, that would be destroyed by the dread I would encounter the next time I tried to do anything. As I said, it’s not the case that I have a generalised state of anxiety that makes doing anything difficult – I have specific fears attached to doing specific things.
This would seem to make a second possible solution more practicable – to work on each of the activities I find so dread-full, and gradually ratchet down the level of fear I attach to each of them in turn. This is, to be honest, what I try to do, but it’s only partly successful. As I hinted above, I’m aware that some of my beliefs/ fears are decidedly irrational. That’s the problem – I know this. I’m fully aware of it. I can write blog posts talking about it. Whenever I’m in the grip of a particularly strong dread I can and do remind myself that it’s illogical, that the thing I’m worrying about is either impossible or extremely unlikely, but that doesn’t actually help, because these beliefs and fears are fundamentally irrational, and so they’re impervious to rational attempts to address them.
I’d like to imagine I’m a wholly rational person. Rationality is a quality I value very highly in myself, and in others. I go out of my way to try and display a calm, logical approach to things in this blog, and elsewhere. But the trouble is I’m very aware of having two separate levels in my mind.
On the one hand, I have opinions on a whole range of subjects which I’d be able to offer justifications for that are, to me at least, logical and internally consistent. On the other hand, there are other beliefs and experiences I have – that I can get ill by seeing somebody on tv talk about a relative who’s sick, that I can hear phantom railway announcements – which are completely irrational, and which I know are irrational, but at some more fundamental level still seem absolutely real. In fact, when my problems with these kinds of things are at their most intense, the irrational, ‘unreal’ stuff seems far more real than the day to day world I normally spend my time in.
I don’t really have any final thoughts or conclusions to wrap up this post with. In a sense, there isn’t a lot I can say to conclude this, because I don’t have a conclusion – just these two separate ways of looking at the world that are mutually contradictory, but both of which seem true, and both of which are constantly jostling for space inside my mind.
At the moment, things aren’t too bad. I’m aware of a lot of this illogical stuff in the back of my mind at the moment, like a kind of background hum. That’s what I meant when I wrote before that I feel like I’m on the edge of something. The thing is, one of these ways of looking at the world – the rational, logical one – is calm, and reassuring, and feels safe, while the other one – the oh-shit-I’m-about-to-die one – is horrible and frightening. And that in itself is something of a problem, because alongside all of the other fears and dreads I have, there’s another one, of going back to that scary, dark place for god knows how long, and that’s probably the biggest fear of all.
* – Hmmm, talking about interior decoration…. Apologies for conforming to my gay stereotype…
** – I know enough about probability to know that’s not exactly the way it works – you can’t take a general statement of probability and use it to reliably predict individual events, or the likelihood of a statistically probable event occurring to a specific individual. None of that changes the way I think about this stuff, unfortunately.