I stood at the top of the stairs this morning, staring at the loft hatch. All I had to do was to reach up, press it in the right place, the hatch would open and the stairs to the loft would magically descend. I just couldn’t do it. I used to be able to do it, in fact I actually quite enjoyed doing it, gave me a feeling of satisfaction.
It wasn’t the action of opening the hatch that worried me but what it would lead to…a space outside of my comfort zone.
Since my comfort zone is quite small these days (it was once considerably bigger), I have been trying to fill my time with creative endeavours. In the loft, hidden in dusty storage boxes rest the memories of my ancestors. I come from a long line of survivors, well we all do don’t we? I mean anyone who survived long enough to procreate is, in terns of natural selection, a survivor. But also, most people don’t give up; most people struggle on through whatever life throws at them. My ancestors, like many others, endured great, sometimes all consuming, hardships. Some hardships they were born with: God given hardships, like Uncle Thomas’s blindness. But most of the hardships I’m referring to were constructed by society: wars, famines, concentration camps, political ideologies which led to real fears of persecution, actual persecution, torture and imprisonment.
I want to put things into perspective. I mean, no one is doing THIS to me, I’m doing it to myself, I’m persecuting myself. Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have asked this very question not only to myself but to those most qualified to mine the very deepest parts of my psychology but it remains hidden. Which leads one to the conclusion that there is no ‘why’. It’s just like this for me.
I thought that maybe feeling the way I do is a luxury, something I can afford to do because I live in a world where real threats from the outside are rare. No one is going to conscript me, send me off to war, or round me up, tar and feather me and parade me naked down Sutton Veny high street. So, in the absence of any real danger, I have constructed my own prison camp complete with a guard …me! It’s a bit like being a vegan, denying yourself a bacon butty when half the world is starving; it’s a luxury, in a round-about way.
I’m not saying that people who went through challenging times did not suffer from anxiety too, I’m sure they did, and I bet worry was the ‘modus operandi’ of the masses. But did it stop them from leaving the house? Did it prevent them from doing whatever it was that they had to do to survive? No, it didn’t because these people, my ancestors and yours no doubt, did not have the luxury of giving in to their fears. They just jolly well pulled up their socks and got on with it. When my great grandfather was separated from his brigade and left alone in a dugout on the Somme I bet he dammed near shit himself. I bet he would exchange that long night, with mortars exploding overhead, with a trip to the attic any day! Anxiety attack? What about bomb attack? When I think of it that way I just want to give myself a bloody good shake.
And yet, with this notion firmly embedded in my frontal lobe I remained frozen at the thought of climbing up into the loft, the one place where the answers to my ‘condition’ may well reside. Crazy as it sounds, not going up into the loft kind of makes sense if you are me, I’ll explain.
First it started with a panic attack in the cinema. I used to love to go to the movies, that slice of escapism, watching someone else’s struggles unfold only to be resolved in a couple of hours. I always tried my best to get an aisle seat when going to the cinema or theatre or on any form of public transport for reasons which are now obvious to me. But, on this occasion at the cinema, I was asked by a rather charming old lady with incontinence issues if I could be persuaded to swap seats with her. Her seat was slap in the middle of the row and was, in her words, ‘the sweet spot’. I couldn’t say ‘No’, not really. So, with a little trepidation I shimmied my way past a dozen laps of varying dimensions until I found the old lady’s sweet spot.
We were about twenty minutes into the film (something about the misadventures of a crook named Harvey), when I began to worry that I’d drunk too much lemonade and might need, at some point, to shimmy past all those laps again. The worry slowly turned to dread: I began to feel hot behind the ears, cold and clammy, coupled with the fear that I would piss myself any minute. I felt as if my heart were about to burst from my chest, catapult across the auditorium and splatter onto the IMAX screen before me. Either that or my bladder would give way and flood the place! Having worked myself up into a full blown panic attack, I hyperventilated and passed out. The young woman sitting to my left, who until then had only presented herself to me as one of the more endearing laps in a long line of laps, noticed my condition. She, without worrying about disturbing others, had me dragged out of the auditorium by two burly men and into the foyer where I slowly came to. Gayle, (she of the lap), stayed with me and waited until the ambulance arrived. I don’t think I could construct a more embarrassing scenario if I tried. But now that’s what I do all day: worry about what might happen.
After the cinema debacle, I tried to carry on with my life as normally as I could but I never went to the movies again; I went online instead. And I could not sit anywhere in public: no busses, theatres, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants or cafes. Or park benches. In fact, I could not sit anywhere that, should something happen, I couldn’t escape easily. Crazy isn’t it? Or is it, really? Considering what I’d been through in the cinema?
Life went on like this for some time until I realised that driving my car to work was really dangerous, not just for me but other road users too. What if I had another panic attack while in the car, driving along at fifty miles an hour? I had to stop using the car immediately but the thought of cycling to work, which was the only option left to me, brought on another panic attack, this time at my desk, in the office, in front of everyone! I had basically tarred and feathered myself in public and paraded my nakedness before the crowd … I couldn’t go back to work after that…obviously.
My life gradually narrowed considerably, yet at first I couldn’t see it that way. I replaced the things I’d lost with new things. Cinema with downloads, a desk in the office with one at home, shopping in a supermarket with a home delivery service and friends and acquaintances with a cat named Rambo. Then, one day, it dawned on me that I had not left my house in three months! To begin with, It felt like an achievement, something to be applauded for not worrying about!
After my melt down at the office some co-workers called to see how I was doing. My mother also rang sporadically and Nesta, the Rastafarian milkman, popped in for a cup of herbal. But after a while, concern for my well being calmed down and I let out a sigh of relief, a sigh of relief that people were no longer concerned for me. Weird isn’t it? What this meant was I could continue with my self-imposed isolation and do so under the radar, undetected … but for how long?
Not long as it turned out.
Mother turned up on my doorstep one morning and offered to take me to lunch.
‘Lunch?’ I said, the word filling my mouth like a lump of coal.
‘Yes, Lunch. I thought we could try the new place in Theale.’
‘Theale?’ I said, my mouth now very dry from all the coal.
‘Yes dear, go get your coat.’
‘Coat?’ I said now feeling the panic bubbling up inside me.
‘Yes, coat. What’s with all the monosyllabic?’
‘Monosyl….’ I couldn’t get that one out.
‘The cat!’ I said suddenly inspired.
‘The Cat? What about the cat?’
‘I can’t leave the cat; Rambo’s got abandonment issues. Needs constant attention. He barely leaves my side.’
We both watched as, with perfect timing, Rambo walked through his flap and out onto the street without so much as a backward glance.
‘Seems alright to me,’ said mother.
So, with ever increasing palpitations I told her the real reason I couldn’t go to lunch with her.
Mother listened carefully, sympathetically even, which was surprising as she is definitely of the ‘socks up’ generation.
It felt good to get it all out in the open, tell someone what I was going through and share the burden. We had lunch at home: toasted cheese sandwiches washed down with regular tea. Then Mother took hold of the reins: her main motivation was to have me well enough to go back out there and meet a nice girl with childbearing hips.
‘You need to come to my Zumba class on Wednesday evenings. That will do you the world of good! Plenty of younger girls go, not just my age.’
‘Yes, Zumba. Why not?’
I couldn’t think of anything more ghastly then being stuck in a room full of hot sweaty women dressed in Lycra writhing about the dance floor to upbeat, rhythmic music. What was wrong with me?
‘You are agoraphobic,’ said Mother.
‘No I’m not! I’m just sensible,’ I retorted.
‘Well I just feel that I’m better off not putting myself in harm’s way. I can limit the amount of situations in which I might have a panic attack to nil, just by not leaving my house.’
‘The trouble with comfort zones dear, is that it is always sunny there but nothing ever grows.’
These were sage words from my mother and they formed part of the catalyst that brought me to where I am today: standing frozen to the spot on the landing staring up at the loft hatch.
These are my options: Option one, I decide once and for all not to go into the loft and find other fruitful things to do with my time, like have a one way conversation with Rambo.
Option two, pull up my socks, go up into the loft, find all the diaries and cuttings related to my grandparents and possibly, through a combination of shame and self loathing, put myself on the road to recovery. Option three, go up into the loft, have a panic attack and die there with my corpse laying undetected for months.
Option one seems to be winning. I mean is it worth the risk? Knowing, as I do, that any new situation could set me off. Any time I put myself into a new environment, outside my comfort zone, I face the potential death scenario. It could actually happen! The more I worry about it, the more likely it is that should I take the plunge, I’ll just end up drowning in my own misery.
One day, I will just wake up and go into the loft without thinking twice about it. I’ll just do it. But for now, the moment’s gone.
It’s the speculation, the worrying about what might happen that wins every time: I just need to stop worrying and go for it. If I can get up to that loft and retrieve my ancestors thoughts and fears I think it would really help me. Who knows I might even be able to face Zumba classes?