On Agoraphobia by Graham Caveney Critique – A Brilliant Memoir | Autobiography and memory

Jhe term is treacherous and sometimes mean; Graham Caveney imagines getting revenge by writing “agoraphobia” in the middle of a page, surrounded by creepy white spaces. In Greek, agora means market and Phobos means fear. But the condition is considered modern, or a terror of modern magnitude. Those who experience it are portrayed as horrified by the space beyond the window. In fact, “agoraphobia,” Caveney tells us, “isn’t so much a fear of going out as a fear that something horrible will happen while being out.”

He writes with intimate knowledge, as an agoraphobe and not a doctor. At 19, returning from university for Christmas by coach, he had a panic attack on M6, his world dismantled by the “horrifying symmetry” of the highway. An only child, raised in working-class Accrington, he had always been somewhat dyspraxic, or “cack-handed” as he was called. But this was new: the primal fear – the pounding heart, the racing blood, the rebellious body. He survived the next three years by staying on campus and living within 50 yards. But to the dismay of his parents, whom he moved back to after graduating, the condition persisted (“to my most agoraphobic, everywhere outside my front door may look like that quirky freeway”). Now in his fifties, he seeks to understand his origins.

Being sexually abused by his school principal as a teenager – as described in his 2017 memoir, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness – undoubtedly played a role: after his body was invaded, he grew suspicious borders. Growing up in a tight-knit Lancashire community, his partner Emma jokes, was also a factor: his phobia was small-mindedness writ large. Later, two decades later, came alcohol: where psychiatry failed, alcohol came to the rescue, a coping strategy that “can work until it kills you.” These days, Caveney is sober, does yoga, joins a support group, and makes a point of going out even on days he doesn’t feel like it. But both paths still horrify him. His book is not a bland story of how I was healed; it is intellectually inquisitive, emotionally invigorating and immensely erudite.

Shrinks may not have helped (“At last count, I saw: ten psychiatrists, twenty counselors, two dozen therapists”) but imaginative literature amplifies his ideas: Proust, Kafka, Ford Madox Ford , Anne Tyler, Sue Townsend, Helen Dunmore and many more. Two American writers particularly interest him: Emily Dickinson (the words “house” and “home” appear in 210 of his poems) and the novelist Shirley Jackson. There is a chapter on Sigmund Freud and an honorable mention by Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal, a pioneering specialist in the field.

It is only recently that agoraphobia has been recognized as a female-dominated problem. complaint. Two-thirds of Caveney’s support group are women. With accessories to stabilize their instability – canes, earphones, gloves, sunglasses, bags, dogs and wheelchairs – they come with sympathy. Their presentations are diverse, such as Caveney’s, variously misdiagnosed as epilepsy, labyrinthitis, vertigo, motion sickness, migraine, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Distrustful of the remedies he’s tried — including drugs that “instill a bewildered nonchalance, an unenlightened Zen” — he’s equally dismissive of the one he’s refused, the “flooding,” by which agoraphobics are forced to facing their phobia head-on, “the most counterintuitive of counter-intuitive treatments.” Considering the pain he’s endured, he’d be entitled to a dose of anger. But his book is brilliant and funny, and full of eloquent quotes, whether drawn from others (Villette by Charlotte Brontë: “Everything in me has shrunk to my fate”) or drawn from his own experience: “Agoraphobes are the ultimate squares, the arch-conformists”;”Secure space: a concept which, for the agoraphobe, verges on the oxymoron”. Where his earlier memoirs were more conventional in form, this book cuts through short epigrammatic paragraphs, weighing evidence and testing ideas. It will encourage people with agoraphobia, enlighten doctors, and teach strangers all the lessons Caveney learned.

On Agoraphobia is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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