California Literary Review

Allen Shawn Discusses Phobias

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June 13th, 2007 at 4:23 pm

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Allen Shawn

Allen Shawn is a composer and writer. His father, William Shawn, was the legendary editor of The New Yorker. Allen suffers from agoraphobia and writes about his struggles with the illness in his book Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life.

What is a phobia? How does one distinguish between an appropriate fear and a phobia?
A phobia is an intense physiological and mental revulsion, strong enough to impel the person experiencing it to want to flee. But unlike fear, which it mimics physiologically, the revulsion in phobia is either entirely illogical, or at least out of all proportion to the danger posed by the dreaded object or experience.
The state of fear readies the body and mind to cope with a real threat. When no external threat exists, the mind responds to the sensations of fear as threats in and of themselves, and so the process becomes circular, certainly not the case in ‘appropriate fear’. Since fear is meant to occur when there is a threat, intense fear by itself causes a mental assumption that one is in grave danger—psychic or physical. Such an assumption, when unquestioned, further aggravates the physical and mental symptoms themselves.
The phobic response often leads to a habitual avoidance of the trigger of the response. If one is nervous returning to the scene of a traumatic experience—a mugging, say– one can at least remind oneself that the trauma occurred in the past, and is unlikely to recur. But returning to a situation in which one has previously experienced intense, inexplicable anxiety takes particular effort.
The phobic himself tends to know that his or her phobic response is irrational and not in any discernible sense helpful. By contrast appropriate fear is not just helpful—it is an essential survival tool.
There seems to be a phobia for almost any object or event one can think of. Are there broad categories that distinguish types of phobias?
Well, this is just a huge question. To answer very broadly: obviously there are the specific phobias of situations and things, the more general condition of agoraphobia, (which is my own tendency, and which seems to be a more global problem), and the social phobias. Another interesting way to slice the cake, though, is to distinguish between those phobias which are simply exaggerated forms of responses that were useful as survival mechanisms in an earlier period of evolution—fear of being closed in , fear of heights, fear of storms, wariness of poisonous snakes, fear of loud noises, fear of being unprotected out in the open, etc.—and those which clearly derive from personal associations and experiences –the fear of clowns, for example, or of clouds, or of mirrors, or of brown foods. Obviously each person brings their own associations, memories and life histories to bear even on the more common ‘evolutionary’ fears. But the fact that they are so common suggests that we are genetically primed to experience them. In the laboratory you can convince an innocent monkey to run from a snake in an instant, but you can only with great difficulty make him run from a flower.
In terms of nature vs. nurture, what is the current scientific thinking on the source of phobias?
I need to remind you that I am merely a suffering layman who has researched his own predicament, and tried to articulate what it feels like. But I have come to the conclusion that the case of each personality is different. The original source of phobias is the innate fight or flight response. That this response can be so easily inappropriately triggered in some people probably points to a genetic or physical predisposition to panic on their part. We are all wired differently, with infinite varieties of sensitivities. But phobias are a manifestation, like a rash. Presumably this is a potential we all carry within us to a degree, which can be generated in any number of ways or combinations of ways: through parental modeling or upbringing, through experiencing a traumatic shock, through genetic predisposition, through a medical condition, as some kind of adaptive strategy conjured up by the hidden psyche, etc. But the way a person lives is also a crucial factor. In other words, your own habits as you move through life solidify associations and responses in your brain. The more you avoid situations and objects that terrify you, the more you confirm your irrational assumptions that they are in themselves harmful. So there is much wisdom in the old adage that, if you possibly can, you should get back on the horse that threw you. Experiences teach your brain and body; experiences become habits of feeling and thought. A good experience on a horse helps heal the bad experience.
How would you describe the nature of your own phobias?
I used to think I had an unusually long list of things that made me anxious—driving on highways, being in the middle of a crowd, passing through a tunnel in a train, being in an airplane, walking or driving down an empty road, being in an elevator, being in glassed in buildings or malls where the windows don’t open, being in the middle of a large field with no buildings around etc., etc. When I finally encountered the concept of ‘agoraphobia’, I recognized myself. I have an intense fear of being trapped or isolated. I start to become panicky if I perceive myself to be alone or far from help or unable to escape. I fear both emptiness and being closed in. I need not only to feel reasonably ‘near safety’, but to have control of how I get to safety.
Have you felt these fears all of you life, or did they come on at a certain age?
I experienced all kinds of common fears as a child, and I have continued to experience common fears as an adult. I can often confront these fears. For example, I have experienced my occasional confrontations with real danger, as we all do, and in the face of danger I am nervous, not phobic. I regularly confront stage fright when I perform as a pianist or present my own music, or teach a class. I confront the fear of rejection when I put my music or writing out into the world, or express an opinion that might be controversial at a faculty meeting.
The tendency to phobia crept up on me gradually, imperceptibly, when I was a child. I did not understand the strange physiological responses I was having and I did not discuss them with anyone. By the time I was an adult my phobias divided my personality in half. My ambitions as an artist and even as a social being were at war with the involuntary terror I experienced when facing so much of what I wanted to do and be. Hence my book’s title.
Was writing this book helpful for you in any way?
Yes. I have learned so much, and feel a much deeper connection to other people and to the natural world than I did before I embarked on this project. It was also a wondrous experience to put down those memories of my childhood which seemed pertinent to my condition. Perhaps writing the book has also helped me join the two halves of my personality together. I have at least made creative use of something that has heretofore been an entirely negative force in my life.
For someone dealing with a phobia, what advice would you give them in terms of treatment? What has been beneficial to you?
I would first counsel them not to be ashamed of themselves. Then I would advise them to get a medical check-up so that they have an accurate sense of how they are, be reassured about their physical health, and in those cases where there are underlying physical ailments which have had an impact on phobic reactions (such as inner ear problems, etc.), that they get advice on those.
My own experience with psychotherapy has been that it prepared me to face my phobia problem, but did not alleviate it. My experience with cognitive/behavioral therapy has been positive, if not truly a ‘cure’. Through practice and exercises, I have indeed expanded my routine, and I have learned to endure what is difficult for me with much less distress. But I have also remained a person who has these reactions and tendencies and habits; and I remain at war with myself: outgoing in many ways, yet hemmed in. Nevertheless I view my problems and myself differently than I did before the treatment, and I cope differently than I used to. Others undertaking similar treatments have even dramatically changed their lives. There is no question that the perspectives and skills available through the “anxiety disorders” clinics around the country are immensely valuable. And it is very healthy to be in contact with a community of fellow sufferers. Treatments are often highly successful, particularly in alleviating specific phobias, and in lessening the terrors suffered in agoraphobia and in the social phobias.
Although I am not qualified to speak on the subject of medications I know there are many people who have benefited from this or that medication—including anti-depressants, of course.
As you know, my book is not really about cure. I meant it to simply be interesting and possibly illuminating. When I was writing it I used to tell people I was “donating my neuroses to Science.”.
  • http://tskw.org deborah goldman

    Your poignant and beautiful article “family meal”, which i just finished reading
    left me in a torrent of tears and filled with curiosity to know more about you. I knew (or felt) that the story would have a “happy” ending or else you wouldnt have published it in this column. after i dried my tears i had to satisfy my curiosity. of course, i couldnt help wondering if Mary responded so easily and well to the sight of the apartment that perhaps all those years your parents had”read’ her wrong.or, had Mary changed somehow? and i wondered how it felt to be the twin and out and about, so to speak. then google and then learning about “wish i could be there…” and then understanding that in some way Mary and you share more than you mention. an amazing and as i have already said beautiful story ( i havent event mentioned your Mom’s magnificent response) to say nothing of the accompanying recipe. which whenever i prepare it i will be thinking of you, Mary and your Mom. thank you so much. ( a hearty cry isn’t such a bad way to start the day. – my brother ( two years older than i who died in 2001) and i had a somewhat similarly complicated realtionship)

  • Caryl Joy

    Allen, how are you doing?

    It’s such a long story, but I am a fellow agoraphobic…spent 16 years of my life from age 20 to 36 a prisoner in my own home and in my own mind. It’s a lengthy saga and long gone now…but I would like to know how you are, and just to wish you well.

    I am going to order your memoirs tomorrow…thank you for being brave enough to write them. Like me, I am sure you are all too familiar with the well-meaning and caring…but blank…stares when you try to describe this confounding situation.

    Thanks,

    Caryl Joy

  • http://www.jessyferguson.blogspot.com Jessica

    Just read your essay, Family Menu, in Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table. Enjoyed your story so much had to google you and learn more.

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