Allen Shawn's 'Notes from a Phobic Life'

Allen Shawn

Allen Shawn has composed orchestral and chamber music and teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. Cynthia Locklin hide caption

itoggle caption Cynthia Locklin

Phobias and Accomplishments

Allen Shawn traces some of his phobias to his late father, William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker magazine. The author discusses some of his father's fears with Renee Montagne.

Allen Shawn's Music

Hear a selection from Shawn's Piano Concerto No. 2 (Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, conductor; Ursula Oppens, piano).

Composer Allen Shawn lives a phobic life. He doesn't like heights, bridges, tunnels, subways, elevators, open spaces or closed spaces. It's something he's just written a book about, beginning with how his fears make a short drive through the woods a daunting journey:

I am fine for the first mile, but slowly start to feel as if I were suffocating. The woods are dense, and all I can see are trees. Occasionally a branch strikes the windshield. I feel as if I need to find a bathroom. My breaths are becoming short and shallow, and a dark cloud seems to be forming in front of my eyes. I keep looking for houses, and there aren't any. Without noticing it, I slip into a dream-like state, wherein the passage of time has slowed painfully, as if I have been driving down the road for hours.

At that moment, Shawn had traveled just four-and-a-half miles. He never did reach his destination. Gripped by panic, he turned the car around.

Shawn, 58, comes from a famously creative family, including his late father, William Shawn, the former New Yorker editor, and his brother, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. Allen Shawn writes about music and musicians. He teaches, has raised two children and has many friends.

Still, when Shawn titled his meditation on phobias Wish I Could Be There, he meant that, literally. His fears of moving through the world have cost him a lot. He says that he has missed funerals and "many, many" performances of his own music.

"Sometimes, I set out for something and have to phone my colleagues and friends and say, sorrowfully, that I can't make it there," Shawn tells Renee Montagne.

In the book, he writes: "The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling."

"Fear makes you focus very, very vigilantly on something," he says. Just as someone who has a gun pointed at him focuses solely on that gun and how to avoid getting shot, Shawn says, a person who's afraid of sitting in the middle of a theater will think of nothing else but: "How can I get out of here? Why is that person next to me so big? Where was that exit?"

"That kind of self-preoccupation is really silly, but it's what happens to the phobic," he says.

When they were young, Shawn's twin sister, who is autistic, was dispatched to a school for retarded children. For years, Shawn says he hid his panic attacks from others for fear that he would also be sent away.

"I felt that these were little instances of my becoming like my sister," he says.

Shawn says music offers him an escape from his phobias. "My music is a place where I can explore the world and explore the dark parts of life and take a lot of risks," he says. "There's a free person within me who emerges in the music."

Excerpt: 'Wish I Could Be There'

'Wish I Could Be There' by Allen Shawn

Introduction

I am driving down a dirt road to a friend's house. He didn't say how many miles down his house was. He did say it was beautiful there, on the lake, so I had suggested to E that she come along, and she is sitting next to me, chatting. The car jerks and bucks on the rut-filled path. There aren't any houses in view. I start looking for mail boxes and don't see any. I can't see any driveways leading to concealed houses either. It would appear that the road is quite isolated.

I am fine for the first mile, but slowly start to feel as if I were suffocating. The woods are dense, and all I can see are trees. Occasionally a branch strikes the windshield. I feel as if I need to find a bathroom. My breaths are becoming short and shallow, and a dark cloud seems to be forming in front of my eyes. I keep looking for houses, and there aren't any. Without noticing it, I slip into a dream-like state, wherein the passage of time has slowed painfully, as if I have been driving down the road for hours. My eyes are straining through a dark, blurry film. I feel as if I were floating, as if I were only partly in my own body, only partly still in the car. E is still cheerfully speaking but sounds both irritating and distant, as if we are separated by an invisible screen through her usually melodious voice sounds grating. I say a few words in response that come out sounding pinched curt, and crabby.

The odometer says we have been driving for four and a half miles, but the numbers have no meaning. I am growing confused and resentful and agitated. The road back will be bumpy and slow, too, I think, and wasn't there a fork back there at some point that I have already taken? How will I remember the way back? My legs are stiff and heavy, and I am trembling. I want to turn the car around. The road seems to grow darker. My muscles are coiled around one another, pulled taut. I am breaking, more and more confused, and I can't breathe. There's no sky overhead.

I turn the car around.

————————

I'm working on this "agoraphobia" problem. I started going for treatment again about a year and a half ago. It is my third serious effort to do so. I am fifty-six years old, but tackling this problem again makes me feel as if I were five. In the course of this work I have made a little progress and have gained some new perspectives on the condition. In a sense it is a trivial problem, merely an inconvenient personality trait. It can't be compared for a moment with suffering a life-threatening illness, being caught in a war, being subject to injustice and persecution, or countless other torments that people face all over the world. I would even surmise that serious adversity might, as it were, interrupt such a neurotic symptom. But as I have worked on the problem, I have also found it more and more intriguing.

One might speculate that a boy who grew up in the woods probably wouldn't have a woods phobia. But life isn't that simple. I grew up in New York City, where I ultimately acquired a number of urban fears, and in some ways being in the country allows me to escape from them.

I now live in Vermont and routinely travel to New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, parts of New Hampshire, and Connecticut. I stay not only within the radius of five states but also within a clearly practiced itinerary. I always take the same roads, what most people call the service roads. I won't drive on highways unless there are frequent exits and visible towns along the way. Recently I went south of New York for the first time in fifteen years. I last flew (to La Jolla, California) in the Summer of 1993. Even though I was medicated, my teeth chattered for the entire trip, and I didn't experience a hoped for break-through, a revelation that flying was easy. Admittedly I was amazed while on the plane by how routine it was. I remember thinking: "I get it! It's just a bus that happens to be up in the air." But once I was on the ground again, the old dread returned in full force. Even being on a plane on the runway with the door shut is a dreadful prospect to me.

Driving from where I live in Vermont to New York City doesn't particularly bother me, but before doing the four-hour evening drive (I prefer the evening because there is less traffic), I am sad , jittery, and slightly irritable all day, grimly going through the motions of life. Sometimes I end up with a heavy, bulging suitcase even if the trip will only be for twenty-four hours. Instead of packing one tie, I pack six or seven, to have more options. By the time the evening comes around, I have repeatedly checked what I am bringing and have added pads of paper, or books, or recordings I might just need but probably won't. The depression, if that's what it is, feels more and more external, like a fact about the world. It is as if I were about to undergo surgery or worse. It becomes difficult to focus on any but the most mundane tasks. My thoughts flicker haphazardly like moths around lamps, unable to settle anywhere. It is possible to wash dishes alongside this mental static, but not to read. The idea of the long drive gets mixed up with feelings of loss and guilt, thoughts of other journeys, and moments long forgotten that, in memory, are tinged with sadness. I think of seeing my father waving and crying and sliding to the left through the grimy windows of the train pulling me out of Grand Central Station on the way to music camp; of my sister in a party dress, on a swing in Chatham Massachusetts; of my mother, sitting next to me in a dark, air-conditioned movie theater on an unexpected outing in mid-summer.

Some form of this same downcast, nervous mental state is a universal part of the phobic process. It is called anticipatory anxiety, and apparently, as one recovers from phobias (if one does), it is the slowest phobic symptom to disappear.

Were I to now unfold for you a scroll upon which I had written my phobias, the scroll might stretch all the way to China. I don't like heights. I don't like being on the water. I am upset by walking across parking lots or open parks or fields where there are no buildings. I tend to avoid bridges, unless they are on a small scale. I respond poorly to stretches of vastness but do equally badly when I am closed in, as I am severely claustrophobic. When I go to a theater I sit on the aisle. I am petrified of tunnels, making most train travel as well as many drives difficult. I don't take subways. I avoid elevators as much as possible. I experience glassed-in spaces as toxic, and I find it difficult to adjust to being in buildings in which the windows don't open. I don't like to go to enclosed malls; and if I do, I don't venture very far into them. Even large museums cause me problems, despite my hunger to visit them. In short, I am afraid both of closed and of open spaces, and I am afraid, in a sense, of any form of isolation. When I am invited to a new house or apartment or to an event of any kind, my first reaction is to worry about its location. Often I go. But I end up missing many things and harming, or losing many relationships. When I am in settings that are far from my own home, I sometimes do adjust. But just as often my body lapses into a kind of closed hypervigilance or maintains a steady interior tremor like a car engine stalled in traffic.

The degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling.

Occasionally I gear myself up for a new trip. Over the past twenty years I have traveled by train to Atlanta, Rochester New York, Ithaca, Washington, Montreal (for an hour); and, in 1990, by boat to France, where I once lived for two years. But each excursion is an isolated accomplishment that doesn't particularly change my character overall. In each case I am almost frozen with anticipatory anxiety for weeks or months in advance and am exhausted, if pleased, afterwards. Often these trips are more than worth it, for myself and for others. But overall, progress is slow. Fortunately, by chipping away at the various roads in my part of the country, I am now familiar with enough places to be able to move around contentedly. But it is within a circumscribed world and without spontaneity.

Behind every arrival at a new destination lies a series of test runs, many of which are failures. A recent trip to Syracuse, New York to hear the orchestra there play one of my pieces, required no less than six attempted trips in advance, as I repeatedly rejected routes one by one as intolerable, returning to a point of reference that I came to know well. In an effort to keep myself together while on the road I develop a rather compulsive connection to such spots along the way, not unlike the way my mother used to keep Mr. Paine, the shoe salesmen, or Joe the butcher, in her sites, as if they were solid steel posts of reliability in a dangerous world. Along the way to Syracuse a Macdonald's decorated in fifties-diner style became a secure foothold for me. When I returned to it and heard the jukebox playing "Great Balls of Fire" and saw the life-size plastic statue of Elvis and the posters of Mick Jagger, I would breathe more easily. In the men's room was a framed poster of five torso-length portraits of the young Marilyn Monroe, five breezy, completely unforced poses. In the pictures she wore a white sweater and a necklace of alternating amber and black oval stones. The thought that she had long ago been chemically reabsorbed into the earth did not detract from the comforting power of her smiling, relaxed gaze.

All of this would be funny were it not sad. Even I myself laugh thinking about it and forget the pain, the fact that behind each of my self-imposed restrictions lie experiences of intense anguish. I tend not to talk about the subject. We all have "problems," after all. The women in my life have lived with this firsthand and tried to put up with it, as have my wonderful children, but even my own brother and most of my friends don't know more about it than that I tend to avoid certain experiences.

What precisely is the matter?

A part of me wishes to turn away from the topic or at least to describe it in the third person. But that abhorrence is actually part of the problem. I reassure myself that my readers are all human and that to be human is to experience limitations of many kinds. Besides, at those moments when we are in the grip of an inner force, perhaps something important is being revealed.

Copyright © Allen Shawn 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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