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The Loneliest Fear Of All: Graham Caveney Talks His New Book On Agoraphobia

15 June 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
illustrations: Jon Aye

Still recovering from a Government-ordered lockdown, it’s no surprise that agoraphobia has been on our minds more than ever before, especially with so many of us being nervous to leave the house. But even with the additional press, the phobia is still a widely misrepresented one, not even fully understood by those experiencing it. In the hopes of learning more, our writer Lizzy O’Riordan read Nottingham author Graham Caveney’s new book On Agoraphobia, and chatted with him about feelings of loneliness, the history of the disorder, and how literature’s agoraphobics acted as his ‘salvation’...

Thirty-plus years together and I still don’t know you. So writes Graham Caveney on the first page of On Agoraphobia - his new book detailing the slippery anxiety disorder that he’s been living with since the 1980s. The one that’s caused intense periods of isolation, identity crises and half a lifetime of inner turmoil, which has prevented him from attending major life events and, at its most extreme, from leaving his own home. 

Yet, despite his long-standing relationship with the disorder, which he compares to ‘a stealthy lover’, it’s still something he doesn’t fully understand. “Phobia has this kind of amorphous quality to it,” Graham says. We’re chatting over cups of tea at Tough Mary’s Bakehouse, and he’s trying to describe the feeling of agoraphobia. “I have these specific phobic sites like motorways, dual carriageways, wide open spaces, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world then becomes divided up into safe spaces - because anywhere can become a wide open space. It’s very difficult to define because of it.”

Most commonly defined as a fear of particular places, agoraphobia can take many forms, whether crowded areas, open spaces or spots that seem difficult to escape from. But as Graham says, fear-inducing spaces are unique to each person, and can change constantly, “There’s no location, there’s no direction, there’s no explanation for it, which makes it absolutely terrifying.”

On Agoraphobia is Graham’s way of trying to understand his own phobia. Combining personal anecdotes, historical references and quotes from his favourite authors, it feels like a collage of Caveney’s mind, translated for the reader to understand. “This book is kind of my grand coming out that’s been bubbling away for five years,” he says. “I felt the need to explain it to my nearest and dearest, to say this is what my interior life is like.”

There’s no location, there’s no direction, there’s no explanation for it, which makes it absolutely terrifying

And his interior life has been lonely, the phobia affecting his relationships with both people and places. Raised in Lancashire, agoraphobia has made Graham’s connection with his familial home difficult. “Growing up where I did in Lancashire, you’re bombarded with stories about the Lake District and Wordsworth and the egotistical sublime, [and being afraid of wide open spaces] I felt isolated from the idea of English pastoral and the rolling green and pleasant land that we celebrate all the time.” Living with this anxiety disorder, “there feels something treasonous about being agoraphobic” in a country that prides itself on its open landscape. 

Seeping into every area of his life, Graham admits it’s hard to imagine his life without agoraphobia now: “It is both me and not me. It’s kind of like sexuality in that it’s something bigger than us, even though it’s within us.” As such, he believes that it will be a part of him forever, commenting that once you’ve introduced the fear, it’s “not eradicable, really.”

A moving personal history, the book follows Caveney through his early agoraphobic days, his housebound era and his struggle with alcoholism. But alongside this, it also acts as a historical guide, with Caveney tracking the origins of agoraphobia, which etymologically stems from the words ‘fear’ and ‘market’. First arriving as a medical category in the nineteenth century, Caveney writes that agoraphobia was born from “unprecedented change, transformation at a speed that was dizzying, turbulent and seemingly boundless.” 

A moving personal history, the book follows Caveney through his early agoraphobic days, his housebound era and his struggle with alcoholism

“It’s like the flipside of the flaneur,” he continues. “That idealised figure that Baudelaire talks about, enjoying window shopping and watching the streets of Paris. The other side to that is the agoraphobic, emerging as a response to our current moment, modernity and all its horrifying promise.” 

A compelling read for any book lover, On Agoraphobia is packed with references to literature’s most famous agoraphobes - including the likes of Shirley Jackson and Emily Dickinson, the latter of which didn’t leave her home for twenty years. Referring to the authors as his “salvation”, they brought Graham solace during his most challenging point: “Reading books allowed me to discover I wasn’t alone and that other people have found this stuff equally scary. Someone that I will never know who lived hundreds of years ago said things that resonated with me.” 

Intimate and personal, the book ends on a hopeful note, and Graham likewise seems in a good place.

We’ve met in a bustling cafe for this interview, and as I walk in he’s finishing up a drink with his yoga teacher. He tells me that the practice has acted as a major coping technique, and that it’s been a long time since he’s been housebound, though agoraphobia “ebbs and flows at its own pace”. 

Throughout the book, he often addresses agoraphobia in the second person, speaking to it directly as both a lover and an enemy. But as I sit with him, it seems that he’s made peace with the phobia’s place in his life, managing it rather than being consumed by it. “I’m no longer trying to achieve normality,” he tells me, as we’re packing up to leave. “I’ve accepted that I will never be driving on the M6, I will never be in the Peak District, I will never be hitchhiking across America; but I still have a good life, I have people I love and who love me, I have books and films and records. And that’s ok. Once I realised that limitations don’t necessarily mean restrictions, it started to get easier, and I no longer feel as though I had to compete with this idealised version of the perfect self and life.”

On Agoraphobia can be found at Five Leaves Bookshop, Waterstones and a variety of other major booksellers.

grahamcaveney.com

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