Sunday, 29 December 2013



Jennifer's Hierarchy of Fears

Worst Case Scenarios

It’s the wrong colour

It’s too tight

It makes me look fat

I look fat in everything anyway

It’s too young for me

I look ridiculous in it

Everyone is laughing at me

I can’t show my face in public again

Hierarchy of Symptoms

My mouth is dry

I’m sweating.

I can feel my heartbeat accelerating

My knees are giving way

I’m trembling

I’m weeping

I’m losing control


I’m useless and a total waste of space

While I’m actually writing down the Hierarchy of Fears I’m sitting on a wall in front of a church, opposite Waterstones in the High Street.  I get off on the feeling of satisfaction at seeing the words written down – a means to externalising thoughts.   Clarissa will be pleased with me.  If I’m inadequate, at least I’m undeniably, totally, almost irreversibly inadequate.  In fact, there’s something pretty outstanding about my Hierarchy of Fears.  And it makes me feel, paradoxically, rather special. 
My phobia is a complex one, for a number of stimuli affect me, both socially and personally.  The sight of the sea convinces me I’m about to drown.  A bird might fly in my face; a spider could crawl up my leg.  But this fear of being laughed at!   Why the compulsion which forces me to go through complex rituals to avoid disaster?   Why do I think stepping on a crack will kill me? Clarissa intends to find out.
Because a phobia is an irrational fear.  It’s not a disease, nor does it mean the sufferer is mad.  So says Clarissa.  ‘Will-power, morality, ethics, motivation – all these are nothing to do with a phobia,’ says Clarissa, punctuating each word with a flicker of her long eyelashes.  She tells me a phobia is one of the most seriously undermining conditions, capable of seriously disrupting the lives of the most highly-intelligent humans, even restricting personal freedom to such a degree that the patient becomes isolated.  

By the way, do I have the means to pay?  Clarissa doesn’t do NHS.  

I fiddle with the loose hank of light brown hair that always escapes from the careful swirl on the top of my head.  I close my pale eyes, as though I’m ashamed to say.

‘My husband will take care of it.’ 
Clarissa makes a steeple of her hands. ‘The thing about a phobia is this – that it is a learned response.  Phobias can be eradicated. However debilitating these situations might be – they are still learned responses.  They can be unlearned.’  Although in the end, it seems to Clarissa, it all comes down to a fear of losing control.  

‘You have an irrational belief you have to make everything come right, for yourself and everybody else and that the world is out to thwart you.  You fret over every action for fear of its negative consequences.’

‘That sounds just like me.’ 

‘Some people believe that affirmations can help.  Would you like to try that?  OK, this is your affirmation; repeat it after me, Jennifer.  ‘I don’t have to live with this phobia’,’ says Clarissa.
‘I don’t have to live with this phobia.’ 

‘That’s a start,’ says Clarissa.  ‘Well done.  It’ll help if you can take on board that it’s simply irrational fear.  When fear is rational, it is just that - fear.  When it is irrational, it’s a phobia.’


‘Actually, it’s just mechanics,’ says Clarissa. ‘Straightforward and simple.  Something must have happened to you, something that made you feel scared and trapped.’

‘My mother never locked me in a cupboard.’

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ says Clarissa.  ‘But you need to remember one thing.  If you believe you can get better, you will.  If you believe you cannot get better, you won’t.  Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re absolutely right!’ 

Clarissa clicks off her tape machine.'
Later, as we are lying together in bed, Gavin says:  ‘It seems a waste of time trying to find out why you have the condition.  What happens when you know what particular childhood incident caused it?  Will you be cured?  Or will you be exactly the same, while your psychoanalyst gets richer and we get poorer.  After all, it’s me who has to pay for it all.  You just swan around all day.’

Gavin has a point.   But I don’t want to be nagged right now.  I want a cuddle.  I press my hand into his warm side, for he is lying on his back, his rather noble profile looking even more aristocratic than usual in the soft glow from the little bedside lamp.  He ignores the pressure of my hand.

‘After all,’ says Gavin, warming to his theme, ‘If you were bitten by a snake, it would be more sensible to take an antidote than pay someone to go looking for the so-and-so who did it.’

‘Are you saying you don’t want to pay for my treatment any more?  Well, you needn’t.  I could go on the National Health.’

‘Don’t be bloody stupid!’ Gavin explodes, as I knew he would.  He’ll never cut off my private treatment all the while I threaten him with the National Health.  He’s annoyed, for he turns his back on me and yanks my share of the duvet to his side. 

‘It’s silly of me to be scared of so many different things,’ I tell Clarissa on my fifth session. Of course, Clarissa reassures me.  The treatment will take some time, but Clarissa will make a special priority for me.  It will be expensive, but it will be worth it to alleviate the pain.  Clarissa will concentrate on the phobias for now; after all the OCD is merely a symptom of the fear.  No doubt the problems are buried somewhere in my childhood.  

I’m about to walk out, when Clarissa says, ‘I’m going to give you a task.  I want you to write a diary every day, just a few words, jotting down your feelings, the time of day you had those feelings and where you were at the time.  Will you do that for me, Jennifer?’  

I trawl through my memory for a time when I felt good about myself.  Strangely, although it is easy to remember the occasions, it’s difficult to recreate the feeling.  It’s like pain.  You can remember but you cannot reproduce it in yourself. 

Next day, I come across Gavin in the conservatory, where the sunshine streams in for most of the day.  He’s sitting on the swinging chair with an album on his lap and he’s staring at a photo. 

Without needing to check, I know it’s a photo of him.   He stares and stares for ages, at the photo.  Silently I peer through the sliding glass door, trying to see which photo is the object of his fascination.  It’s the one of him standing on the top of a mountain on holiday.   He’s wearing his snazzy mountain jacket, the one she always teases him about, calling it ‘the coat of many colours’, Clearly, he thinks he looks amazing in the coat.  He cannot take his eyes off himself.

I know I hould leave him to it.  I shouldn’t embarrass him by catching him out.  But somehow the temptation is too great and I hover and I realize I’m actually enjoying how ridiculous he makes himself.  Still, he continues to gaze, enraptured at the sight of his other self so fetchingly caught on celluloid.   I shouldn’t stand here watching, without his knowing I’m there.  It’s mean and unworthy.  But so is he, as there are photos of me in that pile, photos he has carelessly glossed over.  Clearly I’m not as fascinating to him as he is to him.       
I shuffle around a bit, hoping he’ll look up and see me and blush a little for being caught out in this act of self-obsession.  He doesn’t.  I don’t tell him to come for his cocoa.   Instead, I wander out of the conservatory and up to the bedroom, open his wardrobe door and, distractedly, pull at the sleeve of the coat.  I am embarrassed for him.  It is such a tiny thing, a pointless foible, but he’s been diminished in my mind.  I want to find a decent reason for feeling like this, so ungenerous, so pedantic.      
I take the coat out of the wardrobe and slip my arms into the sleeves.  I stare into the mirror set into the door of the wardrobe.  I look like Michelin Man.  I don’t know why he likes it so much, the colours are not attractive, a vile orange, a vicious blue no self-respecting bluebell would aspire to.  There are zips all over the place securing pockets of various sizes.  The collar contains a zipped in hood and it rises up behind the head, making a sort of domed backdrop, like an alien. I fasten the zip at the bottom and slide the zip upwards.  At the top, I sense a bump in one of the pockets.  Unzipping the pocket, I draw out a little sheaf of papers.
I shouldn’t look.  Even husbands and wives are entitled to their bits of privacy, have the right to trust that they are not being checked over.  But I can’t help it. 
The sheets contain nothing but some credit card receipts.  Nothing juicy there!  Nothing at all.  But I won’t give up.  One by one, I unzip each pocket, plunge in one finger, five fingers, or a hand, according to the capacity of the pocket, withdraw and zip up the pocket again.  This takes some time.  I’m brooding about vain men, self-obsessed men, men who find themselves more fascinating than they find me.  

I’ve been turned off by his male vanity.  I want to find something incriminating.  Deep inside, I’d welcome an excuse to reject him.  I console myself with the thought that small things indicate trends.
Actually, I don’t need any evidence.  How I feel is enough.  I don’t need his approval.  He has made himself pathetic – and that helps

Next time I see Clarissa, it’s different. 

My pale eyes shine like windows and I haven’t put up my hair.  I tell her I have had an aha moment.

I'm leaving Gavin. 

‘It wasn’t quite what I had in mind,’ says Clarissa.  ‘Why are you leaving Gavin?’

‘I don’t like him.’
‘But what about your low self-esteem?’ asks Clarissa.  ‘What about your claustrophobia?  What about your childhood trauma?  I hope you’re not thinking of cancelling the rest of your sessions.’
I stare at Clarissa pityingly.  Sometimes I wonder if that qualification on the wall is genuine.
‘Something’s happened to me.  Something rather ordinary that’s probably hard to understand and I have you to thank for that.  I can deal with it. I know I can.’

‘It’s not normal to respond that quickly. Now don’t you think we’d better work this through?  What’s responsible for this – apparent – breakthrough?’  Clarissa’s eyebrows have scrunched together in the middle of her temple.  She looks so strange with one continuous eyebrow across her forehead, I’m distracted.  Then I catch myself.  She deserves, at least, a cursory explanation.

‘A big coat,’ I said cheerfully.  ‘A coat like Joseph’s in the Bible, of many, many colours, but an awful lot of empty pockets.’ 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Janet,
    Love the story.
    It's actually quite discerning! Jo