The following is an excerpt from ‘The Fear’, available for pre-order with Repeater Books now.
After I graduated, I worked as an au pair in Paris. I was looking after an eighteen-month-old and a six-year-old in the 20th arrondissement. I lived a forty-minute bus ride away, in Montmartre, subletting my room from a French banker, Gilles, and his Russian girlfriend, Tatiana. She seemed to be in a perpetual internship at his bank, and I was told that she needed to improve her English, as part of the wider project to improve her life, directed by him. My fluency in English was the main reason I was chosen to rent out their spare room; for merely chatting in my mother tongue, I would have a reduced rent. My room was tiny, but it overlooked the Sacré-Coeur, and there were rumours Picasso had lived on the same street once.
The children I were looking after also needed to improve their English (and that was also why I was in a job), but they were less enthusiastic about it. I pushed the pram around, anyway, learning “baby French” and trying to stop the older sister from destroying everything while I attended to her younger sister. She definitely did not want to learn English, and in the end, only the baby picked anything up — albeit limited to “nose” and “please”, which was somehow enough to impress their mother.
Outside of my new childcare duties, I met some friends — other expats, mostly — writing their novels and making their films or planning them, usually teaching or babysitting as well. I collected numbers of waiters and let my flatmates match-make me with their strange friends out of politeness, but to no avail. I was infatuated with an unavailable man, but I hadn’t told them that. He was too old for me and had a girlfriend. Gradually, over the months of unrequited, misplaced infatuation, I broke down in pastels and puddles, becoming one more cliché in a city full of them.
I tried to laugh it off for a while — how absurd I was being — but the heartbreak was real. It was just misplaced. There were many heartbreaks, and many heartbreakers, and they all served the same purpose; if I was dwelling on the empty space beside me, and who might have filled it, then I was not thinking about anything else. I was not remembering worse traumas and illnesses and memories of death. I was escaping specific fears by living in a perpetual state of anxiety. Why has he not called? Why does he not want me? Why has he left? Not: Why did that happen? How did he die? When will he die? What will I do? Those were the real heartbreakers. But I blamed all the palpitations, the shortness of breath, the dizziness, on whoever I had most recently met, whichever latest man would play the role, this repetitive walk-on part that my subconscious despair had so expertly directed.
I moved apartments in the summer, when my flatmates told me I was not allowed to make coffee on weekends before twelve, in case I should wake them. So I gave up that view of the Sacré-Coeur — the only real benefit of that flat-share — and the tiny single bed, and moved to a rougher, but more relaxed part of town, over the hill. The kids broke up for the summer, around then, and I found myself with very little to do. I had no purpose for every day anymore, nothing to keep me grounded, with the daily routine of my job gone. I had little money; I was living on what I had saved up in advance. The man I had been entranced by had left the city. He was not merely emotionally unavailable but logistically impossible, too.
To distract myself from the newly expanded void, I went on more dates, but nothing ever worked out. I didn’t really want them to. I stopped giving out my number or making any plans, as the weeks dragged on. Everything in Paris was pastel but I was still navy, indigo, deepening and emptying each day, oblivious to the summer outside of myself. I couldn’t forget what I wanted to forget — could not absolve myself of the diffuse fear that clung to my every movement. I became so exhausted by the burden of it that one day I just switched off, got sick and surrendered.
I couldn’t get out of bed, then. It was as if standing was falling, pointless even to attempt. I stayed there so long that the details of my room began to taunt me. The skulls on my navy scarf, fading in the light by the window. Teeth chattering and migraine sickness, cigarette nausea and weak tea. Lilac nail polish — the only sympathetic smell, it seemed, then. Respite from swirling pain, confused nostalgia, those fevered visions. Could I find such peace in a walk around the block, a tiny little bath, a Nespresso pod?
I entertained these thoughts, these actions, but I continued to not get up. I stayed in the old-fashioned bed, in the old- fashioned room, with old-fashioned rose-pink wallpaper that I liked very much, certainly more than getting out of bed. I was happy enough here, I thought at first. This would do, this pretty Parisian cell. It would do until I was forced out of bed by hunger, at least.
When at last I was hungry enough to get up, I put on some clothes and went down the street to the supermarket. I had always disliked supermarkets, to the point where I wondered if I had a phobia of them: the glaring white strip lights and too many items and decisions to make. Things I wanted and things I couldn’t really afford or were too unhealthy, or had something that I may or may not have been allergic to. All the everyday, futile little problems that I exaggerated and hated at once. They didn’t even need to be problems: I had made them into problems. It was entirely my fault that I was wandering around a French supermarket wanting to die.
Eventually I picked up things that I needed: milk, coffee, wine, bread, some vegetables and fruit. I felt sick of these things upon buying them. The idea of having to cook anything filled me with dread. I was hungry but couldn’t really imagine eating. I passed the flowers, suffocated in cellophane, hanging by the side of an aisle, wilting incrementally.
I reached the checkout and spoke minimal French. I had once enjoyed the challenge of improving my French, but now it was one more handicap. I piled the foods into a canvas shopping bag and paid the money and smiled and left. I felt desperately inadequate. I was hungry but then I was sick. And if I could be sick and bored here, in Paris, then there was no hope. If all I wanted to do was stare at the wallpaper and lie in the bath, and even then, I was still miserable, then something must be wrong. Paris had always been a good escape, the best escape of them all. But now, here I was, wanting out. Anything would do; I thought of options that would be easy, things in pill form.
There were no painkillers, though, and no people to bring them. It always takes sickness to realise you’re alone. Voices in the music, matching my own regret — but why? How could I try any harder? How could I stop my heart aching for no apparent reason? Where did my flatmate keep her Valium? She had talked about her breakdowns and the tablets for emergencies; this seemed to measure up. I’d fit her size. I’d manage two. The panic dragged on and then dissolved into fatigue, headaches, with wound-up thoughts and vague dreams. Fantasies, scratched down with good intentions. Quickly, it came to that.
I found the Valium, eventually, in a little white bottle. The language of languages, medical terms. Drug names. Diazepam in any country. I walked into a dream, where I did not feel guilty, for once, for not leaving my bed. I did not feel ashamed for being still. The jarring angst and neglect of my childhood drifted away; in some ways, I felt more myself than before.
Even with the medication, though, which was inevitably fleeting, the depression and paralysing anxiety persisted, as did my drab romanticism. But heartbreak was easier to dwell on than the idea that perhaps I needed professional help, and I convinced myself that this was what I was suffering from. It was more accessible a problem, in a way, more obvious, easier to rationalise. Heartbreak always had a solution, too, which other problems seemed not to. With heartbreak, the solution was simply that, at some point, I would meet someone else. However much I indulged one loss, I knew there were others out there, more numbers to call, glances to meet, ways to escape. They would be drawn to me too, those who needed to escape, the sailors looking out for the sirens.
I was happy when I found one. Having someone next to me would help alleviate all the anxiety and terror for a while. In the early days of a relationship, I’d sleep soundly, blissful and content. I would feel safe in another’s arms, and in the heady distraction of new love, or infatuation — the joy of possibility. This was life; love was life. Love was the only thing that could possibly defy the pain of illness and grief.
And yet just as death is part of life, loss and decay are also part of love. And so whenever love became complicated, threatened to dissipate or disappear, the Fear returned. I could not stand the lows, and yet I persisted anyway. I was stubborn as any addict. I could not let up. I would not surrender. These love affairs were my only way out, it seemed to me. They were the only thing that could ward against those other demons. I set the new demons against the old ones, reactively.
In so doing, I evaded the root causes, the original traumas and neglect — a sick father, an ex-boyfriend who had overdosed on crack and heroin the year before, a traumatic, abusive relationship at university. I focused instead on the immense emptiness I felt in this particular moment, or whenever my supply of fleeting romance had run out. I focused on how nothing else worked, how nothing could take the edge off the abyss of unresolved terror that I had sought so stubbornly to repress. Nothing worked the way love did, or what I thought could be love. I was shameless in the hopelessness of this romanticism, which I was also aware of, and even addicted to. It bordered on nihilistic, really, but I didn’t care. It was the mood I was in. Men had caused me such pain and such terror in the past, and now I sought out new men, as if their masculinity could shield me from the terror of my past, and the more casual threats of men standing too close in bars, or walking nearby in badly lit streets, being lecherous on the bus. I wanted to be protected, as if having a dangerous dog might protect me against the other dangerous dogs. They could be loyal sometimes. With this borrowed masculinity, these fleeting protectors, I could negotiate what and whom I was afraid of — unless they turned on me, that is. It was always a shock, despite these patterns, to realise I was sleeping with the enemy.
As the summer went on, I floundered on in this state of anxiety and fearfulness, feeling heartbroken. I became horizontal, and yet alone — closed off, somewhere between disassociation and delirium. I was always sad. At a loss, I began to write depressing little notes to myself, longing for a non-existent romance, ignoring everything and everyone else that might have hurt me. Love to stop the ground from swelling, revealing itself as the sea beneath my toes — that was the ideal, the solution, the cure.
Gradually, as the days went on, I forgot the symptoms, the shakiness. I blamed myself for what had come over me. I called it names now, other than heartbreak: depression, anxiety, PTSD — as if labelling could cure by means of compartmentalisation alone. I opened my arms to an emptiness that I could not contain; I surrendered further, but only because I was sure it was only a matter of time until I would have a better cure, again. Love was still the cure, even if it was not the only disease. I was determined that must be the case. Love, from a record, too much love, packed away and dusty. Something to want and want and want and leave, some day. Because in the end, did I really want love, or did I want to mourn its end, its failure? Love was death. I knew that. These men were not supposed to stick around; that was the point. Deep down, I’m sure, the idea of them sticking around forever was more terrifying than them leaving. How could I be so heartbroken, then? I would have to get upset at the original loss, the deeper fears.
The insomnia and anxiety and panic attacks did not subside, and the need to go home grew stronger as the weeks went on. I would lie awake, my mind racing with hauntings I could not untangle from the very fibre of my consciousness. I was in a spiral of anxiety and fearfulness. In the city of Sartre and De Beauvoir, the existential crises and tortured dynamics they had written about were evident and all too present, timeless and clinging. I was bored, I was anxious, and I was confused, and they had been here, too, of course.
Though I had moved to Paris with some optimism, despite the months that preceded the move, before long I had found myself languishing in this barely repressed despair, lacking meaning, structure and any sense of security. It should not have been especially surprising that I might feel this way — a newly heartbroken philosophy graduate in Paris — and yet, somehow, it was. How could this city, this freedom, a fresh start, not liberate me? Why could I not, after everything, escape my own past and the neuroses that had found their way into my thoughts and reactions? Had I learned nothing at all from my degree? I had written a dissertation on Nietzsche’s denouncement of the slave mentality, and the pursuit of life as a “free spirit”. I had written an exam paper defending a life of artistic freedom and decadence; I had written about radical feminism and liberation from the shackles of the patriarchy. And yet here I was, in some ways very free, but still emotionally trapped, unable to enjoy whatever freedoms I had fought for and found. Fear was everywhere; I could not escape.
So now what? Nothing I did made any difference. I was stuck in this fearfulness every day and every night. Therapy? I could barely bring myself to talk. Medication? I had not reacted to it well in the past (other than the sort I would not be prescribed for any length of time). I had some sense that I needed to figure things out on my own, in an intellectual and emotional way, or any other solution would collapse eventually.
“The Fear”, as I experienced it, was a state of mind that affected how I felt physically, how I experienced everyday life, and how I perceived and engaged with others and the world around me, whenever my latest escape had dissolved. My worldview was characterised by shutting down, panicking, dissociating and running away. It was characterised by escapism, one way or another, because the reality of my current life — overwhelmed as it was by past traumas and betrayals, stretching so many years back, much of it suppressed — felt impossible at that time. It was too heart-breaking to stay present in, so I ran from one escape strategy to another until I simply burnt out. And then I began again.
Though it did not feel very meaningful at the time — rather something to endure and then also escape — my experience of this state ultimately taught me a lot about my own existence, how my mind and body worked, and about human nature in a broader sense. The Fear defined how I lived; it was an affective experience that also revealed to me how existence itself was characterised and infused with such states and their manifestations as moods and reactions and relationships with each other. The Fear felt like an ordeal, and it was, but it was also central to human existence, I came to realise, and it transformed my own understanding of the world and our emotionally rooted place in it. I realised I would never understand human nature without coming to terms with my own version of the Fear — these entangled states of fear, anxiety and boredom — and I would never emerge beyond these emotional states myself without understanding the nature of this state, and how it changed and changes me and others everywhere.
Christiana Spens is an academic, writer and artist based in London. She is the author of The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media: Playing the Villain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and several other books. She writes regularly for publications such as Prospect, The Irish Times, Byline Times, Art Quarterly and Studio International on politics and culture, and is a founding member of Truth Tellers, based at Kings College London.
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