Intimacy and Anxiety: Natural Enemies
By: Tanya Vavilova
The clouds are grey and heavy, compressing the ground and my mood with their weight. I’m sitting by an electric heater, drinking pale ale, in Eleanor Dark’s studio at Varuna, in Katoomba, where she herself sat and wrote, trying to find uninterrupted time to write amongst the demands of work and home.
I’ve put aside my novella-in-progress to write this essay. It was not going to plan, anyway. I’m having trouble getting into the head of one of my protagonists, Clarissa, a school counsellor, who’s in love with a co-worker. It’s a simple, easy, uncomplicated love. As someone who has never been in love, I wonder if I should be writing this character at all.
For me, love and sex have never been simple, uncomplicated matters. And I’ve been with some understanding, gentle women who have given me love, space and time, and yet – I’ve never come close to that blissful, single-minded state.
I’m talking about love, but also orgasm.
It isn’t surprising that being anxious in life would interfere with intimacy, with connection with another human being, with love, with orgasm. Intimacy requires us to be fully present, engaged with the person in front of us and with ourselves, while anxiety keeps us focused on the past or the future (‘Did I say the wrong thing at dinner? Will she leave me? I’m scared I’m going to flip out.’)
When going to the supermarket or out for dinner can provoke a panic attack, how does someone deal with the anxiety of hopping into bed with a stranger (or even someone they care about for the first time or the second time or the third)? Of course, anxiety doesn’t have to be all encompassing in this way – I’m only talking about my own experience here. My anxiety is like a thick, winter coat; something that means to protect but ends up smothering, forcing distance between my lover and me though we’re lying side by side in bed, sharing a quilt and pillow.
I live with vaginismus and anorgasmia, and a constellation of phobias and anxieties, mostly to do with the violation of bodily integrity (needles, blood, injuries, piercings, earrings, tattoos, dental work, doctors and so on, and so on). Intimacy is not so much scary as unattainable, because my anxiety is forever present and it makes me self-absorbed, worried, and scared. This stops me from fully appreciating, knowing, or feeling the person beside me on the couch, at the table or in bed.
I sometimes think the solution is to be alone. The thing is, though, I crave connection with another human being; I don’t want to be alone (though whose to say whether I would have arrived at the same conclusion had I not grown up in a society that privileges couples, pairings, things that come in two). Like so many before me, I can’t resist the attraction of being ‘saved’ by a ‘soul mate’ though I know it’s a myth – and a dangerous one at that. I’m embarrassed that I find myself thinking this way.
We are getting better at talking about mental illness. Still, mistakes are made, nuances lost like house keys. A couple of years ago, a group of friends were about to get in the car to go somewhere (to the beach?). I was panicky, refused to get in the car. My friend turned to me and said, matter-of-factly,
‘You’ll be right.’
I can’t switch my anxiety off because it’s inconvenient (or embarrassing).
That it’s internal, invisible, ‘in my head’ doesn’t make it any less debilitating. If a fairy godmother appeared to grant one wish, I would ask her to wave her wand and make my anxiety disappear. I wouldn’t ask to be beautiful or flawless, to be smarter or funnier, things that I would also like very much.
When I’m having sex, my mind doesn’t quieten. I wonder, am I doing the right thing? Does she like this? How much longer? I’m floating above on the ceiling, looking down on us, watching us loop arms and legs and torsos. I’m pretending, a lot of the time, and I hate myself for it. There are glimmers of genuine feelings and sensations, but they are so fleeting, rare butterflies.
I find myself thinking, how dare I go into relationships? How dare I go in if I can’t even work out how I feel about someone? Whether I want sex. Whether I love them (or could ever love them). And if I do dive in, I wonder how much I should disclose and when? You seemed so different when we first met, girlfriends have said. I know my anxiety is an iceberg, a hidden menace.
I think the reason I’m having trouble writing Clarissa is that I can’t imagine being able to give myself in body and mind and spirit to someone else, like she can. To truly feel them and want them and love them, to have those feelings unmarred by secondary feelings of anxiety, or worry, or shame.
If we allowed people to be unsure, to be anxious, unhappy, there wouldn’t be as much pressure on us to work out our feelings (or to work them out so quickly). We have a right to enter into relationships, to seek out love and sex, if that’s what we want, no matter what baggage we carry.
As things stand, though, I’d happily swap places with my fictional character, Clarissa, to soar in and out of love and sex, free and uncomplicated, leaving everything I know behind.
Tanya Vavilova works with university students from all walks of life as a case manager and program coordinator. She is currently studying creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney. Her bedside table is forever stacked with true crime, memoir and novels about middle-class loners.