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‘Even my own skin could contaminate me’: a scholar charts her breakdown

Every morning, so far, I’m alive: a memoir is the story of how Wendy Parkins unravelled and put herself back together, sort of.

A professor of Victorian literature, Wendy Parkins whips us from Dunedin to Dover to Matakana, through three breakdowns, some extremely sub-par therapy, and a strange experience at an Auckland retreat. Tying the whole together are deft literary references and gorgeous, tender passages about her gardens, birds and the passing of seasons.

All that, and it’s also very funny. Here she is, near the start of the book, just trying to get the bloody shopping done in Dunedin. 

Whenever I start to slide into depression – a condition that snakes its way through all the branches of my family tree – I suffer a flare-up of some form of phobia, because depression robs me of the energy required to remain on guard in a world of potential dangers. In the perfect circle of neurosis, the phobia then also exacerbates the depression; life becomes more circumscribed by avoidance and fear until it hardly seems worth the effort to get up in the mornings. At times like these, navigating everyday activities pushes me to my limits of endurance.

Over the years, when agoraphobia surfaced, I tried a range of treatment – medication, counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy – culminating in a two-week intensive course at a clinic in Perth that finally seemed to work. My agoraphobia receded and I regained the world: I was able to leave the house without fear. I could deliver lectures; eat in restaurants; go to the cinema; travel. I could begin sentences with When I used to have agoraphobia and not feel that I was tempting fate by even naming my tormentor.

Somehow, though, after I had been symptom-free for years, the thought patterns that had first triggered agoraphobia began to morph into something much more insidious, a fear that could engulf me even within my own home, not just out in the wider world. The microscopic form of my fears now – bacteria, viruses, germs – in no way lessened their danger or my terror that they would overwhelm me. Safety eluded me; even my own skin could contaminate me if I touched an infected surface. The breath that I drew into my body could be the source of some sickening contagion that could fester deep inside me.

After I had moved to New Zealand for a career promotion (with my husband and two children, then aged four and 14), I experienced occasional downward spirals into depression, contamination phobia and/or OCD but never hit rock bottom, that state of brokenness where normal life becomes impossible. I soldiered on.

Wendy Parkins. Image: Lori Satterthwaite

During one episode of decline, however, I braced myself to tackle the ordeal of the weekly supermarket shopping on a Saturday morning. Pushing my shopping trolley, I entered the first aisle (with my sleeves pulled down over my hands to avoid direct contact with the trolley handle, of course) and saw an abandoned trolley, piled high with shopping, while two supermarket workers were busy with mops, buckets and spray cleaners beside it. My heart began to pound, my mouth was bone dry, my hands were shaking. I knew what had happened. I had no doubt that I could decode the signs and instantly arrive at their meaning. A parent had been shopping with a small child who had v___ted in the supermarket aisle, requiring parent and child to flee with their shopping incomplete, and leaving the staff to clean up the mess. To this day I have no idea what happened in that aisle. But I immediately backed away, abandoned my own empty trolley, and left the supermarket, even trying not to breathe lest there were airborne contaminants lingering.

I drove the short distance home and attempted to compose myself, relieved that no one else was there to witness my distress. My husband was watching our son’s football match; our now-adult daughter had recently moved out to her own place. After 10 minutes or so, realising that my family would return in an hour and wonder why there was no food for lunch, I decided to visit a different supermarket, even though that raised my anxiety further because my phobia made me a creature of habit and I didn’t like going to unfamiliar places. Nevertheless, I left the house again, still a little shaky and obsessing over the potential exposure to contamination I had just suffered, and promptly realised I had locked my car keys, house keys and phone inside. Now what? I was terrified, ashamed of my own stupidity and cowardice, and at my wits’ end. It was midwinter in Dunedin.

What happened next was something that, even at the time, in my distressed state, I wondered if I would one day look back on as an amusing anecdote (Remember that time?). It involved dragging our longest ladder from the shed and positioning it precariously below the only open window – the bathroom window, slightly ajar, and possibly large enough for me to squeeze through. Once I had made it up the ladder to the window ledge, which I could just reach by standing on tiptoe, I realised that the only way in was head first, given my wobbly position on the ladder and the angle of the window opening. So I pushed on and in till my hands were clutching the sink (directly below the window in the bathroom) and my legs were waving in the air, free of any contact with the ladder. I could not possibly go back, as the ladder was now out of reach of my toes, but how could I fold my body to avoid crashing head first to the tiled bathroom floor? I pictured my husband and son coming home to find me unconscious with a bleeding head injury, sprawled on the floor. I don’t know how long I balanced there, neither in nor out, wondering how the hell my life had come to this point. How stupid to be afraid of shopping trolleys and door handles and small children and all the other ordinary stuff of daily life! How could I call myself an intelligent person if I couldn’t perform basic tasks? What if my colleagues knew how stupid I was? What if my students knew that I was a quivering wreck much of the time?

There was only so long I could balance in such a ridiculous, not to mention uncomfortable, position. Eventually I committed fully to entering, awkwardly manoeuvring sideways until I could place my weight on the small cabinet next to the sink. I then dragged my legs in so that I landed in the sink before rolling onto the floor, avoiding heavy impact by some miracle rather than any natural flexibility on my part.

Five minutes later I left the house again – with my keys this time – and faced the strange supermarket before returning home, drained and ashamed. Definitely not my finest hour.

The human microbiome. Image: Roger Harris Science Photo Library via Getty Images.

Much of the time, in fact, I felt as stupid and humiliated by my disorder as I did when I was dangling from my bathroom window. How could I not just ‘think’ myself out of it? And yet, at the same time, because I needed to be always alert and aware of what anyone around me was doing or saying, I had to be as smart and switched on as possible. I was always on patrol; I could never be clever enough to outwit my enemies – germs, bacteria, viruses – but had to marshal all my resources anyway. I couldn’t trust anyone else to pay attention closely enough to know where the dangers were.

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Who has touched what?
Who looks as if they might be contaminated with something I could catch?
How can I inhabit this space, perform this task, maintain an appearance of normality, rather than dissolving into total panic?
Can I eat this food that someone else has prepared for me?
Can I prepare food that I can eat?
Will I poison my family, or my dinner guests, through letting my guard down or my attention wander for one fatal moment while cooking? Best not to risk it. Ever vigilant. When in doubt, avoid, discard, destroy.

My family has on more than one occasion had to deal with the fact that the planned dinner I had started to cook needed to be disposed of due to the meat looking or smelling funny, the vegetables feeling questionable, or the jar or tin not opening in a way that I could be sure meant it had been properly sealed. A late change of plan, kids – it’s vegetarian pasta again! I stand in the kitchen with a racing heart and shaking hands, weeping, washing my hands repeatedly but never feeling certain that everything is safe. Have I inadvertently cross- contaminated ingredients? What have I touched? What needs to be cleaned? What if my hands can never be properly clean?

Every morning, so far, I’m alive: a memoir by Wendy Parkins (Otago University Press, $35) will be available at Unity Books.


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