The Fear of Being Interrupted

“I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up. I let the cabin get very cold, and I rejoice in my good fortune. Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.”
Leonard Cohen

Nurturing hard-earned disinterest in the superficial, abandoning our immediate needs and finding scope in what Mary Oliver calls “the eternal,” takes enormous effort. We must abandon pressing needs, ignore threats, and generally suspend our self. But the reward is glorious: time slows, and we melt into true emotional comfort and creative flow… perfection.

In this wondrously creative but indeed vulnerable state, even the slightest interruption feels like an attack. A force barraging down on us, yanking our soft self apart.

The interruption is so great even the fear of it primes anxiety. Like standing too close to the train tracks, an engine rattling in the distance.

London Underground, Notting Hill Gate Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I first heard of this “fear of being interrupted” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s estimable memoir Ruined by Reading.

I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. (It may also be why, as I grew up, I came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.) Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand I do something. Of course, I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is beside the point. The spell will have broken.

I underlined these words so firmly I tore the page. Schwartz put words to feelings and visualizations to fears that I and other writers, thinkers, and ponderers have long felt. Poets Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke. Writers Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, and Annie Dillard. And, of course, Canada’s most famous monastic, Leonard Cohen.

In “The Luckiest Man in the World,” Cohen writes:

Saturday night really is, as they say, ‘the loneliest night of the week.’ I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up… Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.

A spider threatens our thoughts? Why are our thoughts so fragile? Because they aren’t real? Don’t memories and thoughts exist whether we access them or not?

London Underground Tracks, Earl’s Court Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps not. Recent neuroscience research argues that memories are not (as we imagine) file cabinets; they are actually formed anew once we call them up. Not only does this mean memory distorts truth, but it also means the effort to have a memory is rooted in creativity, not in rigorous thinking.

Creativity requires safe soil. This self, the one that floats sublimely free from immediate needs… we are vulnerable, angered, even disoriented. We form hides and protective walls. And most dangerously, we fear. Schwartz continues on her interruption:

The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic itself is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

We interrupt ourselves, indeed. In John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938–1941, the fear of interruptions, specifically people needing him, unnerves him completely:1

Irritated today. People want to come see me next Monday. Can’t be. Just want to sit. Day not propitious. […] I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now. It’s just like slipping behind at Stanford. Panic sets in. Can’t organize. And everybody is taking a crack at me. What time, want to use me. In aggregate it is terrible. And I don’t know where to run. Ought to go into the wild somewhere but I am needed here. Got to calm down.

What Steinbeck sought, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson achieved: complete solitude in the “wild” to explore his own mind and being. During his self-imposed isolation in Siberia, Tesson seeks solitude, gains it, and, in a moment of rage, loses it.

From his diary The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga, that moment of interruption happens when his sanctuary, a lone outcrop on the lake’s edge, becomes the place that “Russia’s nouveaux riches fawn like groupies.” Specifically, snow mobiles. Tesson is devastated, embarrassed, and angry: “What I came here to escape has descended on my island: noise, ugliness, testosterone-fueled herd behavior.”

Devastated. How resonating. Being interrupted is more than losing thoughts or to-do lists. It can feel like we lose a part of ourselves. Or worse, that part is destroyed.

London Underground Tracks, Perivale Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I began writing, I had to explain to my husband that the slightest chirp could pull me down from my thoughts and land me hard on the ground, creatively broken. I can’t ask him for silence in our own home, but I can ask him to not need me during certain times. He tries. But even now, I see him turning his head to get my attention, wanting to talk…

It seems unreasonable, and at times it is, but this need from others will stunt many of us who long to connect with unspoken parts of ourselves rather than freely given parts of others. My introversion is a sort that I don’t mind being around people—in fact, I love it—I just can’t be needed and creative.

We can relocate to the woods (Oliver, Dillard), the mountains (Cohen), Siberia (Tesson), or a cramped studio in Notting Hill (myself), but the intrusive world is beyond our control.

What we can control, however, is how we regain focus once lost. Right? That perfect uninterruptability.