Basil Fawlty and anxiety attacks

I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.

For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.

Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.

Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.

Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.

Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.

I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.

J.

(originally published June 5, 2015)

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

Blaming the victim, or, how can you say that?

I wrote a while ago about the advice one of my out-of-town relatives gave me, telling me to relax. That one post, and the response it has generated, has made me think about the other things people say to those of us who battle anxiety and/or depression. This list of things other people say is by no means original—you can find high-quality posts on the same subject here and here, for example—but these comments clearly show that those other people have no idea what they are saying with their helpful advice.

“It’s all in your head.” Well, of course it is. Did you think I blamed my feet for my anxiety and depression? All-in-my-head doesn’t make it less real or easier to bear. When you tell me that my problems are all in my head, all you are really saying is you can’t see my problem, so to you it doesn’t exist.

“You’re just being selfish.” “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” Anxiety and depression may, in some ways, be connected with selfishness, but they are not caused by a selfish nature or proof that the struggling person is more selfish than others. I’ve known people struggling with cancer who were very aware of their illness, to the point that they could talk about nothing else. For that matter, I’ve known people struggling with allergies or with the common cold who seemed obsessed with their illness. When a person is sick—and knows that he or she is sick—awareness of the sickness and its symptoms are inevitable. The cancer or the cold can be measured, though, whereas the anxiety and depression cannot be measured. If you don’t have cancer, you don’t know how the person struggling with cancer really feels. If you don’t have depression, you don’t know how the person struggling with depression really feels.

“Keep yourself busy doing things for other people, and you won’t have time to be anxious or depressed.” When people are emotionally paralyzed by anxiety or depression—unable to get out of bed, or unable to leave the house—it is a bit cruel to suggest that they can change their feelings just by keeping busy. I am blessed in that I have never missed a day’s work or a social obligation due to anxiety or depression, but I can attest to the fact that forcing myself to do my job or to attend someone else’s party did not ease my symptoms one bit. The wave of panic that hits while I’m sitting at my desk is there all the same. It does not matter if I keep working or if I hide under the desk. The main reason I don’t hide under the desk is that I don’t want to call attention to myself.

“Cheer up.” “Relax.” Yes, I would do these things if I could. Telling me to do those things does not make me more capable of doing them. If I could force myself to relax or to be cheerful, don’t you think I’d rather do that? As it is, I fake it as well as I can, just so I don’t bother you so much with my problems.

“You need to learn how to manage stress.” Honestly, I’m not sure that a strong connection exists between stress and anxiety. If I worried about something specific, my worry would be natural and acceptable, wouldn’t it? It’s the free-floating anxiety that puzzles you. Maybe you think that stress management and a positive mental attitude are all that is needed to win the fight against anxiety and depression, but the professionals who have studied cases like mine would, for the most part, disagree with you.

“It’s all your fault.” All right, no one has said those words to me so bluntly. But isn’t that exactly what is being said in every one of the examples given above? People in our society have mastered the art of blaming the victim. They seem to think, “If you are sick and I am not, I must be doing something right, and you must be doing something wrong.” We know that many broken bones are caused, directly or indirectly, by careless or dangerous behavior. Why not go to the emergency room and tell everyone who enters with a broken bone that, if they had been more careful, they would still be fine. Go to the pharmacy and tell everyone buying cold and flu medication that, if they took better care of themselves, they would not need the medicine.

According to the Bible, the Lord allowed Satan to test the faith of a man named Job. Job lost his wealth and his ten children, followed by his health. Three friends came to visit Job, and he began eloquently describing his depression. The three friends assured Job that his problems were his fault. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” they said to Job. “You are getting what you deserve. Change your life, and make yourself right with God, and your problems will cease.”

Job told his friends they were wrong. Then the Lord appeared and also told them they were wrong. He promised to forgive them when Job prayed for them. He restored Job’s blessings, without ever telling Job the back-story of why his problems happened in the first place.

The world is not fair. Good people suffer. Bad people get away with evil deeds. Blaming the victim solves nothing. If I had the courage, I would say to all these well-meaning advisors, “Be glad you don’t have the problems I have, but don’t be smug. I’m glad your life is going well. Please be a bit more patient with me as I try to manage mine.”

J.

Note–I wrote this several weeks ago and never got around to posting it until now. Getting to bring a family member home from the hospital last night had me too busy to compose a new post, and I remembered that I had several older ones in reserve. You are welcome. J.