Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Phobias and fears
Do you have any phobias?
We all have fears, all of us. Whether we wake in the night, contemplating the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or the state of the world, we all have some fear nibbling at the back of our brains. We manage to carry on regardless. Some nights we roll back over and drift off to sleep, some nights our fear is the only thing keeping us occupied as we stare at the blank ceiling above, willing the fear back into the cave in our minds where it generally lurks.
For the most part we dwell outside that cave during the day. We carry on, we get things done. Many of the things we get done are the very things that stave off the fears. If someone is terrified of a loss of financial security, going to work and earning a wage is a way of combating that fear. We all have fear, but for the most part, we learn how to coexist with it. It can even be said that our fear can motivate us to do better, be better, and achieve. Fear can keep us safe, too. If you look down a dark alley while out for an evening stroll, shiver and decide to keep to the lighted path, then your fear may be keeping you safe.
Sometimes we get to prove to ourselves how brave we can be by overcoming a fear. Most fears have a rational base, and are coped with in a rational matter. We tell ourselves it will be okay, and most of the time we make it okay.
"Hello, do you kill things?"
It was, bar none, the strangest greeting I had ever received. I had walked into the room I was to share for a week with a woman I had not met before, thrown a bag onto the bed and turned to greet the woman in the corner. Before I could open my mouth, that was what she said.
"Do I...?" I began, unsure as to whether or not she was joking. The woman was about my age at the time, in her mid twenties, pressed into a corner, eyes the size of dinner plates, visibly shaking. I laughed uncertainly, "Not as a general rule, no."
She raised a trembling finger and pointed towards a closet. "I can't get past it. I can't move."
I glanced towards the closet and saw what she indicated. A not particularly large, and not overly small spider was on the wall. "Oh! Yes, yes! I kill things!"
I grabbed a tissue and dispatched the interloper, leaving the room to flush the spider down the toilet. By the time I returned, my terrified roommate had slumped down slightly, wiping tears from her face. She apologized to me, introduced herself properly. We spent a pleasant week in training, and she apologized several times for the manner in which we met.
People never choose to be terrified, in my experience, but it can happen to anyone. The genesis of a phobia is often hard to pin down. I used to be very afraid of birds, but solved that by taking a part-time job working with them when I was twenty-years-old. I know where that fear came from in my life. When I was a child a bird fell down the chimney, and as I exited the room, shrieking at the top of my five-year-old lungs the bird followed me through the house. It probably thought it was handy to have such a loud guide, but between that and the fact that my parents, quite by accident, let me watch the movie The Birds later that same month, I developed an irrational fear of them. Working with birds solved the problem, and I no longer have any fear of them but I well remember freezing at the sight of even a caged bird.
This subject came to mind because of my son's psych class. He asked me what my greatest fear was, and I was hard pressed to answer. Who doesn't have fear within them? I'm not fond of heights, but can overcome that. Similarly, crowds don't thrill me, but I can stand in them and overcome that too.
My biggest fear isn't a thing, it's a concept. The fear that I will face something I cannot find a way to overcome. When I lie awake at night, it isn't images of specific things that haunt me, but of scenarios in which I can reasonably see myself crumbling, and unable to overcome.
That's how I think a phobia forms. We, all of us, sometimes feel so helpless and being afraid of the possibility that we will be overcome is one thing we all share. I think a phobia is just a distillation of that kind of fear. I think that's why the actual, paralyzing terror people have when it comes to whatever triggers a phobic response has a tendency to be attached to things that can be avoided.
Water, things other people can kill, mountains that cannot be climbed, clowns at a circus. Things that are not encountered on a daily basis. I don't have any true phobias, I have fears.
I've always wanted to ask the people who have them, do you lie awake at night and worry? I bet some do, but many don't. They've given the fear we all have a form, a face in some instances. That lurking fear of the unknown that we all have has mass, and a name for them.
Ways of being defeated through avoidance, or the intervention of others. I've known a lot of people with various phobias, and oddly enough, they are often some of the bravest people I've ever met, in the right circumstances.
My son and I had our chat about fear, what makes it, what takes it away, how to combat it. Then he told me that Mr. Smith, who I mentioned in my last post, has a phobia of snakes. He cannot stand them, he'll scramble away.
Mr. Smith is a firefighter. He runs into the very thing that most of us fear to preserve our safety. He's a very brave man. When my son told me that, I stared in astonishment. I know for a fact this man has displayed what I would consider super human courage in the course of his work. Yet my son saw him unable to move when confronted with a tiny, green garden snake. As it happens, my son is also afraid of snakes, and whereas I'm sure he would have loved to boldly go where Mr. Smith could not, they both fled into the house, and stayed there until the snake had removed itself.
My son had a paper to write, and he asked me again, what was my greatest fear? I still wasn't sure of my answer. So he changed the question: What was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me?
I told him the truth. When I was twelve, I was in a house fire. To this day the smell of burnt wood bothers me. Until we had a gas fireplace, I didn't even like log fires within the confines of a wood burner. Sometimes when I'm near a fire, I'll hear a pop, and somewhere inside of me a nerve jumps. It's all I can do to stop myself from making great speeds away from there. To some, roasting a marshmallow over an open flame is a delight, but I don't like to get that close to fire.
"What did you do?"
"I called the fire department."
But for the record, I'm not afraid of snakes.