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.


The Bug said...

I have a fear of being abandoned somewhere with no way to go home. I don't run into many situations where I face that fear these days, but when I was a child I had a couple of really bad moments where I ended up being alone & didn't know what to do. I don't really know where that fear comes from. It's a fear of me not being in a safe place, not a metaphor for someone abandoning me emotionally. Now that I'm an adult & have a handful of problem-solving skills I don't have that fear quite as often.

DUTA said...

I'll repeat your sentence: I don't have any phobias, I have fears".

I carry with me from childhood to this day: fear of thunders and storms, and fear of hunger and starvation. The latter has evolved from listening to my mother's story of how she gave away her wedding ring for a stale, dry loaf of bread and a handful of potatoe peels during the war.

I greatly liked your story with the roomate asking you if you "kill things".

Amy said...

Oh, Alane, you've got me now! I've always had an irrational fear of birds (yes, a phobia indeed). When I was around 3 my mother took care of a bird for a week or so - the bird molted and for some unexplainable reason, I became terrified of not just birds, but feathers! If my mother wore a hat with feathers, I would shake. Anyway, a lifetime later I have come pretty far. I can touch a feather though I'd prefer not. I can be around a bird as long as it's in a cage and/or in the big outdoors. I love to watch all kinds of birds and I have a great garden for just that. A few years ago I actually dreamt that I held a bird in my hand - I could feel it's weight.

And I have to add that I live in the spider capital of the West - since moving here in the early 80's, I have progressed to living with most of them harmoniously - caveat being in the bathtub or kitchen sink - that's where I draw my line in the proverbial sand - and KILL!

Loved your spider story - it describes a phobia perfectly - just ask my sister what I did when her pet cockatiel decided to fly around her kitchen when I was present. I still give her a bad time for letting that damn bird out of the cage when I was visiting her home let alone her (very small) kitchen!

Jo said...

Alane, I want to start by saying I think you are the best writer on the blogosphere. Bar none.

And yes, I have a couple of phobias. One phobia is flying. I have flown quite a bit, and each time it gets more difficult. I have nightmares about being in a crashing plane. The very thought of being in a plane causes me to freeze with fear.

I also had a phobia, when my daughter was growing up, that she was going to be kidnapped. My husband died (in a plane crash -- can you believe it!) when she was four, and I was terrified that a stranger would kidnap her. Whenever I read about children being kidnapped by strangers, I cannot even imagine the anguish their parents must feel. I think anyone who kidnaps and murders a child should get automatic capital punishment. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Fears are a whole other matter. One of my fears is that if I get sick and stay home from work, I will be fired. I am sick today and have stayed home from work. But the good news is, I'm not infecting any of my co-workers. :-)

Nancy said...

Well I blogged about my greatest fear. But coming up right behind, the one that keeps me turning at night, is how to get health insurance, now that our insurance is being canceled at the end of December! Irrational? I think not.

Miss OverThinker said...

I second with Jo - you are the best writer on blogosphere - bar none.. And I would also say that you are also the best commentor - because you read what people have written very carefully and respond with full earnestness.. BTW, I replied again to your comment that you left me on my post - stop by when you have a second - I just want to make sure you read it and realize how thankful I am

As for phobias and fears, I don't think I have any phobias. I do have fears and some of them I am encountering as I write this - you know all about these.. the fear of ending up alone - usually I can't think too much about it cuz it overwhelms me.. so I try to not dwell too much if I can help it.

Land of shimp said...

Hey The Bug, I think that's another way a phobia can form. When we are young, and overwhelmed by a feeling, young enough to lack the coping skills to manage, I think a memory is retained of that all encompassing terror. It isn't even the thing itself that brings about the phobic response, but rather, the memory of that situation, triggering a memory about the emotional response at the time. It's a weird fear, chicken/egg relationship.

DUTA, thank you. It really was the oddest way to be greeted, and then made odder still by offering up that yes, I kill things, as a means of comfort! Irony in action.

Amy, we share the former bird phobia! I'm glad you also overcame it to the extent that can enjoy watching birds. I have to admit, I can also, I swear half the reason I decided to directly defeat mine was that it was so impractical! One can hardly avoid birds in life.

Jo, I did know how you lost your husband, and it always makes me wince in sympathy. I'm so sorry you had such a dreadful thing happen in your life. I can fully understand why a fear of kidnapping developed, though. After all, you must have also felt as if your husband was taken from you by force. I think unexpected, traumatic losses do leave behind emotional scars.

I think you did so well in healing yours. I had read long ago how you had lost your husband, and then many months later read about your accompanying your daughter on a trip to Paris. I cheered aloud, Jo :-) Quite simply, you rock.

Thank you so much for the kind words about my blog. They truly mean a great deal to me. I have to admit they are somewhat ironic this evening, as I'm quite tired (overdid it on a workout) and feeling quite mentally dull. Thank you again, I really can't think of a nicer thing to read.

Nancy, that absolutely isn't an irrational fear, and please know that I mean this with complete sincerity; I'm so sorry that is the situation you are currently facing. It isn't right. It isn't even close to right, and if it were solely within my power to prevent, prevent it I would.

I still have some hope that the day will come when this is no longer such a commonly faced situation in our country. In the meantime, I hope a solution presents itself to you.

I truly mean it, I think it is an obscenity that citizens in our country have to worry about this.

Hello, Miss OT :-) I did stop back and read your response, and I was relieved, and so very grateful. You're a lovely human being, and you're exceptionally kind. You deserve much happiness. Thank you also for the compliment to my writing. I don't feel as if I write exceptionally well, or even particularly well, but it is a lovely thing to hear from people I respect, such as yourself.

Please excuse how flat my responses seem, folks. The elliptical stole my ability to think, or express myself nimbly (that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it). I do so appreciate the comments.

Pauline said...

Irrationally frightened of spiders and snakes but otherwise fairly normal ;)

Land of shimp said...

Hi Pauline, I actually used cartoon images for the clown and the spider specifically because pictures of the real deal can trigger a phobic response in a couple of people that I know.

We've all got our irrational areas, don' we? I think the best thing we can do is try to be as kind to them as we can, even when they don't match up.

PhilipH said...

Hi Alane,

Not been to busy on the old blogosphere recently but now things are quieter at home I'm trying to catch up.

That woman in the hotel room: that was my wife! What a small world it is, to be sure. Yes, MrsCroydonBoy has a morbid fear of our little eight-legged creepy crawlies, especially when one of them suddenly runs at a million miles an hour across the carpet! I hear a scream from the bathroom; oh yes, 'er indoors has seen a spider in the bath. Or on the wall. Or anywhere!

I take a flying leap onto my trusty white charger and gallop at breakneck speed, massive broadsword in hand, and rescue the terrified maiden from this fearsome creature.

My main fear? Dementia; I'd sooner be dead. I've known quite a few people who have suffered from some form of it, such as the dreaded Alzheimers. How does one know if one is on the slippery slope to being a virtual cabbage? I don't know, but I do know that it is a frightening thought.

I also know that Jo got it exactly right when she commented above on your writing ability. I second her assessment without reservation. You have a wide vocabulary and an excellent way of using words on your blog.

Cheers, Phil

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Land of shimp said...

Oh look, a spammer flogging enhancement products found me. What joy. Anyway, that's the removed comment :-)

Thank you, Philip. It's good to see you out and about in the blogsophere. I'm so glad your wife has been doing well.

I completely understand that fear, Philip. My husband and I have even had the big "if that ever happens to me, please fly me to one of those countries that will put an end to my misery." I'm not kidding either, I'd rather go out in Swedish Euthanasia clinic than die like that.

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