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Oldie, 10/9/08: I Sort of Get This

Note:  I originally posted this on my old blog, which I'm in the process of shutting down. I'll be copying and reposting some of my "greatest hits" from 2008-2010.
CNN recently had a feature story about phobias. As an example, they used this one lady who could not cope with wet wood:

"If I saw someone lick a wooden spoon, I had to turn away," says the 41-year-old massage therapist from Portland, Oregon.

"I'd break out into a sweat ... and I'd just get sick to my stomach. I could not even look at someone with a toothpick in their mouth."

It wasn't just looking at wet wood that freaked her out. It was touching it, too.

"I could not eat Popsicles to the end," [she] explains. "As soon as I got close to the end, I would give it to my kids. I would not even own wooden utensils because I could not wash them. Not even in the dishwasher because they would still be damp when they came out."

Until [she] was treated by a professional -- a process that involved gradual exposure to wet wood to "reprogram" the way she thought about it -- physical contact with wet trees, fences and the deck surrounding her hot tub was out of the question. (Instead, she would wear slippers to walk back to the house post-soak.)


OK, I can happily and confidently say that I'm not phobic about anything. True, I've never been through an earthquake, a tsunami or a tornado, and any one of those would probably leave me catatonic. I'm somewhat over-avoidant behind the wheel when it comes to making left turns when there's heavy traffic and no traffic light, and my personal body "squick" is amputation. But that's far from being phobic. I can cope with all those things. Yes, even spiders. I used to be kind of freaky about arachnids, until I worked at a summer camp where the choice was adapt or go home and forfeit the $300 salary plus theoretical tips.


I'm not terribly good with high places. Not too many years ago I climbed a ladder and got myself up on top of the refrigerator, for the purpose of scraping some wallpaper that was near the ceiling. Once I got there I was suddenly overcome with a paralyzing certainty that I was going to either get stuck up there (the ladder wobbled a few inches out of reach when I hit the last step) or fall; it was about a minute or two of not being able to move, until I remembered that the sink was just beneath the edge where I was huddling and hyperventilating. Then I was okay in a hurry. I will often forget this problem and scramble all the way up to a roof or other such perch and then get the willies for a few minutes. But I'm not phobic in the sense that even thinking about high places puts me into a swoon, or that standing on an 8-inch Rubbermaid stepstool is an impossibility. So I think for me it's really more vertigo than acrophobia. And of course, it's all a matter of degree. I'm sure Phillippe Petit never got the heebie jeebies on top of a rĂ©frigĂ©rateur


All in all, I really don't understand phobias all that well. I will even go so far as to admit that I'm a tad on the insensitive side. I will indulge the neuroses of people I am close to, mainly in order to avoid having to listen to them go on & on about it (which they are guaranteed to do...).

I've written about my mother before, and I suppose she's the one who immunized me against taking this sort of problem too seriously.

My first exposure to Mom's catalogue of fears was at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. The three of us rode the SkyLiner across the fairgrounds and about halfway along, Mom managed to work into the conversation that she had a "fear of heights." I was only about 6, but even then, I remember thinking something along the lines of ...and what, may I ask, has this to do with me? Yes, you can say it, I was a little shit. Still am.

But then, shortly after that day, we were at home and Mom was having one of "those" evenings where she would consume mass quantities of brewed beverages, smoke about 2 packs of cigarettes, and sit at the kitchen table detailing all her sorrows while I sat on the sofa and listened to her. At that stage of my life I found Mom quite fascinating.

We got onto the subject of the SkyLiner again. I said "...and you have a fear of heights." Mom answered, "No. I'm afraid of being closed in!" That's when I learned the wordclaustrophobia. It was also when I learned about Mom having been enticed by an uncle, offering candy, into a chicken coop when she was quite young; he then, according to the story, locked her in there and left her alone.

All these decades later, I'm reasonably convinced that he didn't just lock her in there. I don't think she ever told me anything about how she got out. And having spent a number of years working for a psychologist whose sub-specialty was child sexual abuse, I've drawn some pretty sweeping conclusions about that incident. It makes a lot of sense in light of my mother's overall temperament and attitudes. While I often express exasperation at her emotional weakness, I do not make light of this trauma, and have often wished my great-uncle Paul had lived long enough for me to tell him off good and proper. To the tune of a hick'ry stick.

So while I didn't hear much after that from my mom about her fear of heights, I did hear a great deal throughout the ensuing years about her claustrophobia. She was almost always drinking when she talked about it, and often she'd make statements that simply made no sense, even when I was pretty young.

I once remarked how unpleasant it would be to be locked out of the house. "Oh," she said, "I don't worry about that. I worry about being locked in! That would be the most awful thing in the world!" I then proceeded to explain to my mother how utterly impossible it would be to get locked in our house. We had three doors, and every one of them locked from the inside. Then there were windows. "You could kick the screen out, Mom! It's easy!" said Little Miss Logic over here. True, the upstairs rooms would be hard to evacuate through the windows, but, as I reasoned, Mom didn't spend much time upstairs, so what was there to worry about?

Anybody remember The Gong Show? Chuck Barris was the host; it was an amateur-hour type of show, in which performers of varying degrees of talent would attempt to get through a whole minute of doing their act before a judge got sick of them and struck a huge gong. But that's not the point. Chuck Barris liked to do a silly dance during the closing credits, and for whatever reason, he often put a fedora on his head and pulled the brim all the way down over his eyes while he danced. It drove my mother nuts -- "I can't stand to watch that--it gets me all claustrophobic." There we were, enjoying this utterly innocuous TV show, and Mom had to darken the occasion with reminders of her awful childhood 50-some years before. No one was putting anything over her face; no one was locking her in a chicken coop. As was the case many times, I felt resentful of this declaration; though I didn't put it in these exact words, my feeling was "Yeah, Mom, I almost forgot, it's all about you." I never lacked sympathy for my mom's terrifying childhood experience, but I did dislike her tendency to bring it up at random times.

So by and large, people doing a show-and-tell about their phobias or freakouts don't earn a lot of sympathy from me; they tend to make me wary, wondering just how narcissistic they really are. I'm more respectful of a phobic reaction that is a surprise to both the victim and myself, especially if they haven't advertised it beforehand.

Getting back to the wet-wood lady on cnn.com. When I read the story, I actually understood where she was coming from. No, wet wood does not cause me any ongoing problems. But this is a case where the fear does actually make a modicum of sense, all the while seeming not to.

I know that on at least one occasion, I've run my hand over a wet timber, only to end up with a splinter. Wet wood seems wonderfully smooth and polished ... but there you go, you can still get splinters from it.

Wet wood is slippery. Very. My brother-in-law lost his footing and went sprawling on our porch the last time he visited, when it was raining. No harm or injury, but a good demonstration.

Wood is organic and porous, and so much more likely to harbor bacteria, especially when the wood is in the form of a kitchen cutting board.

I don't especially like the taste of popsicle sticks either.

So this is fairly rational, understandable stuff.

I think every phobia most likely has some pinpointable origin, even if it's buried in someone's memory. It's tricky, because two people can have the same experience at the same time, and while one of them might develop a phobia as a result, the other person will just shrug it off. I'm sure science is still a long way from figuring out the mechanics.

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