It’s what’s hiding under all that anxiety, right?
I recently had a – shall we say – incident… that exposed me to a minor phobia. If you have trouble with bugs, you may want to stop reading. I am staying in someone else’s apartment that is clearly not typically occupied for more than a week at the time by the same person. After buying a box of rice when I first got here, I discovered an identical box of rice in the cabinet. So, I went to make said rice and first opened the older box. I am sure this box was sealed, but apparently not tightly enough. Because I opened it to discover a net of moth eggs, at which point a live moth flew out at me and then into a crack next to the oven. I had the presence of mind not to drop the open box of rice everywhere, but did immediately dump it in the trash.
It’s moments like this that I think people are actually referring to when they talk about traveling as a way to find themselves. Because at some point while traveling alone you are forced to strip away the comforts you normally use to hold your fears at arm’s length. In my case, it’s the company of other people, which makes thinking about bugs and spiders (my much much worse phobia) a little less bad. The last time I was in therapy we briefly touched on my spider phobia because it was coming out in the midst of a lot of anxiety. I was trying to pass my Latin and German language exams (each a 2 hour translation exercise with a dictionary) but was failing horribly – I took each of them about 10 times. And I was finding that at some point in the exam I would start getting flashes of images of spiders, and then memories of one particularly difficult past relationship. My therapist encouraged me to dig into why these two things were linked, and although I could make sense of the memories – this person cut down my self-esteem a lot and often suggested that I was not capable of doing the things I wanted to do – the spiders were a mystery. I told my therapist that when I have stress dreams about spiders, I typically just wake myself up. He told me that while that’s a good coping mechanism, it would never help me get to the root of the problem and eventually lose the phobia.
So, this very minor run-in triggered something. Without anyone else around, with just myself and my own thoughts to retreat to, I had to go to the next stage of the thought process. What do I think about, what do I feel, when I see or imagine bugs and spiders? Death. I think about death. And things crawling on me because my body is dead and I can’t make them stop. And they shouldn’t be in my mouth of all places because that’s where they would be if I were dead. And it’s my body in the present, and I’ve died before I’ve had the chance to be fulfilled and enjoy all my efforts, before I’ve really accomplished anything, before I feel satisfied.
This realization was a huge release, much like my exploration of guilt and shame. I didn’t feel sad or scared, I actually felt content. I’ve known for a long time now that I pour all my fears and anxieties into this one phobia, but I didn’t know where it started. I mean, I do know. It wasn’t a single event, but just the memory that when I went to camp as a kid there were daddy long legs everywhere and because they’re so spindly they would walk on you before you realized it. That was it – the anxiety that there was a bug on me and I didn’t know ballooned into this much larger phobia that encompasses all my other real fears (also the spiders in the animated Hobbit didn’t help). And it makes sense in terms of the time in my life – this is when I started to become aware of death and think about it a lot. I remember having a near panic attack in class because I was thinking about dying. And because that’s such a big fear that is so insurmountable, I just folded into something way more accessible. But I didn’t know that was why this entirely rational dislike became a huge phobia, until I encountered a very mild challenge of my phobia when none of my other defenses were available.
It’s easy to dismiss phobias, because societally we understand them to be not that serious. When someone asks you what your biggest fear is, it’s understood that you’re not supposed to say “spiders”. You’re supposed to say “death”. That’s the whole irony of Indiana Jones being afraid of snakes – he will literally run headfirst into a thousand year old crypt that mysteriously beheads everyone, and yet snakes are just kind of a step too far for him, thanks. These things aren’t real fears. Except they are. They are the shorthand that we create to encapsulate and tuck away the exact ways in which we are afraid of much bigger things. A fear of flying, for instance, is not necessarily about the plane falling out of the sky so much as it’s about an inability to control your surroundings. It’s the same way that procrastination is not really about laziness, it’s about the fear that you don’t know how to succeed and will inevitably fail. My fear of death is more complicated than just the thought of not being alive – it’s a larger concern about consciousness and what it means to be alone and what I’m getting out of all of my goals.
We talk a lot about “facing your fears”. I would say this is one of the biggest themes of action adventure movies – the climax hinges on the hero, who has been knocked down, powering through to success. We tell kids it’s ok to be scared but that they have to live with what they’re afraid of. We tell people to take risks. But facing fear in these instances is not really about exposing it, it’s about learning to cope. It’s the idea behind a night light or staying calm in the face of panic – we do these things because we feel that fear is inevitable and so the problem is our reactions. But at some point in our lives we’ve coped long enough, or had enough distance from our initial fears, that we can explore them. I don’t know that you can really overcome a fundamental fear that is part of the human experience. But you can certainly examine how it connects to the rest of your life – what you’ll do to avoid having to be challenged by that fear. Where you hide that fear.
I try to imagine the satisfaction I hope to feel that will allow me to no longer be afraid of death – that would allow me to be ok with dying. But I think it’s inherently impossible. I can’t imagine something that I have absolutely no experiential connection to. I haven’t gotten to a point in life where I feel prepared to die. And so that fact becomes part of the threat – what if I never experience that? All I can really come to instead is an effort to find happiness where I can, in the hope that happiness will lead to contentment. But I don’t really believe that fear will go away – maybe it’s a paradox? At the very least, uncovering the much bigger bad hiding behind my phobias hasn’t shined a light on these things and suddenly made them more manageable. But maybe I can stop feeding my phobias little morsels of anxiety now that I know where they’re really going. Maybe this insight can help me skip the phobia step and understand what my anxieties are actually responding to. It’s a start.