Tuesday, February 1, 2011

my fear of (almost) everything

Since I was very young, I have been scared of many, many things. Most of these are highly improbable, nearly impossible, and stem from nothing and from nowhere. I'm wired, I think I have come to learn, as a neurotic, incredibly nervous individual; and on top of that, I have masochistic tendencies which prevent me from overcoming some of the greater phobias I possess.

One of the earliest fears I remember having is that of burglars. This, perhaps, is not so uncommon--particularly for a child growing up in Brooklyn. But the burglars I feared were not your garden-variety, vase/TV/jewelry/old family heirlooms-stealing thieves. In my head, these men (always men; always clad in classic black ski mask burglar gear) would enter my family's house, uninvited and in the middle of the night, as the best burglars are wont to do. They would steal our most valued possessions: the painting from my great-grandfather's time in the Korean War, a Stickley chair passed down by some ancestor on my father's side, our piano, my mother's jewelry, whatever stinky cheese my father had decided to stock our fridge with that week. And after they had pilfered all they could in terms of our material assets, they would invariably prey upon the more valuable, less replaceable goods. In my self-centered mind circa ages 4-7, the principal asset, then, was me. Because every skilled burglar wanted a little neurotic girl for his collection; more than any material possession, every masked intruder desperately sought a child, specifically one who cried when the toes of her socks weren't exactly aligned, one who wore her hair to school in a towering ponytail stacked with terry-cloth hairties to produce a specifically desired vertical effect, one who--after breaking her arm--wouldn't let anyone sign her cast for fear the arm would break a second time (thus making her the only six-year-old-with-a-broken-arm on the planet with a perfectly blank white plaster cast). When my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, this niche dread waned; but a few years later, when the similarly-aged Elizabeth Smart vanished without a trace from her upper-middle-class suburban home, the phobia returned with a vengeance. I feared all and any repairmen, postal workers, UPS delivery men, Jehovah's Witnesses who came to the house. It took years of burglary/kidnapping-free existence (helped enormously by the discovery of Ms. Smart, alive and [physically] healthy) for this deep-rooted fear to fade, but eventually it did.

Somewhere during the Elizabeth Smart phase of my burglar/kidnapper phobia, I developed a healthy fear of general health. To be clear, I don't mean that I was frightened of being healthy: on the contrary, I was a perfectly unsick almost-teenager who was convinced that a horrible disease was just around the corner waiting to stake its claim on her physical self. Where this particular fear came from, I cannot be sure, but I do know it was not always there. I had never coped well with physical pain--or even the common cold, for that matter--but one day, I was sure the freckles I had decorating my body were early signs of skin cancer. The irritated eye I woke up with after flying out to LA? Blindness. The migraine, a tumor; the cold, SARS; the rash on my chest that came after borrowing detergent, inflammatory breast cancer (this last diagnosis came from the hypochondriac's favorite website, WebMD). The lump under my left armpit was also a tumor, or--despite its lack of proximity to my breast--a sign of breast cancer. Turns out that the freckles were just freckles; the irritated eye was merely a reaction to the smoggy LA air; the migraine was simply a migraine; the cold was a common reaction to winter; the rash was a result of new detergent on sensitive Irish skin; and the lump was determined to be a point in my arm where two veins shared a ventricle (or something equally, decidedly non-lethal, I can't remember what the ultrasound said exactly). Despite the fact that none of my sure-to-be-fatal ailments have ever turned out to be anything resembling life-threatening, I held onto the deep-rooted fear of terminal illness. In fact, I went one step further in trying to "embrace" my baseless phobia by obsessively watching House, behind the (true! but pathetic) excuse that Hugh Laurie was--and remains--one of my favorite actors. The show glamorized everything I dreaded most. Children would have headaches that turned out to be actual malignant tumors. Rashes would be symptoms of a horrifically rare, tropical malady. Leg pains would turn out to be stage four tongue cancer, or a tipoff to a ticking aneurysm (my greatest medical fear of all). If there was one thing I could take comfort in, if there was one thing I learned from watching House, it was this: it's never lupus. (Except for the one episode where it was, in fact, lupus.)

Perhaps my biggest, deepest, most publicly noticeable fear is a somewhat normal one: I am deathly afraid of flying. Many people are; however, I've been told that very few people let it show as much as I do. I have read books on the subject. I know the safety statistics like the back of my hand (and not just for air travel in general: when flying an airline for the first time, I'll often Google the company's safety numbers and flight craft information). I have no past horrible air travel experience or real personal reason for this particular fear. I also have no shame when I board a flight--during takeoff, I assume the "safety position" of bending over at the waist with my head between my knees. I white-knuckle the armrest (and on one unfortunate occasion, the actual arm) of the unlucky passenger seated next to me if we hit the slightest bit of turbulence; I am that idiot clapping when we make a landing. I don't eat or drink on flights, because I fear getting out of my seat to use the bathroom in case we crash while I am on the toilet. (I have this fear because I am scared of dying on the toilet, naturally.) In instances of flying during less-than-stellar weather, I have been known to ask flight attendants, "Is it safe to fly today? I trust the pilot, but if it's not completely safe, he knows it's alright with all of us if he grounds the flight, doesn't he? Because I don't mean to be rude, but I am only 21, and I am not finished with my life yet." I have cried out of sheer terror upon seeing the safety video shown while the plane taxis down the runway; I have since taken to listening to my favorite music during this bit of any flight, thus ensuring that if we crash, I won't know how to locate or operate any life-preserving devices, but I will go with the dulcet tones of Florence + the Machine in my ears. And although I have been seated in airplane emergency exit rows many times, it is never because I would be calm or good at operating a door during an actual crisis situation--it is because I want the few inches of extra leg room.

I have many other phobias and "active dislikes": images of or references to slit wrists; the sounds of messy eaters consuming bananas; the words moist and dank; waking up with a mouse in my bed; the return of a medieval plague; having a rusty nail go through my fingernail like in that one split-second frame of the creepy movie that causes all that trouble in the American remake of The Ring. Almost all of my most-consuming fears are without any sort of basis, and come from nowhere. I'm slowly but surely learning to deal with them--the burglar/kidnapper one has basically been erased!--but it is not without effort, or a healthy sense of humor. And it is certainly not without the knowledge that, except for that one episode, it's never lupus.

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