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Finding the Fun in Phobias

Phobia. Intriguing little word. For a phenomenon that affected my life in such a dramatic, damaging and prolonged way I had expected it to be more than a metre long. Surprising things surely come in small packages.
Forty years ago I was a helpless babe in a cradle. Thirty years ago the fertile breeding ground for a phobia existed but I don’t think I’d even heard the word. Twenty years ago I was a sufferer but took little notice of the expression when it was used. Ten years ago I was still a sufferer but was convinced that phobias were for other people. Five years ago, still a sufferer, I finally realised the term applied to me but was too afraid to admit it. One year ago I remained a sufferer but could finally admit it to my relatives and friends. Now I’m enjoying the freedom a life without fear can offer and can freely talk, and now hopefully, write about it.
Arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia and even a fear of flying are of course examples of the more common phobias with which people are familiar. However, a unique set of circumstances came together in my childhood, which left me with a not so common fear. A fear of the totally normal behaviour of entering a house that was not my own for a meal. Not that I did not want to participate in such behaviour – I most certainly did – and the majority of the mental pain came from the deliberate avoidance of opportunities that I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. But my mind wouldn’t let me go. It turned such pleasurable events into nightmares so that in the end avoidance at all cost was the easiest scenario.
Many might wonder what the problem can be. Avoiding a few dinners is not the end of the world. That may be so, but I was to discover that my social phobia had far reaching implications that reverberated through all aspects of my life in unexpected ways. These would blight and haunt my life for decades until I finally acknowledged the fear, understood it and finally found a way to beat it.
This led to a ten year voyage of self discovery, self honesty and understanding, which brought me – not to a scientific testament about the operation of the mind – but rather to a simple and practical solution to fix a mental problem that was preventing me from living a normal life.
The story began when I was eighteen. I had my first anxiety attack when I was half way through an evening meal at my cousin’s home. For some unexplained reason I suddenly experienced panic, sweating, nausea and all the other bodily reactions to fear. I craved to leave the dinner table and go outside but instead I stayed politely seated and tensed up to try to fight off the fear.
This inexplicable reaction shocked me but thinking it was just an isolated event I gave it no further thought until I had the same experience the next time I dined with friends at their home.
In bewilderment I immediately began avoiding situations that were likely to cause me concern. I tried to convince myself that it would pass with time, as did my fear of storms as a child.
But the years passed with no let up. I became used to making excuses. It became part of my life. I lived in a cocoon of excuses and avoidance. When my excuses failed I fought with my feelings throughout the meal, contributing little to the conversation and leaving exhausted, frightened and with a feeling of isolation.
I felt there was no one I could talk to. Who would understand that I found such a common social event so unbearable?
This continued throughout my university life and into the first few years of my working life. I had a dream to travel the world and towards the end of my twenties the opportunity came. This would be my salvation. I thought the confidence I would gain and the experiences I would have would solve my problem. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I took my fear around the world with me with disastrous results. I refused an increasing number of invitations from wonderful people to join them in their homes. I even found myself restructuring my itinerary to avoid and escape. Upon my return home the side affects and ramifications began to surface.
I was losing both confidence and self esteem at an astonishing rate. The lies and excuses were beginning to take their toll as I dearly wished I didn’t have to make them. I was becoming isolated as I deliberately pushed friends and relatives away. I became indecisive as I was at the mercy of my feelings, and with that I became vulnerable to suggestibility. I became increasingly frustrated and agitated, as there seemed no end in sight to the feelings that were preventing me from living a normal life. I felt detached from the rest of the world. I felt alone. I became tired from the continual drain of nervous energy as I held tightly onto myself, afraid of where the next invitation would come from – the next phone call, the next person to knock at the door, the next person I spoke to at the pub and at work. My mind became tired from all the anxious thought, started losing its resilience and my career stagnated as I lost focus and energy. And of course with all this, depression and apathy were soon to follow.
At the time I couldn’t see my life changing for the better. A pattern had developed that was beginning to set in concrete. Attempts to explain to family and close friends were greeted with baffled bemusement. Relationships were brief and kept shallow, as I wouldn’t let myself get too close to anyone for fear of meals with parents and friends. I began to feel that marriage couldn’t be an option for me.
But strangely never did I think that I suffered from a phobia. That was for other people.
Then unexpectedly my mother died and in the grief haze that followed, the reality sank in, that I had a problem and it had to be fixed.
First I went through a period of what I called “shock”. In other words coping with the harsh reality that the dreams and aspirations I had for my life could not, and would not, eventuate until issues that I had previously been unaware of were dealt with. Admitting to myself (and then later to others) that I had a problem was an extremely difficult thing to do.
Then I spent a long period of time determining what had caused my present situation. Talking to relatives and dredging up past thoughts brought me to the conclusion that my problem had originated in my childhood. A key factor, which helped me to arrive at this conclusion, was the fact that I never had any problem eating at restaurants, hotels and barbecues. I thought this was very odd at first but then I realised my parents never frequented these sorts of environments. So something had linked fear to invitations to dinner when I was a child. I began to think that my mother’s life-long subjection to epilepsy might have relevance. Close relatives confirmed my suspicions. The pre-dinner environment in our family home was apparently very tense and stressful due to the unpredictability of my mother’s condition. If her epilepsy struck during the meal then considerable embarrassment prevailed. For me as a child, not fully understanding this situation, I began to dread being taken by my parents to their friend’s homes, but I was not old enough to be able to refuse to go. As I reached an age where I could obtain independence from my parents, my subconscious was already full of material that would surface at my cousin’s home when I was eighteen, as a phobia.
I’m sure the processes and events were much more complex but this simplistic explanation was enough for me to proceed.
Unexpectedly the road to recovery had already begun. Understanding what had caused the phobia made me realise that the problem lay in my thoughts and not my feelings. The problem began to lose its intensity. I initially had thought that determining the cause of the phobia was important but although it helped me begin to heal, it was what I discovered later that brought the final solution. I now believe it is possible to heal completely without determining the cause.
At this point in time I began to admit to myself that I was a phobia sufferer even if it didn’t fall under the mainstream banners of phobia types: but it certainly appeared to be a phobia.
I still lacked the courage to talk openly to people about it and continued to adopt an avoidance policy. Possibly talking to people would have helped to dilute the importance of the situation further but sharing a phobia with non-phobia sufferers could be detrimental considering the lack of sympathy expected. So I decided it wasn’t worth the risk and moved on to the next step.
Initially I thought that from then on it would be easy. All I had to do was expose myself to the fear situation enough (desensitisation therapy) and it would dissolve away, but I found that the type of phobia I had wouldn’t allow this to happen. When the fear situation was orchestrated in any way, the fear would not arrive. I couldn’t see how I could expose myself gradually to the fear environment. Leaving for home just after the soup would require considerable explanation. Also to organise a situation meant explaining the problem, which was not what I wanted to do.
I had to find a way of equipping myself mentally so as to deal with the fear as it unfolded. This was to prove my biggest stumbling block and for many years I didn’t have an answer.
I had long been aware that the phobia was thought driven. Several things led me to think that. Alcohol had been a great tool for me to use to get through dinner invitations where there was no escape. I quickly learnt that the alcohol interfered with the mind’s attempts to induce fear and panic. Also discovering that the origin of the phobia was a mental link to a previous fearful environment, and the fact that I experienced the symptoms of fear when the source of the fear was not present.
So I began to see how closely thought and feeling were connected. The moment a dinner invitation was extended my body would immediately display the symptoms of fear even if the event were weeks away. My physical situation at that point had not changed, only my mental situation. Also, when I left the dinner table and went into another room or when the meal was over, I’d feel better: but this was only because I was thinking differently.
I concluded that my body was reacting in a perfectly normal way to the circumstances I was creating for it. Adrenalin works on certain organs only in a certain way.
So I realised that trying to fight the fear by holding tightly onto myself would always be a losing battle as the tension, panic and fear would only mount to breaking point and I would only have another failure to store away in my memory.
So I decided to try the opposite. Instead of trying to hold tightly on to myself when panic struck I would consciously relax and release the hold on myself in thought first then physically. I would accept everything my body threw at me, knowing full well that it is bound by biological constraints. I would completely surrender to all my thoughts and feelings so each time panic struck I would not give it the chance to build upon itself. I would not let my feelings bluff me into thinking they were important but just let them wash over me convincing my mind they were of no consequence.
For the first time I felt I had a mechanism that could help me get through a meal dealing with the fear and panic as it came to me. I tentatively began to look forward to the chance to put all the theory into practice.
My opportunity came last year when I was invited to a Greek Easter celebration. I accepted the invitation eagerly although massive apprehensions remained. I approached the event without alcohol and applied all my principles with vigour. When panic struck I exhaled slightly and let my body go limp and loose and relaxed back into the chair diffusing the feeling’s strength. When panic struck again it was with less intensity but I relaxed even more. I actually urged panic to strike so that I could practise relaxing but by then the panic had faded completely and I enjoyed one of the best afternoons of my life. I had found a weapon to beat the enemy. The link between my mind and the fear of my childhood had been broken and memories of successful triumphs had begun to accumulate. The road to a full recovery had begun.
Now after many successful and entertaining dinner invitations, changes back to a normal life have begun. Self esteem has risen, bringing renewed confidence. Having risen from an ocean of fog I can view my life more clearly hence decision making has become easier, and suggestibility is fading. I’m less preoccupied with myself and have become more interested in the world around me. Frustration has been replaced with relaxation, and apathy and depression are retreating with each day.
I can now pick up the pieces and focus on the things that were pushed aside during the years of understanding – spiritual, career and family development being high on the list.
Thankfully, I have passed through the stage of feeling bitter and angry that twenty years of my life have in a sense been taken from me and now have a deep respect for the complexities and power of one’s mind. I have no wish to fully understand the workings of the human brain – I’m happy to leave that to the professionals – but in the time I have spent solving my own problem I have developed a much better understanding as to the conquests and failures of my fellow man. If your mind can work so powerfully against you then what wondrous achievements can be accomplished if it works with you.
Finally from the whole experience I am left convinced of two things. Firstly, the belief that the same mind that is destroying you can heal you, and of course you should never, ever give up.
And what of finding fun in phobias – well, alas – the fun only begins when the phobia ends.