Diary of a Phobia and Overcoming Anxiety
Millions of people are affected in some way by irrational fears. Researchers have identified many different types of phobias, ranging from some which seem perfectly reasonable (although extreme) to some which sound absolutely fictitious.
I would never have guessed that I myself might one day need help with a phobia of some kind, and ever since it began (I could pinpoint the day and time, if I spent a few minutes to look at a calendar), I have wondered how it came about. I do have some theories about that, but first let me share the story.
Throughout my childhood, I heard certain verbal expressions that were nothing more than everyday Southern hyperbole.
“I could have killed him!” was not a statement to be feared, corrected, chastised, or maligned. It was usually accompanied by a self-deprecating half-laugh, and everyone who heard it understood it to mean simply “I was really upset with him.”
Similarly, we often spoke of being “so depressed” instead of “a little bit blue” or “disappointed because things didn’t go my way.” And "having a phobia” merely meant that we were somewhat disgusted by or otherwise preferred to avoid some item, person, or situation.
But words can influence, as well as illustrate and illuminate, the way we feel. Who’s to say whether the chicken or the egg came first in this case? I have often wondered whether our societal tendency to use exaggerated terminology made us more prone to depression and phobias, or whether our tendency towards depression and phobias made us more prone to use words that leaked those feelings in a culturally acceptable way.
Bridge over the Ohio River in Evansville
Nature or Nurture?
Within my immediate family, I know of cases of an animal phobia (specifically squirmy-wormy, larva-like critters), claustrophobia, acrophobia, and a fear of bridges (later identified as gephyrophobia) or rivers (potamophobia) or both. That latter one belonged to my mother’s older sister, and we felt sad (or were we so depressed?) that she had to deal with it. For some people it wouldn’t have mattered so very much, but she lived in a town right on the Mississippi River, across the river from her sisters. So if she wanted to visit any of them, they had to go see her; she couldn’t face traveling across the river to spend time with them.
My mother’s acrophobia had an impact on family vacations from time to time – like the time she had to sit on the floor and lower her face onto her knees while waiting for the elevator at the top of the Empire State Building. (Actually, in that instance additional factors were at work too. I’d best not exaggerate here.) Rather embarrassing. And one of my sisters had to find a quick exit – fortunately built in just for such purposes – from the sweaty-smelly, grimy maze in the Boys Scouts of America National Museum (in a previous location, not the current one) due to claustrophobia. I got stuck with the five kids from that point until the exit, and I almost succumbed to the same sort of near-panic myself. But I had tried in earlier years to develop a tough mental attitude about circumstances such as those. I had learned to love climbing heights in order to enjoy wide-open vistas, and I did my best to avoid thinking about being closed-in whenever I was in a crowded elevator or similar enclosure. I didn’t want to allow commonplace discomforts to cheat me out of happy excursions.
Maybe I could avoid claustrophobia and acrophobia, but I knew that I definitely did have a fear of or disgust with larvae-like worms. Not earthworms, though. Those were allies, “God’s little farmers,” and I loved watching them, even holding them for a minute or two. It was the squishy, wiggly, grotesque larvae (including caterpillars) that were my least favorite creatures in all the world – certainly worth walking far on the other side of a parking lot to avoid. I didn’t really see much reason to modify or consciously adapt my attitude towards larvae the way I did with heights and enclosed spaces. That may have been the reason why the real phobia I developed came as such a surprise; I was just completely unprepared for it.
Peace and Reflection or Threat and Fear?
It Happened One February
I can pinpoint the event that triggered it, and if I took the time to research and review other details of my memory, I could give you the exact day/date, time and place where it was born.
It was in late February. My aunt had died, and I had set out from home to drive five hours to be with the family for her funeral. My husband and children were not able to go with me, and I was late getting all my stuff together and ready to leave. I had not paid attention to weather reports and was a bit irritated or even miffed when I encountered a reasonably significant snowfall only about half an hour from home. My first inclination was to wonder whether my husband had seen the predictions and failed to warn me of the possibility of weather that I might encounter. But that disgruntled thought was followed immediately by the question of whether I should turn back and skip the funeral altogether.
I decided to plow on. The snow might be falling in only an isolated location, and since I was heading south and since the snow was most likely moving towards the north, there was a good chance that I would drive out of the storm before long. But the weather, and my edginess at getting a late start, did have me emotionally on high alert. To top it off, after another good bit of driving, it seemed that perhaps I was getting a bit too comfortable and relaxed and so I made a pit stop, filled up the car with gasoline, and bought some snacks and favorite travel beverage, Frappucino. That would help get me mentally back in focus again on the lonely drive.
It was getting later in the day, dark already, and I had to work to overcome some anxiety, not knowing what the weather would be like as I continued the drive. But my earlier guess had been right. I did out-drive the snowstorm, to my relief. I reached the midway point in the trip, Evansville, and was ready to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky. It was the same route I had driven many times before, both with passengers and alone: same automobile, same roads, same darkness. But this time, as the car began its ascent up the bridge, things felt different.
Ohio River Bridge in Evansville, Indiana
Out of the Darkness
Due to the time of day and overcast sky, the shadows on the bridge’s girders presented an ominous ambiance. Due to the angle of the highway as the bridge rose, the paving of the road ahead was hidden in a dark shadow, and it felt as if I were driving off into nothingness. I didn't analyze the feeling at that time. The car, after all, was moving at 55 mph (almost 90 kph) and I had to focus on those "little details" like steering, acceleration, and the possibility of needing to brake quickly, if some unseen danger emerged in the shadows. The car’s headlights revealed nothing amiss, but the feelings persisted. Anxiety and uncertainty grew stronger by the second, my hands grew clammier, my heart raced faster, and my breathing grew shallower.
In spite of all the anxiety, the bridge was completely safe. The car – with me in it, hands still attached to the steering wheel – crossed to the other side and into another state without the least hint of incident. There was no wreck to avoid, no foolhardy pedestrians who had decided to cross the bridge in the dark, no traffic pileup due to construction delays or tourists heading to the casinos on the river. There was no physical reason for the fear and anxiety, but the feelings had been so strong that I began to shake, even though the feared danger was over. I stopped in Henderson to get another snack and catch my breath. There was another 2.5 hours of driving left, and the remainder of the trip should be much easier than the past five minutes had been.
But I began to worry about my reaction. Was it an over-reaction? Was it the result of legitimate animal instincts, aroused when confronted with unknown dangers? Was this what my Aunt Love had gone through? Was it perhaps genetic? Was I going to face the same illogically hermitical lifestyle as she, because of not being able to drive easily across a bridge?
I probably brooded for the rest of the drive, worried about the necessity of a return trip. Could I face it alone? Could anyone among the family accompany me back home? If so, how would they get back to their destination? What about returning to Indiana by airplane? If I did that, how would my car get back across the river? I knew that my worry was silly, and I felt a degree of self-disgust about it. But I knew I also needed to be practical. As strong as my reaction had been, it was imperative that I do something to be prepared in order to be as safe as possible. I didn’t want to allow the possibility that my fears might endanger other travelers as well as myself.
Not surprisingly I made it to my destination without incident, and I was happy to see family members, even in the midst of the sad circumstances that brought us together at that time. But after usual greetings – in fact, quite soon – I sought out a road atlas to investigate alternate ways to travel back home. The Ohio River runs between Indiana and Kentucky, and there was simply no way to avoid crossing it somehow. I could drive east all the way to Louisville and cross the river there on the Kennedy bridge; but part of that bridge made up one strand of the infamous Spaghetti Junction, and that was probably not the most desirable or safest place for facing up to my feelings of dread.
As I perused the map, I noticed another bridge across the river in Owensboro. That city was sizable enough that its bridge would likely be a large one. But what if it were as frightening to me as the one in Evansville? What if it were worse? Those were possibilities that I couldn’t predict, but I did know about the bridge in Evansville, and I wasn’t willing to drive across it again – at least not on this trip.
The Return Home
Spending days with family had a nurturing effect. When it came time to return home, I felt a little worry, even mild anxiety, about crossing the river; but I knew it had to be done and I was determined to face it no matter what. I had settled on the route through Owensboro, and I had decided to treat the drive like an experiment, playing the role of both scientist-observer and test subject. That could be interesting and even fun! I would get to see my own reactions and analyze them and then use them in the future to determine how to travel.
I timed the return trip so that I would cross the river during daylight hours. The bridge extended from a highway through the heart of town, and that fact alone made it feel safer. It was as if the presence of other humans so close by would somehow protect me. This bridge was also lower to the ground and the river than the one in Evansville.
But it looked somewhat old, dilapidated and shabby. The pavement had some cracks in it, and that did nothing to boost my confidence. There was no time to evaluate its safety or try to find an escape route, because suddenly the car was up on it and I was committed to the crossing. The combination of daylight, nearby people, sheer determination, necessity, and awe at participating both as observer and observed gave me whatever was needed to get across it in one piece. Despite my nervousness and the bridge's apparent state of disrepair, the trip was pretty lackluster. I decided it would be my bridge of choice for future trips.
And future trips there would be: trips for assisting my cousins with clearing and organizing the effects in our aunt’s house; trips for moving some of the furniture I had inherited; trips for visiting with other family members, when they came to that part of the country. Every trip would involve two river crossings - no way around that - and I felt it was imperative to find a way of overcoming anxiety that had come upon me so suddenly and unexpectedly.