“It’s the number one show in America! Millions of people love it! What’s wrong with you?,” my (then) husband asked as I stormed up the stairs after trying to suffer through ten minutes of Game of Thrones. The show was so disturbing to me, I was physically uncomfortable. I felt like I had no choice but to remove myself — not just from the room, but out of earshot from the energy of the television. The visions and sounds would stick to me like glue, making me irritable and anxious for days.
I’ve never felt safe watching shows like this, not even as a teenager when all my friends seemed to be so excited to have the shit scared out of them while munching on Junior Mints and Doritos. I hated it all, and to this day whenever I think about watching Poltergeist with my friend in her basement, it’s hard to keep my breathing at a regular pace. Even a beloved classic like Lost Boys is too much for me.
I felt like I was managing my fear of being afraid for a really long time. I’d steer away from people or situations that made me uncomfortable as a child and a young adult. I’ve always felt like I’ve had an antenna shooting out the back of my head when I come near these situations. Some call it intuition, some call it anxiety.
All I know is that I’ve always been afraid of being afraid, but my life wasn’t altered much because of it. Then there was a particular life experience that took my fears to a new level, and I’ve recently done a lot of work to correct it.
Twelve years ago, I was in a department store with my best friend and there was a man with a gun who started yelling right behind me that he was going to shoot. We were literally yards from the door, but it felt like we were running forever. I felt like he was on top of my shoulders, his voice was loud, I swore I felt his breath and the weight of him.
I later found out he was on the other side of the store.
All I could think about was my children — they were 6 months, 2 and 3 years old. Nothing happened, everyone got out fine, but in the days that followed, I could barely keep my eyes open. I had never felt an exhaustion like that before.
About a week later, we were at a gas station and I sat in the car with my kids as their dad gassed up. It was so crowded, we were blocked in and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how I’d get my family out of there if something happened. I had my first ever panic attack and had no idea what was happening.
Months later, I planned a trip to see a friend a few hours from my house — something I’d done thousands of times. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was afraid I’d get lost and not know where I was going. It wasn’t rational; I knew it and I pushed myself the whole way there. But I couldn’t eat. I had trouble swallowing. I started seeing things around me on the road that weren’t even there. After that, I stopped taking road trips. Then I stopped driving to unknown locations.
If I eat within a few hours of falling asleep, I have nightmares. So that’s not an option for me. I don’t do scary movies or disturbing shows or books. If it’s not funny, light, and happy, my anxiety goes through the roof as I’m thinking about what it’s going to do to my mind later.
I’d been living this way a long time, not having any idea what was wrong with me, or that I could fix it. It was a dirty secret only my close family members knew about. It was starting to rule my life.
It wasn’t until I heard about phobophobia that things started to make sense. It wasn’t fun to face. This dirty secret has made me feel weak, inadequate, and ashamed.
But after learning exactly what phobophobia is — “an exaggerated fear response. While in other phobias, the irrationally heightened response focuses on a specific object or situation, in phobophobia, the fear is of the fear response itself” — I was able to chip away at it.
I was so afraid of being afraid, and I will take it a step further and I was afraid of being uncomfortable. Then, as my kids got older and were tired of me projecting on them (I was afraid they were going to be afraid), and my marriage fell apart, I realized I need to get over this before it really made me crawl into the cubby space in my bedroom and stay there.
Cognitive therapy helped. Realizing how deeply my thoughts affect my actions helped. Like anything, it took a lot of practice and I still show up to work on this every day.
Very Well explains, “If you have phobophobia, you are likely the opposite of an adrenaline junkie. Rather than experiencing a thrill when facing your fears, you may go out of your way to avoid any situation that causes heightened anxiety.”
While I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, I still have work to do. A few weeks ago, I was driving in a city near my house, it was crowded, with lots of cars and people crossing the streets, and I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going. I saw a pregnant woman heading for the crosswalk without even looking to see if traffic was coming, and I froze. The sweat started pouring off of me and I had to have my sister do the rest of the driving. I’d had enough, but more importantly I knew I wasn’t fit to drive at that moment.
But there have been many times (recently) I’d driven down the same road with zero issues.
That’s the rub about anxiety. You can think you are fine, or you’ve conquered it. Then, out of no where it shows up and says, “Listen, don’t forget about me. I’m here and I take you down, hard.”
And the energy it takes to fight it, or not, can really fuck us up.
I can tell you this: now that I know what it is, now that I know it is a symptom of my anxiety, I’ve been able to conquer it a little at a time. Not being so afraid of being afraid (it’s still a hard pass on scary or disturbing movies) has been freeing for me, and for my children.
I’ll get there; I have to. Life is too damn good to hide from the unknown because you are afraid of what’s going to happen.