I have two major phobias that I’ve had as long as I can remember: A rational one (as phobias go, at least) and an irrational one.
I have a fair number of minor ones, too, but I’m going to keep those to myself for now, lest one of you force me into a body of water I can’t see the bottom of and thrust a pill I’ve never taken before into my hands while serving me food that may have meat in it.
Anyway, the rational one is of needles. Isn’t that a handy thing to be afraid of for someone with a chronic illness? The irrational one – well, it’s weird. When I was a toddler, old enough to be in a walker, and was scooting around the living room one day, my mother realized that I was chewing something. I shouldn’t have been chewing. She fished around in my mouth, found a piece of plant matter, and realized (this being the 70s, and this thus being the standard-issue house plant) I was standing next to a philodendron, which I’d apparently mistaken for an acceptable snack. I guess I had those vegetarian tendencies from the beginning.
She called the poison control number, and they told her that I would be okay, but that she should make sure I didn’t eat any more philodendron. This, again, being the 70s, she had been trying to raise me without using the word “no” to scold me, and this was the first time in my life she stressed to tiny me that something was dangerous and that I must not do it.
The next time we were out in the garden, she called me to her. Between the two of us was a weed, an enormous weed, with enormous leaves. She beckoned. I stood my ground. She beckoned some more. I didn’t move. Not realizing what the problem was, eventually, she picked me up and carried me bodily past the enormous weed with enormous leaves. As soon as she did, I started to scream, and ever since then, I’ve had a fear of plants with big leaves. I’m afraid that if I get too close to them, that they’ll wrap themselves around me, drag me into their clutches, and eat me.
I know plants don’t eat people. I told you it was irrational.
So, basically, walking through a (to others) beautiful field of sunflowers waving in the summer breeze (ack, they’re coming for me!) or finding myself suddenly face to face with a paulownia tomentosa is my greatest fear.
Other examples of how this has affected my life: In high school, I always took the long way to the bus stop, because the shortcut through the woods was lined with paulownia. When I started shopping for my own groceries, I steered a wide berth around the collard greens in the produce department because even big leaves with the stalks cut off were too scary to approach. Later, an apartment complex Chimp and I lived in had bear’s breeches everywhere, and when we came to check the place out, the idea of having to run the gauntlet of those plants every day was very nearly a deal-breaker for me. And since I know you’re about to ask, no, I have never seen the musical or the film version of Little Shop of Horrors, and I have no desire to.
The upside of this phobia, I suppose, is that it’s saved me a lot of money on tropical rainforest vacations.
As for the needle phobia, well, that one’s pretty normal, but mine’s especially bad. I used to think it was just because it hurts, even though I know it doesn’t hurt that much. What it’s really about, I’ve realized over time, is about having to give up control over my body temporarily and let somebody hurt me. I know it’s going to hurt, and anticipating that makes it incredibly difficult for me to override that basic fight-or-flight response and lie there while somebody sticks me.
The earliest I remember my needle phobia being a big problem for me was age 11. When I was a baby, I’d gotten my one-year MMR vaccination just a few days shy of my first birthday. Ten years later, that tiny oversight meant I was technically out of compliance with the schedule and needed a booster. Finding that out and having to get the shot was traumatic. The only thing that got me over the hump in that case was that if I didn’t get the booster, I couldn’t go to summer camp.
I managed to avoid needles almost entirely from that point to about age 20, when my doctor ordered bloodwork at a routine physical. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get through it, and in talking about it with my mom, she suggested that I visualize something comforting and peaceful, like a litter of kittens playing in the barn on our family’s farm in Indiana. Kittens! Genius. For a major ailurophile like me, nothing’s more relaxing than watching a bunch of kittens play, and adding in the family’s homeplace would make it even better, I thought.
The day I’d decided on for the test, I arrived at the Kaiser lab and discovered that instead of individual exam rooms, it was a big open-plan place. And worse yet, as I walked in, several people were in the midst of getting draws. This was ten kinds of bad news, because my phobia was so bad at that point that I couldn’t bear to see tubes or syringes, much less needles or anything associated with the process – at all. I was already starting to feel a bit dizzy when the phlebotomist who was holding my lab slip tried to guide me to one of the chairs with a wide arm.
“Oh no,” I said to her. “I have to lie down. I might pass out or throw up.”
So I was steered to a chaise in the center of the enormous lab.
“Kittens.” I thought to myself. “Kittens kittens kittens.”
I heard her sit down next to me as I looked the other way. I closed my eyes. “I have a pretty bad needle phobia. My mom told me to think about kittens.”
“Kittens?” she asked, as I heard her pulling the gloves on.
“Kittens. Because it would help me relax.”
“Well, whatever works for you.” She slipped the tourniquet around my arm and secured it, then tapped at my skin.
“Kittens. Kittens kittens,” I murmured under my breath. Now she was swabbing the inside of my elbow with an alcohol wipe.
“Kittens kittens kittens,” I said quietly. “Kittens in the sunshine in the barn. Happy kittens. Kittens kittens. Lots of kittens. Stripey kittens. Fuzzy kittens.” Despite the mental imagery, the unseen rustling noises at my right were causing me to tense up all over.
The phlebotomist pulled my arm toward her and moved into position. I tried to resist the urge to wiggle away, and settled for leaning as far away from my arm as I could, trying to will myself to forget it was part of my body.
“Kittens!” I squeaked from between gritted teeth as I felt her come toward me. I winced and braced myself. She pushed the needle into my arm.
“KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS! HAPPY KITTENS RUNNING AND PLAYING AND JUMPING AND….KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS KITTENS KiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiIIIIIIIIIITTeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEENS!”
She withdrew the needle and pressed a cotton pad against my arm. “Okay, we’re done. Hold that.”
Despite my attempts at bravery, I was crying now. “Kittens kittens kittens,” I sobbed. “Kittens.”
With tears streaming down my face, I opened my eyes as she taped down the cotton. “Kiiiittens. Kiiiitteeeeeeeens,” I keened, the adrenaline draining from my body.
And that was when I looked up…and realized that everyone in the place was staring straight at me.