Fessing Up about My Phobias

[Trigger alert: this blog post includes discussions of a phobia of mice and a phobia of choking, so please bear that in mind if that might be a trigger for you (and virtual high-five if we share the same phobia!)]

OK, I’m going to start by coming right out and saying it: the idea of writing and posting this particular blog makes me very, very nervous. That’s because I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past few years worrying that people would find out the truth about my foolish, embarrassing phobias, and I’ve made quite a lot of effort to hide them. And now here I am, about to actually share it all, every ridiculous detail, with anyone in the world with an internet connection and an inclination to read it. It goes so completely against my natural instinct for concealment, for relentlessly maintaining an exterior of “I’m fine,” when sometimes I’m not. But at the same time, I believe this is something I have to do, an obstacle I need to overcome if I’m going to make the kind of progress I want to, and live my most authentic life. 

I’ve come to realize over the past several months that for me, the worst part of having anxiety disorders isn’t the actual worry or fear, or the various symptoms that go along with them (as difficult as all that is). No for me, the worst part is shame. Up until the past year or so (when I started seeing my psychiatrist), I’d kept the symptoms of my anxiety disorders largely to myself. In my mind’s eye, I was Jenn, the smart, well-organized, conscientious-to-a-fault, has-her-shit-together wife and office worker, and I think that was the image I generally projected. I desperately wanted to prevent people (maybe even myself) from seeing that my shit was not, in fact, 100% together. Not even close.

When I finally went to see a psychiatrist (more on the motivation for that later), I got a diagnosis (Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD] and Specific Phobias), and I started taking two types of medication for anxiety. Well, there was no denying (to myself, at least) that I had mental health problems now! Since then, I’ve gradually become more and more open about my GAD (talking in support groups and writing this blog have really helped me to get more comfortable doing that).

However, the openness that I’ve tried to achieve has, until now, fallen short in one area: my phobias. I’ve mentioned them in passing in some of my previous blog posts, but I haven’t talked about them in much detail. For some reason I find phobias much harder to discuss than my GAD – maybe to me, GAD just sounds like otherwise normal behaviour (worrying, feeling anxious) taken to an unhealthy degree, so I don’t really mind admitting to it. But I feel like the rare times I’ve talked about my phobias, they make me sound “crazy,” because in my mind they are kind of crazy, and they carry with them a burden of shame for me. But I feel like I want to try to start throwing that burden off, and I believe the first step, as it usually is with mental health recovery, is to start talking about it.

So, my phobias – time to get down to brass tacks (deep breath). I have two diagnosed phobias (for now – I’m always a bit concerned that others could pop up out of nowhere, as these ones seemingly did, but that’s probably just GAD worst-case-scenario type thinking). The first phobia I’ll talk about is my extreme fear of mice (also known as musophobia). The few times I’ve mentioned this phobia to people, I sometimes get a reaction from them like, “Oh yeah, I’m scared of mice too.” It’s good of them to try to identify with me, but I’m tempted to say to them, “Not like me, you’re not.”

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(This was the only kind of mouse picture I could handle!)

I’ve always disliked mice (in a pretty normal way), and ever since we moved into our rental house seven years ago, we’d occasionally find evidence that one of the little rodents had gotten into the house (always in the fall), and had made it as far as our kitchen (the discovery of an ancient box of mouse poison in our basement demonstrated that we were not the first tenants to have this issue). I found it creepy, but we kept a mouse trap under our kitchen sink, which typically took care of the issue swiftly (sorry, little mice).

So I was kind of used to the minor mouse issue, as unpleasant as I found it. Then one evening a few years ago, I spotted a little mouse in the living room, scurrying across the floor (quickly disappearing after my startled yelp). It was the first time I’d seen an actual live mouse in the house (usually we just came across the droppings), and the first time I had reason to think they made it past the kitchen. For some reason, that did it for me, and I kind of lost it. I worried all the time about a possible re-appearance of my little friend, I couldn’t sleep, I jumped at every unexpected sound, occasionally imagined I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye, and felt a bit like I was going nuts.

After a week or so like that, we got an exterminator in to hopefully sort out our mouse problem for good, which made me feel a bit better. I also went to my doctor to see if she could offer some medication to help calm me down, which she did, and which was a big help. (It was at that point that I recognized for the first time that I had a real anxiety problem, and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist, which turned out to be a huge step in the right direction for me).

Despite an overall improvement in the most severe day-to-day symptoms of my mouse aversion, that phobia still fuels a lot of irrational behaviour in me to this day. For example, at this moment there are 14 mouse traps in my house (I know because I counted them once). I sleep with a light on (having read once that mice come out in the dark). I keep my bedroom door closed at all times. I don’t go down to our basement because the exterminator said that was where there was the most evidence of mice, so my endlessly-patient husband goes down there any time I need something brought up or down. And I take all of these “precautions” in spite of the fact that there hasn’t been a single sign of a mouse in our house in over a year (since the exterminator came, actually). I think that’s the difference between just being “scared” of mice and having a phobia of mice – it’s the irrational steps I feel compelled to take to feel safe from the slightest possibility of a mouse appearing, even when I have no reason to believe one will. It makes no sense to me, but I can’t seem to change how I feel.

OK, so that’s one of my phobias (one down, one to go). As nutty as I imagine I must sound talking about my behaviour in connection with mice, I feel like my other phobia sounds way crazier, so I very rarely talk about it. It’s a phobia connected with eating, specifically a fear of choking, and it actually started a couple of years before my mouse phobia did.

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Like my mouse phobia, I feel like my eating phobia kicked in quite suddenly (for some reason I tend to call it “my eating phobia,” I think because even saying the word “choking” makes me a bit anxious). As with my feelings about mice, I’d always been a little nervous of the idea of choking, but I’d typically been able to just put it out of my mind. Then one day a few years ago, I was eating an enjoyable meal, and for no apparent reason, I suddenly felt as though I might not be physically able to swallow it, a feeling that got progressively stronger as my meal went on, and by the end I felt a bit freaked out. What the heck was wrong with me? I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling over the next couple of weeks, as I felt more and more anxious when consuming a wider and wider array of foods. After a while, I was down to about three or four foods that I felt comfortable eating – everything else seemed too anxiety-inducing to attempt. I was completely baffled about what was happening, and I felt like I must be 100% crazy (while still going about my daily life as usual without most people having any idea anything was amiss, thanks to my compulsive secretiveness on this issue).

Desperate for help, I got up the nerve see a counsellor through my Employee Assistance Program at work (as I’ve mentioned before). She told me that, contrary to my assumption, my eating phobia was not uncommon, which surprised me (still does, really). Working with my counsellor got me to the point where at least I could eat a few more “normal” meals. Since then, I’ve gradually added more foods back into my diet (and can eat in public, something I didn’t do for several months at one point).

I’m still well short of where I’d like to be, though. I won’t accept an invitation to eat with someone in a restaurant unless I know for sure that I’ll be able to order one of the foods that I’m comfortable eating. I try to avoid dinner invitations to people’s homes, out of concern that I’ll be terribly embarrassed if I somehow have to admit that I don’t feel I can eat what is offered. I don’t generally travel, worried that I won’t be able to find foods that feel sufficiently “safe” to me. I still don’t eat a lot of foods, foods that a few years ago I happily ate, including most meats (except some processed meats that don’t seem too meat-like) and most rolls and breads (except for soft white bread).

The whole eating issue just feels to me like it’s bizarre, crazy and impossible to explain, because I don’t understand it myself. I know I can eat anything I choose, I know I’ll be able to safely swallow it, but when it comes time to put something in my mouth, sometimes I just can’t seem to do it. I get so very frustrated with myself over it, and I feel embarrassed that I have this weird-sounding issue that no one else appears to have.

I think one of the reasons I get so frustrated with my eating issues (and my mouse phobia too) is that it all seemed to come over me so suddenly, and for a long time I believed I should be able to get over it just as quickly. Then one day, I reached an understanding of sorts – I pictured a knot in my shoelaces. Sometimes when I’m untying my shoes, the laces get tangled (probably because I always double-tie my shoes and I also tend to rush to untie them). The process of the laces becoming tangled happens in a matter of seconds, but it can take much longer to untie the knot (depending on how snarled I’ve managed to get it) – it just takes patience and persistence. So that’s how I picture my phobic brain – the sudden entanglement of a complicated knot, which is just taking a while to untie.

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And there are treatments available for phobias. I know that the most common way to deal with them is exposure therapy: gradual, repeated exposure to the source of the phobia until it no longer triggers fear. So for example, with mice, that might start with me learning to be OK with looking at a drawing of a mouse, then later on maybe touching a toy mouse, and through various steps, eventually working my way up to being close to an actual living mouse without freaking out. I just have to get to the point where I’m up for purposely exposing myself to scary mouse stuff. I don’t feel like I’m there at the moment, but I believe I will be sometime soon.

The eating phobia is a bigger issue for me than the mouse phobia, because it impacts my life in a more significant way. For one thing, I have to confront that phobia to some extent every time I eat, which means at least three times every day. And food permeates so much of how we socialize, so having food issues (especially secret ones) can have a big impact on the ability to be around people.

Managing an eating phobia is complicated by the fact that some of the body’s natural response to anxiety (dry mouth, tightness in the throat) also happens to make eating more physically difficult, so I wind up in a bit of a vicious circle where eating might make me anxious, and that anxiety makes eating more difficult. So with support of my psychiatrist, I’ve just been adding a “new” food back into my diet when the opportunity naturally arises and I feel like giving it a go, without putting pressure on myself. That’s leading to some progress, even if it’s slower than I’d like (my most recent victory was eating an Egg McMuffin for the first time in years, yay!).

As time has passed, I’ve started to see that my phobias have given rise to two separate types of fears. One is a fear of the actual objects of my phobias. The other is a fear of the effect that my phobias will have on my life: How am I going to cope with this? What would people think about me if they knew about it? What if I never get better? Will I someday randomly revert back to how I was at the beginning and lose all my slow, steady progress? My psychiatrist once said of my mouse phobia, your issue isn’t the fear of mice, it’s the fear of the fear of mice; I guess the old idea of having nothing to fear but fear itself turns out to be pretty accurate.

I’ve recently decided that my immediate goal for right now isn’t necessarily to get to the point where the objects of my phobias don’t bother me any more – I have to accept that that’s going to take a while. But in the meantime, I can at least work on being less distressed by the idea of my phobias, so maybe they won’t have so much power over me and my life. And for me that means being able to be a bit more open and a bit less ashamed of them. So I try to remind myself that shame only belongs in situations where one has control over a behaviour, and goodness knows I wouldn’t still have my phobias if I had any control over them. No, I suspect the shame I feel comes from the stigma that so often accompanies mental illness. So I may not be able to overcome my phobias yet, but I have some hope that I can overcome the shame I feel about them. And I think I just took the first step with this blog post.

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