Monday December 19, 2011
But Then Again
By Mary Schneider
Some people can be insufferable when they’re not the ones with the phobia.
I’M no stranger to phobias. The last time I checked, I had an irrational fear of heights, hypodermic needles, and dentists – especially dentists who are about to plunge a giant hypodermic needle into my gums.
My phobias usually don’t interfere with my everyday life, but on a recent trip to France, my fear of heights (acrophobia) was laid bare for others to see and judge.
At the time, I was touring the Grotte des Demoiselles, a large limestone cavern located in the Hérault valley of southern France.
After a short ride on a funicular railway that took me, my partner and about 15 other tourists almost to the top of the cavern, our guide ushered us through a series of narrow corridors that led to a small platform overlooking an immense chamber called the Cathedral of the Abyss. At approximately 120m long, 80m wide and 50m high, this chamber is enough to make anyone suffering from acrophobia go a little weak at the knees.
As I stared at the magnificent stalactites, I couldn’t bring myself to walk to the edge of the viewing platform to witness the mighty stalagmites below. My stomach was doing flip-flops, and my heart was racing so fast I thought I would expire on the spot.
The guide asked us to step forward and make our way down a narrow metal staircase that was fixed precariously (or so it seemed to me) to the face of the cavern wall.
“I can’t do it,” I said, my legs beginning to shake at the thought of having to conquer 50m on the edge of a “precipice”.
“The trick is not to look too far down,” said my partner encouragingly. “Just look at your feet and you’ll be fine.”
Now, when you have a phobia, no amount of cajoling, persuading, blackmailing or bribing can help you overcome it. Bill Gates could have offered to give me all of his wealth in exchange for descending those stairs, and I would still have declined. Similarly, George Clooney could have attempted to lead me down by the hand, and I would have swatted him away like a fly.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go back,” I said, looking at the impatient faces of the people standing behind me.
“I’m coming with you,” piped up a middle-aged American woman, standing a few metres away. “There’s no way I’m going down that wall either.”
As the guide led the two acrophobics back along the corridor and down an enclosed shortcut that led to the floor of the cavern, he assured us that our plight was a common one. “It happens all the time,” he said, before rushing back to the abandoned tourists.
When the rest of the group caught up with us, one woman asked me if I’d been feeling ill. When I told her about my phobia, she looked at me as if I deserved to have a stalactite break off and pierce me through the top of my head for being so spineless.
“My son is only 12,” she said, “and he made it down okay. Perhaps if you’d just closed your eyes and gotten someone to lead you down ...”
How wonderful it would be if we could just close our eyes and make our phobias go away. Imagine telling someone suffering from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to walk through a room full of spiders with a blindfold on? Or advising someone who has a fear of driving not to look while on the highway? Mind you, the way some people drive on our highways, they might as well not be looking.
Of course, I do get some measure of comfort from knowing that I’m not alone with my phobias. According to the experts, phobias affect about one in 10 people.
But the rate could be higher, as many people are too embarrassed to talk about their irrational fears. Possibly because they’re afraid that others might think them weak, or lazy, or a bit weird.
For example, take ergophobia – the abnormal and persistent fear of work and the workplace. Even though someone might be a bona fide sufferer of this condition, I can understand a certain amount of reluctance to talk about it.
I can just imagine an ergophobic trying to explain their lack of employment to a stranger.
Man at party: “So, Jim, what sort of work do you do?”
Jim: “I don’t work.”
Man: “So you’re in between jobs now?”
Jim: “No I’ve never had a job.”
man: “Oh, why’s that?”
Jim: “I suffer from ergophobia, the irrational fear of work.”
Man sniggering: “My teenage son suffers from that too. But I call it laziness.”
It’s enough to make anyone have an irrational fear of social gatherings.