I mentioned my phobia in passing yesterday, but then it came back to my mind during the day. We talked about it at work — The Poster Queen has a little claustrophobia, The Empress is a bit acrophobic, and several customers chimed in with their own experiences of these two phobias. But some people have no phobias — like Chanthaboune. I IMed her pictures of terrifyingly flat open places for quite a while last night and she could only make laughing emoticons about it. I offer you a really scary one, on the left. Are you terrified yet? Probably not. Maybe if there were some really spooky music along with it?
First, for people who have never had a phobic reaction, let me tell you what it is like. The only situation in which I have had it (apart from childhood examples which I don’t actually remember) is on a particular kind of road. There are roads — mostly freeway ramps — which seem to have no sides at all. There are no vertical elements in view. Now, imagine that you are driving along and all of a sudden, the road turns upside down.You are driving upside down, with your wheels on the ceiling. The passenger in your car, seeing that you are alarmed, explains that this is a new kind of road, using magnets or something, and that you are perfectly safe. Imagine that you believe this, and know intellectually that you will not fall.
I think that, on a visceral level, you would still expect to fall, and you would be very frightened. This is how that kind of road feels to me.
I say “all of a sudden” because I only have this experience all of a sudden. After all, if I knew ahead of time that one of those roads was coming up, I wouldn’t go there. There is a nearby town which I used to visit often — I actually taught at their college for a semester — which I will never again drive to, because they built several of those ramps. And it is roads not because I am scared of roads, but because you don’t find yourself in open places all of a sudden. By their very nature, open fields do not sneak up on you. But those roads do.
I think that, if I had never happened upon one of those roads, I would not have known that I had a phobia. All the usual little twinges of this phobia could be thought of as preferences. I don’t like freeways, I prefer hilly places to flat ones, I don’t care for open floor plans. You might have a little phobia yourself without knowing it. Claustrophobia is, I think, so common in the U.S. that it seems normal. When we set up furniture in the store, we watch out for things that might make claustrophobia kick in, and I think that is common practice. If you were a little claustrophobic, you might not even realize it until you had to have an MRI or something. Acrophobia, too, is common enough that we usually coddle it.
My phobia is agoraphobia, an unreasonable fear of open or public places. When you read about it, it is usually presented as a kind of social anxiety, from which I do not suffer (I don’t think). For me, it is about space. Land clear to the horizon makes me edgy. (It is perhaps odd that water doesn’t have this effect for me. Sea to the horizon is fine. This is because it is, for the part of my brain that has the phobia, a vertical sort of space to move around in, and not a surface.) It is a fear of falling, really. I remember driving by flat fields and seeing cows in them and feeling that there was really no reason that they didn’t fly off the earth. My understanding that gravity does not rely on the presence of vertical elements in the scene doesn’t help at all.
But it is good to know your phobias. Then you can coddle them. For example, the view from my back yard is a field. Not a terrifying field, because it has some trees in it. I don’t feel frightened when I go outside. But neither do I feel at ease. If I sit out there for 15 minutes, I feel antsy and go back inside. I told myself that it was because I had work to do, or it was too hot or too cold or something. When I realized that it was my phobia, I was able to plan my garden and patio furniture to fix the problem. The view from my dining room window is of this field. So I grew roses under the window. Now, a fully honest explanation of my state of mind would say that, since the roses are there to ensure that my house does not fly off like Dorothy’s, I can enjoy the view of the field. That sounds daft. Enjoying the roses under the window is perfectly normal, though. And much better than just avoiding that side of the house because it makes me feel vaguely nervous for some reason.
When we discussed it at work, however, we considered whether phobias might get worse over time. Especially if we coddle them. I already avoid freeways. It could happen that I would reach the point of not driving anywhere unfamiliar, for fear of encountering one of those roads. And I sure wouldn’t go to Kansas (Scarf Boy has also recommended that I avoid western Nebraska). Some of the people who joined in the discussion yesterday at work had little explanations for their phobias that made them seem logical. When we do that, or when we avoid things that make us feel a little claustrophobic or acrophobic — or agoraphobic — then are we setting ourselves up for worse cases of it later? In fact, for agoraphobia at least, the avoidance of possibly scary places is part of the description of the problem. That is, medical folks don’t necessarily think that being scared on certain roads is the trouble; rather, it is being unable to drive to places because of those roads. Who knows? I might really enjoy western Nebraska.