It's time to laugh at fear
Read This. It May Save Your Life.
Over break I went to the dentist to get some cavities filled. I hate going to the dentist. I'm terrified of it. Every time I have to go I dread it for weeks, and when the actual appointment comes around I can barely drive myself there. Sitting in the dentist's chair on Thursday I just about passed out hyperventilating. I don't know why I am so scared of the dentist. I have never had a cruel, sadistic, or even an unpleasant dentist. It's my own personal irrational phobia; I don't even pretend to be brave about it. I just whine and mope and shake a lot when I have to go.
So as I was sitting there, mouth agape, wishing the dentist would stop drilling, I let my mind wander to other things that people are afraid of, as though thinking of other people's phobias would somehow lessen my own. During my semester abroad in Spain I traveled a lot with a woman who had a pathological fear of fish. She wouldn't go near them, much less eat one, until her Spanish family tricked her into eating tuna pizza. I remember we were in Barcelona in the Olympic village area, where there is a long wooden bridge with gaps between the slats. The water beneath the bridge is illuminated by dozens of bright lights, and you could see thousands of fish finning around below. She could barely make herself cross that bridge and kept glancing nervously down at them, as though they were suddenly going to rise up and swarm her.
Once someone asked her, "What about those harmless little fish that nibble on your toes while you're wading?"
She went white and had to sit down before mustering a response: "Those are the worse kind."
A former roommate is seriously terrified of missing the X-Files. It goes beyond a simple desire to see the show. She gets sweaty and anxious if she isn't around on Sunday nights to see it. Even if she knows the VCR is set to tape it, even if she is positive she will be able to get back in time to watch it, she starts to get jittery around 8:30 p.m. She knows that missing a week won't kill her, and she's not even all that desperate to see it, but the fear that she will miss something important overrides her normal life.
Another friend of mine replied that she is terrified of spiders. In her words, "Completely irrational, but big hairy spiders. Or little hairy spiders. Or even little hairless spiders. I can't even touch pages in National Geographic that have pictures of spiders."
I got another response that would have made me laugh if not for its serious, sort of panicked tone. "The weirdest thing I'm afraid of is eating `Death by Chocolate' ice cream. It's all psychological, obviously stems from my fear of death … In terms of the ice cream in particular, it's just silly, yes, but I always thought when I was little — that if I ate `Death by Chocolate' ice cream — that it would turn out to be `literally' correct."
While the dentist drilled and I fidgeted, trying to get away without causing myself more harm, I considered the fear I hear most often. I work in the Emergency Department at the Elkhart General Hospital, where one of the things I spend my time doing is talking to people about being in the ER. Many of them, probably half, express a fear of doctors or of hospitals, of blood or of needles. This always makes me stop and think, because I am fascinated by all of these things. As a premed major, I plan on centering my life around them. Yet some people feel the same way about getting blood drawn that I do about going to get my teeth cleaned. I think it is interesting, too, that the things we are most afraid of we admit openly. I walked into the dentist's office and told everyone I talked to that I was scared — the hygenist, the dentist, the other people in the waiting area. Although nearly everyone qualified them with a "It's silly" or "This is really dumb, but … ," all of the people I polled for this column quickly announced their biggest fears. I am not nearly so open about other, more minor fears, like airplane crashes or heights. My ice-cream friend could associate her phobia with a concrete event or a greater fear, but the majority of us had no explanation for our fright. That notwithstanding, our fears are deep-set. And they aren't really funny. I can laugh about my dentophobia, but don't make jokes about root canals around me. Or I will become your biggest fear.
Kate Rowland is a senior math and German major. She has always been afraid of the article "Das" as well.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, March 21, 2000