The horror of mayonnaise: Phobias: Some treatments are as odd and irrational as the aversion itself
by Patricia Pearson
This article first appeared in the National Post
I’m flying on an airplane this week, a fact that fills me with knee-buckling dread. Oh sure, people insist that a cafeteria-size object weighing hundreds of tons can float in the sky, for reasons best left to science. Nevertheless, if given a choice between flying and, oh, eating live bees I would opt for the latter.
Mentioning my fear of flying to a colleague the other day, he countered that he had a phobia of cotton batten. If he were locked in a small room filled neck-high with cotton balls, he said, he would scream so uncontrollably that he might actually have a heart attack and die. This, I must say, was far more interesting to me than my own phobia. I decided to ask around in the newsroom and see what other irrational fears lurk in the hearts of rational people.
Herewith, the phobias of the men and women of the National Post:
– Plastic bags floating on puddles, which must be avoided by crossing the street.
– Loose buttons, which cause high alarm when spied on a table, and cannot be touched at any cost.
– Vomit, which cannot be mentioned without risk of panic attack.
– Honey, which obliges the sufferer to shower after contact.
– Lizards, which cannot be named without upset.
– Dandelions, which could be the protagonists in a horror movie, as far as the sufferer is concerned.
– Mirrors, which cannot be looked in under any circumstances.
– Clowns, which deeply unsettle.
– Eggs, which cannot be regarded sunnyside up on a plate.
– Fingertips placed together hand to hand, or people who place other sharp objects, like pencils, end to end against their fingertips, reminding the sufferer of finger bones scraping together, and “scaring the hell out of me.”
– Balloons, which cannot be allowed at sufferer’s children’s birthday parties, much to sufferer’s children’s regret.
The clinical definition of a phobia: “persistent and irrational fear in the presence of some specific stimulus which commonly elicits avoidance,” apparently has rather broad application.
This accounts for the booming market in phobia cures, which range from hypnosis and subliminal tapes to virtual reality and exposure therapy (in which sufferers are made miserable by having horrifying buttons or eggs or whatever waved in their faces).
Leafing through the December issue of Psychology Today, I even saw an ad for a Five-Minute Phobia Cure. Apparently, Dr. Roger Callahan of Indian Wells, Calif., can eradicate phobias in the time it takes to make toast, with a technique called Thought Field Therapy.
The way this technique works, Callahan explains in his $40 (US) video, is by tapping on certain points in the body with your fingers. Phobias are perturbances in the energy field of a thought, he says. You must physically remove the perturbances in order to get on with the business of, for instance, spooning honey into your tea without screaming.
Callahan, who looks disconcertingly like Burt Reynolds, demonstrates his theory in the video by plucking paper clips from an elastic band. One thought field perturbance down, four to go. Pluck, pluck.
Never mind the complex labyrinth of neuroses so revered by psychoanalysts. This is the Nineties. People are bored of the therapist’s couch. They want their problems fixed, and they want them fixed NOW.
I wanted to test Callahan’s cure, but since my plane phobia would entail driving to the airport or plunging off a roof to see if I still panicked, I enlisted my husband instead.
“Can you just come down here for a second and try this phobia cure?” I asked.
“Go away,” he responded, sensing trouble. “I’m reading.”
“Please, just for five minutes! I want to see if it cures your horror of mayonnaise.”
My husband is what Callahan calls a “skeptical stranger.” Skeptics are perfect for demonstrating the efficacy of Thought Field Therapy, Callahan claims, because they’re not suggestible.
Bribed with the promise that I’d vacuum the car, my husband finally agreed to watch the video. The cure sequence involves a guy in a red T-shirt, poised like an aerobics instructor, to take you through the paces. First he gets you to summon a mental picture of your phobia, which “brings up the thought field.” Then, you must do the following:
Tap four or five times under your eye, then under your arm, then on your collarbone, then your hand. Then you have to waggle your eyes, hum a tune and count to five.
I whipped out a jar of Hellmann’s. “Arrrrggghhhhhhhh!” shouted my husband.
On the video, the words “psychological reversal” flashed on screen. Callahan believes that some people are subject to psychological blocks or “reversals” that make them impervious to his treatment. Thus, he has devised a 30-second treatment for your treatment block.
“Tap on your hand and say three times: I accept myself even though I have these problems.”
My husband went along, glowering at me, then repeated the phobia cure of tapping, humming and counting. “So, now what do you think?” I asked, approaching tentatively with my jar.
“GET AWAY FROM ME WITH THAT MAYONNAISE!”
Maybe we did it wrong. Callahan has tapped on people on all the major American talkshows, to great effect.
If you reject the theory that phobias are random electromagnetic perturbances in the brain, you have many other theories to choose from: early childhood trauma, instinct, atavism, and generalized anxiety, to name a few.
According to William Miller, author of the recently released Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard University Press), many phobias are a conflation of fear and disgust, relating to our need for an ordered universe.
We are horrified by disorder and chaos, such as weeds growing pell-mell in a garden, overly lush vegetation, or the body turned inside out — oozing, sliming viscera, what Miller calls “thick, greasy life.” Thus, horror of eggs, vomit, honey and other slippery substances are really an anxiety about the corruptible boundaries of the body.
Unlike pure fear, which invites a fight-or-flight response, the nature of the horrifying is that there is no escape. To fight the dandelion or lizard would involve touching it, for example, which evokes terror of contamination. To flee it would mean that it wasn’t all around you, and even in you, which is, in itself, the essence of what’s horrifying. “The disgusting can possess us,” he writes, “fill us with creepy, almost eerie feelings of not being quite in control, of being haunted.”
We fear, he says, the severability of our bodies. Nothing is quite so disgusting in the mouth as a single hair, as proved in an experiment recently in which toddlers happily ate imitation dog feces, grasshoppers and a whole, small, dried fish, but wouldn’t tolerate hair.
Miller points out that we are also horrified by the uncanny: “the unsettlingness of the effigy.” Clowns, for instance, confuse our perceptions of real and unreal.
Interestingly, phobias almost never arise from smell or sound, at least in humans. My dog has a phobia of me biting into a McIntosh apple. Don’t ask me why he tolerates the sound of a chewed-on Granny Smith. I’d chalk that one up to random perturbance.
© Patricia Pearson, 2001-02