Sunday, September 11, 2011

Childhood Phobias – Licked?

**12 Sept UPDATE: Just added #0- Pain / Doctor Phobia**

I had a good childhood, full of more happy memories than I could ever begin to count. My parents were wonderful, I got along with my little sister, I had cool hobbies and interests that I shared with best friends, and I was generally praised by adults for being smart, creative, and well behaved. Yet, from kindergarten age until after high school I was a champion worrier, handicapped by some major phobias. I’m actually happier now as an adult than I was as a kid, due in no small part to the process of getting (mostly) over those phobias.

For my own sake, and because it may interest a few readers, I’ve decided to make a partial list of the phobias and to say a little bit about each one. The phobias range from completely silly to somewhat serious, but are in no particular order. Also, I had a little bit of trouble with the list, because certain phobias were sort-of offshoots or amalgams of other phobias. Anyway…

Phobia #0- Pain / Doctor Phobia.
When I was a kid I had to get frequent allergy shots, which I hated. It was a long drive out to the Doctor’s office and a long time in the waiting room, which gave me ample time to worry and obsess, anticipating the coming shot. The shots themselves weren’t that bad- I just couldn’t relax when I knew that there would be pain in my future. As my capacity to anticipate and worry grew, I started to dread all the blood tests, immunizations, suffocating-feeling orthodontic plaster impressions, etc. that I knew awaited me when I turned certain ages. I felt like a kid in one of those tribes where every boy knew that on his 13th birthday they would tie vines around his feet and hang him upside down from a bamboo tower while they circumcised him with a stone knife. Perhaps even more worrisome were the things that I knew MIGHT happen to me at any time, like getting a cavity or needing a tonsillectomy. I remember asking my dad one time when we were driving in the car whether I would ever need my tonsils out. He said that I probably wouldn’t need them taken out, but I wanted him to PROMISE me that it would never happen, and I was extremely distressed that he couldn’t guarantee it. From my perspective it was like being told that there probably wasn’t a werewolf in my closet, but there might be, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Getting over the pain / doctor phobia was gradual, but at some point I realized that it was fruitless to worry about things that I couldn’t prevent, and instead I should view those things as positive opportunities to develop and display my stoicism and toughness. So now I’m happy to give blood or get shots, or whatever, and I didn’t even flinch (much) when, as a 21 year old, two burly nurses had to shove a fiber-optic camera up my wee wee to prospect for bladder stones. I would say my pain / doctor phobia is licked.

Phobia #1- Bee Phobia.
I had a normal fear of bees as a young kid, getting maybe one sting a summer. But then I stepped on yellowjackets’ nests two years in a row and got lots of terrifying and painful stings that swelled up badly, especially the second year. So for a while anything that buzzed would send me sprinting in the opposite direction, and I was deathly afraid of picnics and bbqs where sweet sodas and sauces would attract the sugar-hungry yellowjackets. Anyway, there was no special insight or bolt of maturity that got me over that phobia- it just kind of faded as I realized bees wouldn’t usually sting unprovoked, and even if they did it wasn’t any worse pain than I could handle. I got stung in Florida when I was packing up my kiteboarding gear about a year and a half ago and it was no biggie.

Phobia #2- Sports Phobia.
I was as active and playful as a normal kid, and I don’t think I was out of shape, uncoordinated or small for my age. Yet, I absolutely dreaded sports. (As I dreaded most other kinds of competition and evaluation.) Instead of seeing sports as play, enhanced by fun challenges and exciting opportunities for personal improvement, I saw sports like a slave in Rome would see the gladiator arena; as a miserable trial leading to inevitable doom. So I just tried to avoid the arena at all costs. When I couldn’t avoid it (my well-meaning parents always signed me up for soccer and basketball camps and little league and stuff) I slinked around half-heartedly, doing the bare minimum needed to avoid shame and quitter’s guilt, but always focused more on escape than on personal development or victory. I was extremely aware of the negative external pressures and stresses of competition and comparison, and extremely out-of-touch with the positive internal drivers that make sports fun and gratifying for most people. That is, until windsurfing.

Of course, my INITIAL reaction to windsurfing, at age eight, was the same as it was to all other sports- terror, crying, and praying to God that my dad wouldn’t make me try it again. But each summer I did try it a few more times, and it got a little less intimidating each time. It helped a lot that there were no coaches and there was no peer pressure or audience other than my family. As I got bigger I realized that I could lift the small “grown up” sail, which was satisfying, and I had opportunities to go windsurfing just by myself or with my friend Erik who was at the same level as me. By the time I was in junior high I could rig my own sail and go scooting around Puget Sound whenever I wanted, which gave me a big ego boost and feeling of independence. Around the same time, my parents backed away from their attempts to get me to do regular sports, in exchange for my pledge to do biking and jogging and stuff for fitness. In high school I started working out at the fitness club my mom went to, and I was stoked to see how much progress I made being able to lift more weights, develop cool-looking muscles, and run faster, longer. At some point it dawned on me that I was actually a perfectly capable athlete. Though I still felt no urge to join a sports team or anything, I could give a good, albeit unskilled, hustle in a pickup game of soccer, softball, badminton, or whatever, and maybe even have a little bit of fun at it. (The most recent time I played kickball I got on base a few times with line drives and surprise bunts, and I even caught some pop flies, which I’d never had the go-for-it attitude to do back in little league. The go-for-it attitude seems to be a really huge part of sports, and life.) In windsurfing when I do regattas my results are all over the place, depending on who I’m sailing against and how dialed I am, but I always have a good time, and I find that a bit of the competitive element now increases rather than decreases my stoke for the sport. So I’d say that my sports phobia is mostly licked.

Phobia #3- Girl Phobia. I used to be real shy around girls. Except for some family friends who lived an hour away, most of my friends were other boys, so I was slow to realize the whole, “girls are people, too” thing. For a long time I was stuck with the notion that the only way a girl would want to talk to you would be if you did something really cool or impressive, like kicking ass in sports, which seemed out of the question for me, or rescuing her from a dragon, which seemed a little more realistic.

Here, international soccer star David Beckham fights a dragon to impress Princess Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty.

I can’t put my finger on exactly how or when it happened, but at some point I realized that my energy was much better spent casually chatting with the girls, building familiarity and confidence, than it was hoping to dramatically impress them. I had some nice sweethearts as an adult, and now I have the best girlfriend in the world, so I’d say my girl phobia is licked.

Phobia #4- School Phobia. I never totally hated school, except maybe for a little while in the 6th grade, but it definitely gave me a lot of stress and anxiety. It took me a long time to develop the, “I’m here because I want to learn” attitude enough to replace my earlier, “I’m here because my only route to eventual, non-disgraced freedom is to suffer through round after round of increasingly painful challenges” attitude.

It's a long road.

Fortunately, it all gelled together around my senior year in college. By then I had realized that I wasn’t a genius or anything, but that I was smart enough to be able to learn even the real hard intimidating stuff if I worked at it and didn’t let a few little failures discourage me. That confidence allowed me to actually enjoy the heck out of grad school without getting too uptight about the pressures of dissertation writing and stuff. I would say that my school phobia is totally licked, although I may need to remind myself of some of the lessons I’ve learned as I go through real world career challenges.

Phobia #5- Center-of-Attention Phobia. I used to be shy, and used to prefer for others to take the lead in any group. But getting more confident in my various abilities, seeing that other leaders didn’t necessarily do any better than I could do, and (most importantly) getting de-sensitized to embarrassment after frequent embarrassments, has allowed me to become more extroverted and in-charge. This phobia is definitely licked, and I may have even gone too far in the opposite direction, what with this self-named blog and everything.

Discussion Questions: Were you happier as a kid or are you happier now that you’re an adult? Did you have any childhood phobias that you’re now proud to have licked? If you knew me when I was a kid, can you think of any phobias that I might have forgotten to write about, or that I might still have?


joe windsurfer said...

check my bees experience recently - VERY positive and nutritive !!

Johnny Douglass said...

Yeah, one summer you just surprised me and asked if you could take the windsurfer out yourself. I said "yes" and about the next time I looked you were better than I had ever been. Now that you have your phobia licked, be careful out there.

Mary G. Douglass said...

I'm not sure why, but I was really happy and confident as a kid, and then developed increasingly debilitating phobias as I got older. Darn. I wish it was the other way around. Oh, well, at least I have a cool family that loves me anyway!

Frank said...

Being very health as a child. I only went to the doctor for booster shots.
I hate the doctor or dentist now. Need to get over that as I am getting old. The pracise medicene and bury their mistakes?