What's Your Weird Phobia?

My cousin admitted to being ashamed of his fear of cotton balls. 

By Patricia Pearson Published Jan 12, 2023 18:48:02 IST
What's Your Weird Phobia? ILLUSTRATION BY Sam Island

It has always interested me what people are afraid of versus what they should be afraid of, such as complications from their diabetes. (Ahem, husband, I am looking at you.) So, several years ago to promote a book I had written about anxiety, I built a website called Hall of Phobias, and invited people to share their worst fears.

Did they express being terrified of cancer and tigers and car crashes? No. I heard from grown men and women admitting that they ran hysterically from pigeons, shrieked at loose bits of string, or arranged their whole lives around avoiding jars of mayonnaise. Actually, that last one is my husband Ambrose’s phobia. I can wave a spoonful of mayo at him and he will dart away as if I’m threatening him with a fiery torch. It’s a useful weapon in my arsenal, if I should ever need it.

Up to 15 per cent of the world’s population suffers from phobias, with the most common being heights, small spaces and flying. But aside from those, wow, do they vary. “I am deathly afraid of water I cannot see through,” one woman wrote. “I need to know what could be approaching, like the Loch Ness monster or a shark, even though that is just ridiculous.”

Offered another: “I had always been quite proud to only have one phobia: crabs, which in the middle of England isn’t much of an issue.” But, she shared, “I’ve recently developed a phobia of opening and closing curtains.” Huh?

A third woman allowed that, “I cannot stand coins in my hand and will not carry change in my pocket or purse. The thought makes me feel sick; I can barely write about it.” She must have been relieved when debit cards came along.

People wrote that they were afraid of sail boats, suspension bridges, bald people. Bald people! There’s an actual clinical term for that particular fear: ‘peladophobia’. Someone, somewhere in the world, was sufficiently aware of people being terrified of hairless heads that they came up with a clinical term for it. On the other hand, one man wrote on the website that he was fine with bald heads—but terrified of sitting in the barber’s chair.

Phobias can make us do ridiculous things. I had one friend who could not swim, yet she ran into the Atlantic Ocean in order to avoid a birthday-party clown she’d encountered on the beach. Shouldn’t she have been more afraid of drowning? Isn’t the sea about one million times more menacing to her well-being than a man with a red rubber ball on his nose?

I was discussing this strange feature of human psychology with my cousins recently. One of them, David—a tall, strong man who owns a rifle and lives in a forest full of bears—was ashamed to admit he has an unspeakable fear of cotton balls. Yes, those little wispy tufts that top up pill bottles. “It’s making me queasy just thinking about it,” he said, taking a slug of beer. Meanwhile, my cousin John volunteered that he’s afraid of groups of circles, like a cluster of mushrooms, or the holes in a wasp’s nest. He shuddered when he told me. I remembered someone else who had written to me of a similar fear: “I’m fine with one, two or three ants. But if I see a swarm of them I freeze. Just the image of a collection of tiny little dots is horrifying to me.”

As it happens, my cousin John knows exactly what he means. There’s a new treatment for phobias. Apparently some scientists have developed ‘augmented reality’ goggles that can safely expose you to images of your deepest fear until you begin to feel less inclined to scream and run away from it. I can see the merit of this approach. We know that gradual exposure therapy really does cure people of their phobias. But the trouble with this device is that the sheer number of random things people get phobic about—from cotton balls to ants to condiments—could limit the technology’s scope.

My own issue is a fear of heights. A friend once told me about her visit to the Grand Canyon, where she had what she considered the exciting pleasure of walking on a 1,200-metre-high glass platform jutting 70 feet out from the canyon’s wall. It’s called the SkyWalk, and its website cheerfully declares that, “There’s simply no thrill like stepping out on glass thousands of feet in the air ….”

Are you kidding me? You would have to shoot me with a tranquillizer dart and drag me by my ankles to get me anywhere near that. The way I see it, fear of heights is not a bad thing. It keeps me from falling off cliff edges and apartment balconies. And I’d rather have acrophobia than the fear that one man wrote to me about: an “extreme phobia of when people tent their fingers, like Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons. I actually slap people’s hands to make them stop.” That has to be awkward.

The moral of the story is that we’re all a little bit crazy. Maybe you have a weird phobia; maybe your friends do, too. Why not ask them? Inquire, for instance, whether they, for no reason whatsoever, have a fear such as this one, sent to my Hall of Phobias: “I fear that the veins in my feet will burst. If feet ever come up in conversation, I always have to sit down so I don’t start freaking out.”

And after you laugh, give them an empathetic hug.

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