Phobia. Intriguing little word. For a phenomenon that affected my life in such a dramatic, damaging and prolonged way I had expected it to be more than a metre long. Surprising things surely come in small packages.
Forty years ago I was a helpless babe in a cradle. Thirty years ago the fertile breeding ground for a phobia existed but I don’t think I’d even heard the word. Twenty years ago I was a sufferer but took little notice of the expression when it was used. Ten years ago I was still a sufferer but was convinced that phobias were for other people. Five years ago, still a sufferer, I finally realised the term applied to me but was too afraid to admit it. One year ago I remained a sufferer but could finally admit it to my relatives and friends. Now I’m enjoying the freedom a life without fear can offer and can freely talk, and now hopefully, write about it.
Arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia and even a fear of flying are of course examples of the more common phobias with which people are familiar. However, a unique set of circumstances came together in my childhood, which left me with a not so common fear. A fear of the totally normal behaviour of entering a house that was not my own for a meal. Not that I did not want to participate in such behaviour - I most certainly did - and the majority of the mental pain came from the deliberate avoidance of opportunities that I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. But my mind wouldn’t let me go. It turned such pleasurable events into nightmares so that in the end avoidance at all cost was the easiest scenario.
Many might wonder what the problem can be. Avoiding a few dinners is not the end of the world. That may be so, but I was to discover that my social phobia had far reaching implications that reverberated through all aspects of my life in unexpected ways. These would blight and haunt my life for decades until I finally acknowledged the fear, understood it and finally found a way to beat it.
This led to a ten year voyage of self discovery, self honesty and understanding, which brought me - not to a scientific testament about the operation of the mind - but rather to a simple and practical solution to fix a mental problem that was preventing me from living a normal life.
The story began when I was eighteen. I had my first anxiety attack when I was half way through an evening meal at my cousin’s home. For some unexplained reason I suddenly experienced panic, sweating, nausea and all the other bodily reactions to fear. I craved to leave the dinner table and go outside but instead I stayed politely seated and tensed up to try to fight off the fear.
This inexplicable reaction shocked me but thinking it was just an isolated event I gave it no further thought until I had the same experience the next time I dined with friends at their home.
In bewilderment I immediately began avoiding situations that were likely to cause me concern. I tried to convince myself that it would pass with time, as did my fear of storms as a child.
But the years passed with no let up. I became used to making excuses. It became part of my life. I lived in a cocoon of excuses and avoidance. When my excuses failed I fought with my feelings throughout the meal, contributing little to the conversation and leaving exhausted, frightened and with a feeling of isolation.