Fear Factor
According to the DSM IV, commonly known as the Bible of Modern Psychiatry, the third criterion (or Criterion C) for a specific phobia is that the patient must acknowledge that the fear of the specific object or situation is irrational or unreasonable. (The DSM then notes that in children this feature may be absent, but not necessarily so.) Since the patient knows the fear is irrational reasoning is not an effective method of"curing" a patient from the phobia.

As a child I was particularly talented in developing bizarre phobias, my theory being that if I must be crazy I could at least be original. When I was seven my mother took me to see E.T. Although I enjoyed the film, I immediately developed a massive fear of aliens. You see, once I began thinking about life on other planets, I realized it was completely reasonable to assume it existed and not just one species of kind of ugly cute finger glowing midgets, but rather the whole spectrum including truly evil bad scary aliens. And these would be the aliens to find me. Even at seven, I though the universe had it in for me.

Later, for variety, I became afraid of being possessed by demons and after that spontaneous human combustion. The combustion fear was the shortest, I assume because there if very little more boring than waiting around to explode. Eventually I went back to being afraid of aliens.

Of course, these were the more irrational of fears. I was terrified of crying in public or in any getting sick in public. And I can't tell you how many situations my parents put me in where I had to maintain at the cost of great pain, anxiety, and generally unpleasantness that I was perfectly healthy when I was anything but. However my fear of being seen as disabled in public trumped the pain and even the massive amount of damage I inflicted on myself during the years.

Unlike the alien fear, my fear of not being able to maintain my image in public never struck me as irrational in any way until recently when I was having a conversation about the fear of death. I admitted that I was more afraid to cry on stage, to risk telling a depressing story, than to die.

What truly floored my parents about my fears was at the same time I was beginning to be afraid of flying saucers, I was still battling health problems. I spent two years in a series of leg casts. I was on medication constantly. I was either flying to Phileadelphia Children's to consult with Dr. Watts or I was driving to Boston Children's to be a visual aide for the students of Dr. Hall. And those were the good days. The list of specialists, treatments, tests, emergency room visits is long. Many of the tests involved a great deal of physical discomfort. The gait lab was one I remember clearly in which four inch long wires are injected in the muscles of the leg and electrical impulses are sent through the wires to test muscle response. I was told I might experience "some discomfort." They might have more accurately said, "It's going to feel like we slashed open your legs and sewed a rabid weasel under your skin. But don't worry. It's only for two hours." Yet I never developed a phobia of hospitals, doctors, or nurses. In fact, when I went into the hospital I usually displayed an unusual calm, where I would sit and simply read, while my father would be the one to pace and leave for cigarettes.

You see fear is often based on the unknown and the abstract. For most people death is an abstract concept. To someone like me, it was like being afraid of my morning coffee. I just got to a point where I was like, "Well yes I could die. I get it. Now can we go sailing and at least have a nice day before it happens?" Aliens were abstract, death was not.

And beyond that, when you grow up as sick as I did, there are days you long for it, days you pine for it, because it is the only way you can conceive of the pain stopping. You lie in a bed pumped full of darvoset and valium and all it does is keep you from screaming and you think "Just let it stop. I don't care what I have to do. Just let it stop." And even if it does stop, there is always going to be the next treatment and the next surgery and the next emergency. But eventually it does stop. And you figure, well might as well have one more dance class before the end. Might as well play the music while Titanic goes down.

But then years go by and you discover you are the unsinkable Molly Brown and you aren't afraid of death and you aren't afraid of pain, but you are afraid to cry in public, you afraid of not being funny and entertaining.

Maybe I should go back to being afraid of aliens.

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