Fears, Phobias, and Uncomfortable Situations
As some of you may already be aware, I’m facing the reality of having to move house a second time after just having arrived in a new apartment a few weeks ago. The reason that my landlords have given for needing to break the lease is that they’re having allergy issues with my cat (allergies being one of the very few legal reasons that a lease can be broken without any wrong having been done). I have my suspicions about their true motives, but it’s just suspicions at this point, and really not worth discussing in a public place like a blog. Whether their motives are true or not, the reality is that I have an unexpected move on my hands.
Not only is moving house an unpleasant situation (nothing disrupts the comfortable feeling of “home” like putting everything into boxes and carting it off to a new place where it doesn’t fit like it did before), but this move is particularly disturbing to me because it’s not something that I chose or planned. Granted, I’ve been given more than 60 days notice to figure this all out, but it’s still a wrench thrown into the gears of my life, and I’m not (nor have ever been) a fan of surprises. At heart I’m still the same little kid who got home on her 8th birthday to find a surprise party waiting, and ran crying to her room because it was unexpected and unwanted. Even good surprises freak me out to some degree; bad surprises just mess me right up. Call me a control freak if you will, but I like knowing what to expect from any given situation.
That having been said, I am attempting to keep some perspective on the matter. And in the grand scheme of things, an unexpected move is not such a terrifying ordeal. It’s an uncomfortable situation, certainly, but one that still has its defined limits and rules. Despite my impending need to move, I am still the tenant in this space for now: until I find another space, I can still consider this place “home” and expect it to be safe and secure (if not exactly comfortable and well-organized). And by August at the latest (hopefully sooner), I’ll have a new place to call “home” and all of this will be securely behind me. There are still some fears, of course (what if I have trouble finding another place? What if anything happens to disrupt my tenuous financial position? What if the new landlords throw another curveball in my direction and disrupt things even more?), but these fears are only hypothetical situations at this point: Shroedinger’s monsters in the closet, unformed and only half-real until you open the door and see whether they’re actually there or not. Except in fleeting moments of depression, I can put such fears aside to be dealt with only if and when they prove to be reality.
While discussing my impending move with a coworker today, I was asked whether I have a phobia of moving. I don’t — I’m not considering totally irrational options in order to avoid doing it, nor is it inspiring me to panic attacks — but I found it to be a question worth considering. I really, really dislike moving, but I wouldn’t even put it to the category of hate. I don’t think that I fear it, even though I do have fears about some of the associated possibilities. But what makes a thing phobia-worthy? Why is it that I shriek and dive for cover when a pigeon flaps its wings too close to me (damn ornithophobia), and have experienced panic attacks from getting lost on public transit? By the same token, why isn’t this situation totally freaking me right the hell out? It has all the hallmarks of something that should overload my system: an unpleasant surprise, a taking away of my personal space, the potential of financial burdens, and even the unpleasant necessity of going into unknown spaces and meeting unknown people during the process of apartment hunting. It’s a situation where I feel as though I have made a mistake (and I do really, really dislike being wrong), because I’d thought that these new landlords seemed like nice, understanding, friendly people, and now they’re kicking me out, which kinda proves my assessment wrong. All of that should be combining to leave me a physical and emotional wreck, but somehow it seems that after the initial shock had worn off and I’d gotten a good night’s sleep, I was able to accept the idea and deal with it in a perfectly rational manner.
So really, what makes a phobia? What pushes a fear into that next level of intolerability? I suspect that the difference lies in how these fears and phobias are wired into our brains. Phobias, I suspect, are more hard-wired: less rational and more directly connected to the nervous system. When a bird flaps past, I don’t think about and recognize the object of my fear before reacting: I just react (often in a rather extreme manner that my friends and family members find hilarious). I’ve even been known to mistake other flying shapes or flapping objects for birds, only to laugh at myself when I realize my mistake and my heart rate begins to slow down from “utter terror” to “approaching normal”. The reaction is instantaneous, but once the immediacy of the phobic moment has passed, I quickly return to my usual self. Conversely, when an unexpected situation arises, I have time to think about it. In fact, the more I think about such an unexpected situation, the more panicked I’m likely to become about it. But rational thought has the chance to intervene, tempering the reaction and allowing me to maintain some semblance of normalcy (at least for a while — it can eventually get to be overwhelming, leading to things like panicking and needing to get off the bus until I can figure out how to un-lose myself).
I have to admit, I’m curious how all of this fits into a “nature/nurture” model of human brain development. Is my phobia of birds a hard-wired thing, perhaps inborn, or maybe related to an unremembered early childhood experience of birds being terrifying? Conversely, is my dislike of the unexpected a reaction learned from years of hard lessons in unexpected things being unpleasant? Or is it, too, an inborn tendency?
Ah, neuroscience. I’ll have to look this up at a time when it’s not 1:30 in the morning.