For a few years in college, I was afraid of being pranked. The very specific phobia stacked on top of the ever-present paranoia about spiked drinks and sexual assault instilled by school officials during orientation. They had planted the seed, handed us rape whistles, and encouraged us to walk around campus vigilantly aware of our classmates’ malicious intent.
I watched some guys I knew play cruel practical jokes on each other. It was dumb stuff that involved intoxication and the internet and ruined their chances of ever holding public office. I felt sympathetic to the victims of this shortsighted stupidity, and I imagined how mortified I would be to become their next target. The thought made me feel out of control and eroded my already-shaky trust in the people around me.
Even after I learned to keep my distance from the mean-spirited posse of pranksters, the possibility of being violently, publicly humiliated still felt clear and present. Fear had taken root, and it followed me to class, parties, dates, and my first job. I looked at everyone with a side-eye even when no danger existed. A voice taunted from the cheap seats of my brain, This is all an elaborate ploy. You will be humiliated at any moment. I couldn’t relax. I second-guessed every interaction, questioning the intentions of new friends and romantic interests. I replayed every moment of my life, looking for clues to solve a mystery that didn’t exist.
When I tried to explain to myself that I almost certainly was not on my own version of The Truman Show, my paranoia reminded me that that’s just what they WANTED me to think. I worked fear through my brain like a third base coach gnawing on a wad of Big League Chew. Under the pressure of mental mastication, it shifted shape and took on a thousand new forms that evaded rationalization and neutralization. Each time I thought I talked myself to safety, fear found a new inroad to send anxious shockwaves through me: Okay, pranks aren’t real, but everyone definitely still hates you. You’re a terrible person. Waitresses spit in your food.
I got stuck.
Mentally and physically exhausted from running on the fear treadmill and keeping my guard up against everything and everyone all the time, I went back to therapy. This – my third – therapist’s office was a musty attic with embroidered pillows scattered across dirty wall-to-wall carpeting. She had me sit in a chair that was like a beanbag, where I shifted awkwardly and watched dust float in a sunbeam while she explained that the things I was afraid of were irrational. Each time I had a fearful ideation that began with the phrase “what if,” she declared, I was indulging in irrational thought. Her certainty in the matter was exactly like that beanbag chair, soothing at first, but increasingly uncomfortable the longer I sat in it.
I misapplied her advice and tried chastising my next panic attack. “You don’t make sense!” I cried, like the desperate next victim in a horror movie, but it didn’t stop. I berated my anxiety for being illogical, but it kept right on shaking my nerves. Not only did the fear not go away when I understood that it was baseless, now I also felt bad for being afraid in the first place. I wasn’t just scared anymore, now I was stupid too!
I tried to plead my case to the therapist but attempting to speak with conviction and poise was impossible from my prone position in the beanbag. I wasn’t irrational! If anything, she was the irrational one, didn’t she watch the news?
Shootings, sinkholes, snakes
I did my civic duty by keeping up with current events, but in the process of getting my daily dose of news, I came to believe that freaky stuff is constantly happening all around the world. I witnessed one crazy edge-case scenario after another play out on my TV, radio, and social media. Then the Aurora movie theater shooting happened 20 miles from my house. Twelve people lost their lives including a girl who worked at a restaurant where I used to go and linger at the bar until there were no more hours in the day to kill. The massacre and subsequent trial occupied the news cycle for months. We speculated, tried to explain the how and the why, until something new happened and that spectacularly violent, upsetting story gave way to the next one.
Staying informed meant intentionally overdosing on a never-ending supply of other people’s trauma. Before dawn a few months later, I was driving to the airport when the BBC World Service felt the need to tell me that a man was caught trying to cross the border with a duffel bag full of human heads, then threw to my local station for traffic and weather. They casually dumped that horrifying image in my lap and left me to continue my commute. Bastards.
At the airport, the news showed footage of violence in the Middle East. It was 7 am. I drank coffee and a bourbon. The bartender made a joke about my “Elvis breakfast” and I pictured myself dying on a toilet.
Speaking of toilets…
Our bathrooms are supposed to be a refuge, which makes stories about something going wrong in that vulnerable moment especially enticing to the news media, like when a python makes a wrong turn in the sewer and ends up in a toilet bowl. Pay attention to the news long enough and you’ll see a version of this story trotted (or should I say slithered) out again and again. Some poor fool comes home from work and opens the lid to find the bowl wholly occupied by an impossible reptilian invasion. The anchors smirk and share the wild and wacky story, “Local plumber discovers an entirely different kind of snake in this quiet suburban home. Find out what this means for your family, after the break.”
The snake-in-the-toilet trope is one of the fear mongers’ greatest hits. It forces you to reconcile the staggering number of perfectly-timed impossibilities that had to happen. It takes a relatable situation and offers a visceral reason to fear it. It erodes faith in the sanitation department.
After hearing this report of a reptile’s fatefully wrong turn, you approach the toilet with ready trepidation like Indiana Jones, and open the lid with your toe, just in case.
Outlandish news delivered daily by dead-eyed anchors suggests the unfathomable ubiquity of mayhem.
In a clickbait-driven world, it’s easy to believe that crazy stuff happens all the time. So when I got home from the dusty beanbag hellhole that day, I was mad. I wanted to know how exactly my fears were irrational when life felt like a swirling abyss of insanity. What was an irrational fear in an increasingly irrational world? If people can get massacred at the movies and a python can emerge from the plumbing, then I am well within my rights to have my hackles up 24/7.
Under conditions of normalized stress and overstimulation, it doesn’t take much for “irrational” fears to seem very real. For me, sensational stories stacked on top of Stranger Danger and Campus Rape Culture, and I learned to live as if there was a python in the porcelain.
RACCOONS AND REFRAMES
When I am in the thick of a panicky day, I will beg, pray, plead for my anxiety to just go away. But fear can’t go away because I still need it. The fear response helped my ancestors fight or flee from saber-tooth tigers, while my fears were born from a thousand “be carefuls” shouted after me in childhood, traumatic news footage, and the rumination of a restless brain. Somewhere along the way, my sensitivity knob got turned up to 11 and everything became a tiger or a trick or a toilet python.
Indulgence in worst-case scenarios was my misguided attempt to stay safe. I believed that if I could imagine the worst, I could prepare for it. In the process, I scared myself over and over and created mayhem in my mind that I tried to shove to the back corner and ignore. Emboldened by darkness and neglect, fear took on an unreal magnitude and cast a shadow over my whole life. After being shaken daily with panic attacks for years, and working with my fourth and fifth therapists, I understood that my anxieties were not some outside invader to trap and torture, but a part of my mind that I tried to reject. By rejecting my fear, I was rejecting myself. Of course I was stuck.
Something shifted when I took responsibility for creating the toilet python, and recognized that I could also render it an easily flushable earthworm. I just needed to be brave enough to open the lid and look. Approaching my fear with curiosity made it shrink in magnitude and intensity. I learned to leverage invasive thoughts out of my subconscious.
My friend is petrified of raccoons because a feisty little trash panda once leaped out of a trashcan at her. This was one instant, a drop in an ocean, of a whole life of experiences that were otherwise raccoon-free. But the fear became entrenched and when I knew her she would quiver at the mere mention of the r-word. Her toilet python, her vicious prank, was a raccoon in every trashcan. In her mind, every trash panda that scampered from our headlights slavered rabidly with visions of sinking their razor-sharp teeth into her jugular. What if she got bitten? What if she caught rabies and turned into a brain-hungry zombie? What if, what if, what if? Only my distance helped me see the ridiculousness of her fear, but it wasn’t ridiculous to her. She felt it in her bones.
Breaking the habit of being afraid
When our brains fall into the habit of fear, we need gentle leverage – not rationality – to change it. I couldn’t reason my friend out of her trash bandit phobia, just like I couldn’t think my way out of the fear of being pranked, or murdered, or sex trafficked. I couldn’t surgically extract a rotten what-if from my mind, I needed to nudge it ever so slightly until it broke free. So the next time my brain presented me with a what-if, I wiggled it with a reframe.
“What if the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupts and plunges us into volcanic winter? What if we run out of food and have to resort to cannibalism?”
“OR…” I offered in response, “What if I log into my bank account and there’s a million dollars there?” I let my imagination work for me instead of against me. If I was going to be delusional anyway, the least I could do was indulge in some fun, life-affirming delusions. I felt powerful! And I leaned into crafting alternate scenarios to counter the frightening what-ifs.
What if my dog revealed that he was the crown prince of Estonia, living under a witch’s curse?
What if I invited Drake to my birthday party and he showed up with a Bengal tiger on a leash?
What if it started raining glitter?
Eventually the nagging what-iffery began to subside, and the reframes were fun!
I noticed. I accepted. I shifted. I regained control of my inner narrative and re-discovered that my mind was still powerful despite some bad habits. We started playing for the same team again and eventually, I welcomed the what-ifs because they presented an opportunity to respond heartily with a new, more fun YEAH, WHAT IF of my own.
I can accept that the end goal of healing is not to never feel anxious again, but rather to build a solid enough foundation that fear can come and go without ruining my day. Fear made me walk boldly toward what scares me and trust my ability to handle whatever happens. It’s taking time, tons of patience, and lots of little steps toward and through fear. But what happens if I continue to choose faith over fear?
I think the answer to that what-if is freedom.