Living with an "Irrational" Phobia

Having an irrational phobia is actually one of the most common forms of disorders on the planet today. With a plethora of items, ideas and beliefs that can cause offence, new phobias are inevitably discovered every year. As much as we'd like to be rid of them, we also find it stressful and upsetting to consider tackling them up close. Speaking from experience, it can also be a topic that is highly embarrassing and anxiety-provoking, especially when you are unable to disclose the full truth behind it.

As someone who has lived with an irrational phobia since the age of three, I am continuing to learn and understand how my phobia evolves and what it means for me in my daily life. Very few people are aware of the ins and outs of the things that cause me discomfort and disgust; in fact, only 1 in 75,000 people experience my phobia. And there are plenty of others out there that also deal with theirs in secrecy, only disclosing to those they truly trust.

How do phobias manifest themselves?

Typically, they can begin at any point in your life and stem from a traumatic or stressful event. While this might seem that every phobia develops from a highly dramatic situation, it is often the contrary. Dependent on a ton of extraneous variables, the simplest of household chores can manifest itself into a phobia. For example, achluophobia (fear of darkness) can originate from one stressful bedtime procedure; it often doesn't take more than that. If the person perceives the event to cause stress or upset, then this is often all that is needed for a phobia to flourish. Even now, I can't pinpoint why I felt stressed when my fear established itself - I just remember that it was a turning point in my life.

Predominantly, a lot of fears do start and develop during infancy/childhood. It's important to note that, as children, we have a very different perspective on the world than we do as adults. Those of you with toddlers or young children at home will understand how the smallest of actions can frustrate and annoy your child; often it's because they don't know how to react to or acknowledge the task they have been asked to do. For a child, this can be considered a stressful event, even if it is over a matter of minutes later. It was during one of these banal tasks where my phobia manifested itself. Establishing such a bizarre phobia from a young age can be rather perplexing for any child; I was aware quite early on that I was different from my peers and I quickly learnt that children have a very limited sense of empathy. You can imagine that disclosing my phobia in my childhood and adolescence might have been very problematic.

What was it like growing up with an irrational phobia?

Whether you're achluophobic, claustrophic, ornithophobic, trypophobic, or have a fear of something else entirely, you'll be more than familiar with the torments you received. As well as experiencing bullying or teasing from others, an irrational phobia carries its own forms of internal anxieties. For example, physically seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing or thinking about the fear can dredge up disgust, sickness, fright and cause you to feel overly aware of your phobia. It can also make you behave in an irrational way; scrubbing at hands, sweating, vomiting, fainting, the list is endless.

For outsiders with no prior knowledge or experience, these behaviours can seem entirely irrational, yet to ourselves they are deemed normal. As my phobia involves a physical item that can be touched, I would often try and disguise my frustration and annoyance if I came into contact with one. Quite quickly, my mind would be filled with coping mechanisms, a plan of action and mental notes to isolate the area of my skin it touched. I know so many will resonate with this. Unsurprisingly, this behaviour is all too common within the irrational phobia community; to those of you fortunate enough not to experience it to this extent, it's probably rather shocking to read.

Inevitably, I had to come face to face with my phobia every single day while I was at school. Shockingly, that's twelve years of having to be up-close with it. I was surrounded by them. In both my Primary and Secondary Schools, I had to be au fait knowing that every single surface, and every single person, had come into contact with them. As I outlined above, I would feel a sense of sickness whenever I encountered them; hopefully, it puts into perspective the reality of living with a phobia like mine.

How did others react to my phobia?

It was a complete mixed bag. Some people vowed to be conscious around me, others didn't let it bother them, while some went out of their way to torment me. I must admit, most of the torment occurred during my school years and I only had one incident in adulthood when someone tested to see if it was real - but no harm came from it.

After realising that I couldn't disclose this to my peers at school, I quickly learnt to keep it quiet. As I grew older, I tried to act disinterested and unbothered while I turned to jelly internally if I came close to one. We all know that teenagers can be horrible - blame it on the hormones because that is the truth; I was also a horrible teenager too - so I knew the repercussions of informing the wrong person at any given time. Fortunately, those I did tell acknowledged it and pushed it to the back of their minds so it was never spread around the playground. I'd suffer to think how I would have reacted if it did, and to me it's the source of nightmares.

Once I ventured into adulthood, and moved away from home, I had to be brutally honest with my boyfriend about the phobia. It's one of the most common things you'll find in any household, and it made me physically sick thinking that it could be found in mine. In order to control and manage my anxiety, I had to ensure they were completely banished from the house. Of course, when guests come over I often can't avoid it, but I have to deal with it in my own way.

What are my coping mechanisms?

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, one of the things I do to cope with it is try to not think about it. It's the worst advice to give anyone, but if you busy your mind then it won't take up space unless you conjure the memories. Other than that, I meticulously wash and scrub my hands, or the area of skin that has been contaminated, ensure I'm always carrying anti-bacterial gel, and I tend to hold my breath when I come across them. Did I mention that I can smell these items too? Anyone who isn't a part of my phobia support group will find it very hard to believe.

When we have visitors at the house, I try not to make it known that I study them quickly to see if they are bringing the contaminant in. If they are, I make no alert or fuss but will wash anything that has been touched several times before I can use it myself. This probably sounds quite excessive, but it puts my mind at ease without upsetting anyone - only my dishwasher and washing machine. One thing the pandemic has given me is the chance to express my interests of being "germ" free; I have been able to keep my distance if I know one is near and use anti-bacterial gel on my hands. So many people have now adopted this mindset that I am able to feel a little more normal with my phobia.

Sometimes something around me will trigger a memory or thought that disgusts me. I must point out, I use the word disgust in a very different sense to the connotation of that sentence; the source of my phobia physically repulses me. When it happens, and more times than none it happens when I'm eating, I have to take deep breaths and try to clear my mind. For me, a world without them would be a blessing.

What have I learnt from living with an irrational phobia?

Believe it or not, phobias often link to other phobias or sensory differences. For example, I truly believe that my phobia has gifted me with a heightened sense of smell. I can smell dust, different rooms have a smell and I can smell other people on second-hand clothing - which is really off-putting for me. I also find it hard to eat in certain rooms within my own house, my parents' house and my grandparents' houses.

Amazingly, I have learnt to cope with my phobia by shielding myself away from it and preventing it from coming into my own home. Being an adult has granted me the freedom to be in control and manage the anxiety I feel. Especially during the COVID pandemic, I have been able to experience a phobia-free anxiety for a short period of time, leaving more room for me to worry about work deadlines and whether I got all the food in my click and collect order.

Unsurprisingly, I have built a wall up about telling people. Whether it's the fear of torments from the playground, or worry that they'll think different of me, I still need to pick and choose who I disclose this information to. While I know the vast majority can react without malice, there will be the odd person who will turn it into a joke.

What happens if someone discloses their irrational phobia to you?

In all honesty, acknowledge their phobia and ask them what you can do. Nine out of ten times, all the person wants to do is lessen the weight of their phobia by telling someone else. Some people might ask you not to talk about it, or tell others, and some might ask you to change. Whatever you feel comfortable in doing should be expressed to them. Set their expectations right from the very beginning. Speaking from the heart, those of us who suffer with such phobias can become a little obsessive about them, as well as ensuring we steer clear from them. It's important to have the communication with whoever has the phobia about what you are and are not comfortable in doing. Although we want to be rid of them, we have lived with our phobias for a while and have coping mechanisms for dealing with them.

If someone does tell you about their phobia, then this can be seen as one of the highest honours; they trust you with their secret. If you're invested in your relationship with that person, then it may be the case that you live and breathe their phobia too - mindful of what their triggers might be and accepting of their coping techniques. Or, you can simply be someone for them to talk to when their anxiety is through the roof.

If anyone else lives with an irrational phobia, then I'd love to hear your stories. I have found a wonderful online community that celebrates and shares their traumas, successes and coping mechanisms. You are not the only one who has this phobia.