I expend an abnormal amount of energy dodging reminders that I am a living, breathing being who houses a vascular system. If I’m curled up in bed at night and accidentally press my hand on my carotid pulse, I have to sit up to prevent myself from gagging. What began as an annoyance has turned exasperating, and I’ve only recently been able to pinpoint how I came to be so affected by such a natural part of myself.
When I was younger, I would hop off the school bus and join my mom on the couch to watch General Hospital. The soap opera is by no means gory or explicit, but any scenes involving surgery or blood or veins would send her into a tailspin. She would lower the volume, grimace for a few moments, and say she “couldn’t make a fist”—a phrase she coined as a child when her best friend would target her with cringe-inducing antics that rendered her muscles weak. I laughed at her then, but I began to adopt a similar reaction to identical triggers as I grew older. Looking back, I have no doubt that my queasy nature was initially born out of mimicry. I idolized my mom, like many elementary school-aged children do, and was hyper-aware of any avenues I could take to be more similar to her.
Since then, my fear of the human body has settled in and made a comfortable home for itself—transforming from something artificial into something very real. I wrestle with a lot of resentment and anger associated with my intense fear, the most salient being the fights it causes with my younger sister.
She’s incredibly smart and knows exactly how to manipulate my weaknesses to get what she wants. Over the summer, we have occasional screaming matches that arise over who gets to fill out the People Magazine puzzle. It’s one of the only crosswords we’re able to complete without looking up any answers, so there’s often a battle over who deserves the ego boost.
If I stand my ground and the conflict escalates, she capitalizes on my fear of getting a paper cut—a nightmare that would require facing my own blood. She jumps up and comes running toward me with the magazine in front of her, swinging it back and forth like a sword. I usually hide behind the kitchen table or jump over the nearest piece of furniture, yelling at her to stop.
While I know this scene seems childish, it’s really a testimony to how exhausting it is to have a paralyzing fear treated flippantly by people you desperately want to feel safe around. After our arguments, I always find myself left with a host of uncomfortable questions relating to the grasp that fear has on my life. How can something as simple as the prospect of a paper cut almost send me over the edge? Am I able to overcome anything that makes me mildly afraid or uncomfortable?
Despite the frustration of having to manage family arguments and ruminate over the difficult questions that arise from it, I’ve also wielded my phobia to corral affection and attention in recent years, which is something I’m not particularly proud of. This shines through in larger social situations, especially when my friends and I get together for dinner. Some evenings, I lean back and pay close attention to the way they interact with each other. Most of them are comfortable with touch, and are always engaged in passionate, unfiltered conversation. While I admire my friends for this, it’s been difficult for me to develop that kind of comfort with physical contact and unfiltered speech. I sometimes feel like I’m on an island that’s a few miles away from the people I love, because there’s simply a gap between their social inclinations and mine.
Since I feel a need to rectify this disparity, I occasionally employ bizarre tactics to gather confirmation that my friends do, in fact, like me. And sometimes, that involves wielding the severity of my fear when it’s appropriate. If someone at the table brings up a horror movie or an injury they’ve once suffered, I tend to interject and make a miniature spectacle out of it. I’ll tell them to stop, tense up, and catch myself furrowing my eyebrows slightly more than normal for dramatic effect. Although my phobia is, of course, real, I often take it a step further because it entertains my friends and draws in a few moments of concern that I don’t know how to ask for or summon otherwise.
Anyone who knows me would likely say I use my vulnerabilities to construct a sweet and tender identity cushion. And although this seems eyebrow-raising, I believe it’s fundamentally human to look for ways to benefit from the things that give you trouble—especially the ones that will always stick with you. I don’t necessarily believe my tendency to use fear as a social crutch is a healthy one, but being aware that it’s something I draw on has been a crucial step in reshaping more constructive, meaningful, and authentic ways to connect with the people I care about.
While I can’t say that I’ve stopped taking the easy road altogether, I can tell I’m making progress. Now, when I’m feeling anxious, uncomfortable, or out of control in social situations, I rein in the negative feelings, take a deep breath, and leap into the pool of conversation. And the best surprise? It turns out there’s enough room in the deep end for everyone, neuroses and all.