It's unusually warm outside one recent day in April. I'm outside on a daily stroll, when all of a sudden, I freeze up.
Right in front of me, is a wasp.
Now granted, it's not a very big wasp compared to most, but it's a wasp nonetheless, and it seems to think my red Felix The Cat t-shirt must be a cherry-flavored new flower, because it's speeding towards me at a breakneck pace.
All at once, my usual demeanor disappears, and I revert to being six years old. I pull my arms inside, under my breasts, clench my teeth, clench both fists, stretch my mouth into a thin, long frown, and I shut my eyes, whimpering.
And as I am standing still, petrified, I have a sea of adults around me also reverting to a kindergarten-first-grade-split. Only nobody else is whimpering in fear of being stung. Instead, the other adult children begin pointing and laughing. As a slightly braver adult walks up and swats the wasp dead, I am scolded in front of everyone as though I just farted in church..... loudly… and on a nun's head.
"Oh honestly, Koriander!!" Says an adult, stamping their feet as my eyes slowly pry open. "You are so much BIGGER than that little old thing over there. Can't you take care of it yourself?" More and more, the chiding continues. "Afraid of a widdle ol' wasp?" Laughs a distant voice. "What would happen if you were all alone? SOMEDAY you'll have to learn to take care of this all by yourself." Chides another. On and on, until finally, I hear a country bumpkin exclaim something my father used to chide me with.
"Dat's a city girl for you. Dey can't handle nothing like a country BAH."
Granted, my father has spent zero percent of his life in the country, so I never understood why he would say that, but I get why the "local yokels" would say that to me amid pointing and laughing. I've met enough "Pappaws" and "Memaws" to know that underneath the sweet sounding "Bless your heart" statement is a bitter sentiment of fear equating to stupidity that they were taught to accept growing up.
Finally, if not the pointing or the laughing is to blame, the resonating teasing of my father from twenty plus years behind me causes me to snap. Taking a deep breath, I yell out "I AM ALLERGIC TO WASPS!!" with the timber of a woman who is very flustered and embarrassed.
Suddenly, the laughter and pointing stops. A cock-eyed glance heads my direction.
"Well EVERYBODY swells up with a wasp sting. What makes YEW so special?"
Again flustered, though now with a chest puffed up with oxygen, I pout and explain. "If I get stung, I will die. I am HIGHLY allergic to wasps, bees and tiger mosquitoes. The last time the latter stung me, I was rushed to the ER and had potato sized welts all over my arm for a month. My throat closed up and I had to be cut out of my favorite t-shirt as they stuck me with an antidote."
The non-believer turns on his heel, chastising me for not carrying an Epi Pen with me at all times, while the other naysayers soften their gazes upon me. I hear a few calming "bless your hearts" again, but no apologies. I am to "have a sense of humor" grin and bear it. I am told I don't deserve the right to be angry at them, nor should I be allowed to be afraid of the insect that could end me with a simple sting. I'm the one who needs to grow up and like the torture. They're allowed to make fun of me. And subsequent jokes are snickered behind my back for all of eternity.
This is how we are taught to handle an episode of phobia-started anxiety. Our parents and grandparents contradict themselves constantly. We are told in one breath that people are different, and it's not okay to make fun of people who aren't like you. But in the next breath when someone different does appear, that same parent or grand will teach us via their own actions that pointing and laughing, along with beating your chest and starting a long-winded story with "When I was YOUR age" and prattling on about the "good" old days, is how you "cure" someone's fear.
Or, the more scientific of the lot teaches us that the best way to cure a person of their fear, is to lock them in a dank room with the thing they are afraid of, stick a camera in their face and turn them into a YouTube sensation as punishment for being afraid.
I'm not sure what angers me more. The fact that this childish behavior is again, contradictory to the adulthood we were all told existed in childhood, or the fact that this unwarranted and unproductive teasing contradicts modern psychology.
Any physician or psychologist worth their $25 co-pay will tell you up front that none of the above is how you treat a phobia, which is a very real anxiety disorder. In some people, their mental health is so badly hindered by a phobia, that medication and in rare cases, surgery ends up being the main ways to treat it once regular therapies prove ineffective. Doctors, whose job it is to treat anxiety, often remind us that the teasing, no matter how funny a person looks when they are in a state of fear, is counter-productive, does not make the anxiety magically go away, and actually helps the patient regress further into an even worse anxiety episode, and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
And yet despite how real they are, we still exist in a society where we are told not only is it alright to chide someone because they have an anxiety, that failing to engage in the teasing and name-calling would render you a "softie" or my favorite, a "no good bleeding heart liberal ruing mah countrah" the latter of which I am always accused of being.
Aside from therapy and medication, education is the only other verbal medicine allowed for the treatment of phobia based anxiety. In my case, I know my Spheksophobia (fear of wasps) stems from two real-life incidents from childhood. The first strike was when I was five. I was bit by a tiger mosquito while checking out my dad's garden, and wound up in the ER. A test was done on me, and the doctor told my mother in front of me that I am allergic to bees, wasps and the thing that stung me. When I asked the doctor what would happen if a bee stung me, she very flatly looked in my direction and without any gentility stated "Well honey, you would die. Period. Want a lolly?"
Five years old by the way, is a very young age to be told about your mortality.
The second strike that created my Spheksophobia came just a few, very short weeks later, after I turned six. My father rented the movie "My Girl" and watched it with me while breaking the news that we were moving away from Indiana and into Virginia Beach, where wasps, bees and tiger mosquitoes were more dominant than the other flying things. Ironically, would you like to know what happened to the little boy played by Macaulay Culkin in the movie 'My Girl'? Spoiler alert, as my doctor told me, he died. Period. I most certainly wanted a lolly after that one. It kept my teeth from gnashing together in a panic.
I have many friends who have different anxieties. Some seem harmless, others stem from real life events like mine. But all are real problems we tend to ignore.
If not for the greater good, then maybe just for the sake of common decency, we should try to behave like the adults we were told existed in childhood, and learn that the more feet stamping, chest beating and name calling we do, the more we are exacerbating an existing phobia much more than we are to help hinder it.
The next time you see someone having a panic attack, lend a helping hand. Lend a hug. A soothing voice to say "it's going to be alright" which is an act that takes less time and uses fewer muscles than pointing, laughing and video blogging does.
Or at least, lend a flyswatter, then pat the individual on the back and wish them the best of luck. Even half of a kind gesture is worth more than a full act of ignorance.
Koriander Bullard is an author, cartoonist and human rights advocate. Keep up with her on Facebook!