Monday, March 10, 2014

Afghan Girls, Bob Ross, and Will Carleton

As I've written before, I have severe musophobia. It's not like I just have an over-active startle reflex or something. It's a severe psychological disorder. When I see a snake or a spider or something similarly creepy crawly, sure, I jump. I might even shout out a breathy, "Ugh!" But once I realize what it is, a relatively harmless creature, my breathing slows down, my heart stops racing, and I can go about my day as normal.

When I see a mouse, I freak the fuck out. My heart pounds in my chest. My throat starts to close. I'm choking. It feels like someone is shoving the rodent down my throat. I'm sobbing. My body wants to flee but my feet are stuck in my neurotic muck. Even though rationally I know a mouse, like a snake, or a spider, is a relatively harmless creature, my breathing does not slow down, my heart does not stop racing, and I can't go about my day as normal. It's not a panic attack. It's a panic bombardment. I'm not the same for days. I'm still extra twitchy weeks later.

I've traced my musophobia to a traumatic incident that happened when I was a kid. I was at an age where most kids could have been left home alone, no problem, but I was uber-sensitive and anxiety prone. I remember, even as a preschooler, my mom's nickname for me was "My Little Worry Wort". I hated to be alone in the house after school, but I was too old for a babysitter and my sister Jenny was off with her boyfriend or at work and didn't have time for me. So I'd get home from school and lock the door and sit on the couch and eat a bag of chips and watch "Scooby Doo" and "Tom and Jerry" and After School Specials and wait for my parents to get home from work, one eye always on the clock. If they were more than five minutes late, I'd begin to imagine they'd been in a car wreck and were dead on the side of the road. A minute later I'd hear the sound of the electric garage door opener and finally I could breathe again.

One afternoon I was home alone when I heard a loud, "Snap!" I immediately knew what it was. The mouse trap behind our TV. We lived in a house that was infested with mice. We had mouse traps all over the house. I once saw a mouse in my bedroom closet. My brother Pat and sister Kitty once found a mouse that had gotten trapped inside a popcorn bowl on our kitchen counter. They heard a funny noise and went into the kitchen to see popcorn flying out of the bowl as the desperate mouse tried to climb up the sides.

I'd see dead, frozen mice in my dog's water bowl outside. We had them in the vent that went from our clothes dryer to the outside and from there they would drop into my dog's water bowl and drown. I don't know why no one ever thought to move the bowl so we wouldn't have to break the ice into chunks and fish out the dead frozen mice.

Inside our house, the traps would snap and Dad would go get the poor dead mouse, carrying it by its tail, and flush it down the toilet. I was always paranoid a zombieified mouse would come crawling back up the toilet and bite me on the ass. I never thought to ask why he didn't throw them in the trash or whatever else it is people do with dead mice they find. It never occurred to me that flushing dead mice down the toilet was in any way odd.

That's how it is when you're a kid. Your family is all you know. You don't know that your family's ways are any more peculiar than other family's ways until you get older and make friends and get introduced to foreign ideas, like pest exterminators.

That one afternoon when I was at home alone and I heard the mouse trap go "Snap!" behind the TV, I sat frozen in my chair for a long time. I didn't know what to do. I could hear the poor mouse squeaking. It was an awful, dying sound. At this point in my life, I was creeped out by mice, but they didn't yet induce a full-onslaught of panic bombardment until after this particular afternoon.

I wanted the mouse to stop making that sound but I didn't want it to die. I didn't want it to be in the trap, but I didn't want it to be in my home. I didn't know what to do. I felt like I was the one trapped.

I got up to investigate. I poked my head around the console TV and saw the hugely pregnant mama mouse. I looked away and grabbed my neck, choking, strangled, just like that mama mouse with her neck caught in the trap.

We finally moved out of that house when I was twelve. Within a few weeks of living at our new place, I thought I saw a mouse run across the living room floor. My parents didn't see it, but I swear I did. I also understand it could very well have been a hallucination. The brain is odd that way, the difficulty it has deciphering reality when it gets over-taxed by anxiety.

I spent the summer locked inside my bedroom during the day when my parents were at work. I wouldn't even leave my room to use the bathroom. I told my mom it was my fear of the mouse I saw, but I also understand it could very well have been my fear of being alone.

We moved again at the end of the summer and got a cat. No more mice. Thank God. But my parent's marriage was worse than ever, and the more I learned about the world the more I argued with my dad, and I had mad crushes on people at school who ignored me, so the mice-free living was nice and all, but I was still an emotional basketcase.

Time really is a powerful salve. Once I moved out of the house and got away from my parent's bad marriage, I began "working on myself." I actually began working on my self when I still lived at home, when I was 17. I remember because I called a psychotherapist on my own, without my parent's knowledge, like a teenage girl going to Planned Parenthood for birth control pills, and I went to the appointment and the shrink saw on my chart how young I was and said, "Wow, I'm impressed with your independence. It takes a lot of guts to try to get help for yourself when you're only 17."

It didn't work out with the shrink. I hadn't factored into the equation that I'd have to pay for my appointments, and on my part-time salary at Pier 1 Imports, I simply couldn't afford to continue going to therapy. But this particular therapist did end up helping me, even though I had to cut our relationship off early. He's the person who recommended that I read Dr. Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Anger, which has had a profound impact on my life.

He was also the first person to compliment me on my independence. The baby of the family, scared to be home alone, I had always thought of myself as being an overly-dependent person. It was helpful to step back and look at myself through the eyes of a neutral third party. I've long since learned that there is a remarkable difference between how I feel on the inside and how I appear to others. My friends are always surprised to hear how insecure and introverted I think I am.

"That's crazy! You act so confident and gregarious!" they say.

I think people confuse "independent" with "confident and gregarious". Since I moved out of my parent's house, I've followed my own path and discovered that speaking my mind instead of holding by thoughts inside is therapeutic. So although confidence and gregariousness don't come to me naturally, I've learned that holding back is much more detrimental to my mental health.

People who don't agree with my thoughts and opinions might think of me as a "mouthy bitch" but I prefer to listen to my friends who think I'm confident and gregarious, even though all of them are wrong and I'm really just a person on a journey of her own.

In my early adulthood I lived with a few lovers, but by the time I was twenty-three I had had it with them. I moved into my own studio apartment and spent the next decade living alone. At first I was scared. I slept with the lights on for a week. But eventually I discovered I loved it. It was a luxury to have so much quiet, alone time to piece together my thoughts and write and read and do things on my time, beholden to no one.

Beholden to no one but my cat Zach. Zach was born on August 26, 1986, the same week I started high school. When I moved out of my parents' house (some might say got kicked out of my parent's house, but is it really being kicked out if you mom stands there and gives you half their stuff and makes sure you have enough money to get by and has this look on her face like oh honey, I'm so sorry, maybe this is a mistake and you should just stay) I brought Zach along with me and he remained my sidekick for fourteen long years. He sat in my lap and helped me feel warm and secure. The mice were gone. My parent's ended up getting divorced and my mom was out on her own and "working on herself" and finding her own independence. Things were getting better.

I got on Zoloft for my depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, I worked with various therapists on my issues surrounding the early childhood sexual abuse and other traumatic events I experienced as a child. I read tons of self-help books. I discovered a way to finally get over my 35+ year eating disorder. This "working on myself" had turned out to be so good for me. I have overcome so much.

And yet I've never gotten over my musophobia.

I'm forty-three now, living with my amazing husband and our fantastic kid, our two dogs and our cat. I'm still terrified of mice, but I'm getting better. Naming it and sharing my feelings about my phobia help me navigate the anxiety better.

It also helps to have a plan. Because mice happen. Rodents have lived around humans since the Agricultural Revolution. I can't flee from them entirely, in reality, but I can prepare my brain to go to a "happy place" when I do encounter them. Kinda like how Will wore his Bob Ross T-shirt during my labor with Katie so I'd have something to focus on and go to "my happy trees place". Something to focus on to get outside of my head long enough to calm down.

Turns out my "happy place" is in Afghanistan.

About two years ago I saw a mouse in our house and I had to call in sick because I couldn't come down from my panic attack. This time was different. When I saw a mouse in our basement the other day, I managed to talk myself through the panic attack and make it to work on time.

Sure, I ran screaming up the stairs. I started crying and breathing too fast and my throat started to feel tight. But I ran straight to the medicine cabinet, grabbed my bottle of clonazepam, took a pill, and went into the living room and sat in my comfy chair. I self-soothed by rubbing my hands together and focused on my breathing. And then something inside me pointed my thoughts to the Afghan girls.

The day before, Katie and I had watched a fascinating documentary about two girls who live in Afghanistan, one in a rural area and one in the city. Both girls had hard lives compared to our lives. I couldn't stop thinking about them after I saw the mouse in our basement. For some reason, their struggles gave me confidence that I could overcome my struggles.

At first I berated myself inside my head. "Oh Jesus Christ, Becky! It's just a mouse. It's not going to hurt you. Think of those Afghan girls and how much harder their lives are than yours. What would those girls do if they saw a mouse? This is a first world problem. Get over yourself!"

But the more I thought about them, the less I beat myself up inside. "Struggles are struggles, no matter how well off or poor you are. No matter what government is in control of the area where you live. No matter what anyone else around you says. Your struggles are your own, and yet they are also universal. We all struggle. All of us. We can help each other overcome our struggles.

I sat in my comfy chair and rubbed my hands together and took deep breaths and I thought about these girls in Afghanistan and their struggles and I thought about myself and my struggles and the clonazepam kicked in and I got over it. Within an hour I was up, getting ready for work, and going about my day as normal.

I still haven't been back into the basement yet. While those Afghan girls are hanging up their laundry to dry, I can rely on my husband to do the family's laundry until I feel safe enough to enter the basement again. My shrink was right. I am independent. I have overcome so much by "working on myself" and yet I am human and I must rely on others for support when I need it. Afghan girls, Bob Ross, and Will Carleton. My happy places.