When I walk out of my house each morning, I see a tree. It’s directly in front of my door. It is a garden variety tree. Can’t tell you the species. I don’t know if it’s an oak or a redwood or whatever. It’s just a tree. Here’s a picture.
So I’ve been living here almost a year. Guess I must have walked past this tree a few hundred times since then. I pay it no mind.
Until two weeks ago. When disaster struck.
I’m coming home from the daily grind and I decide to do a pre-dinner brisk walk workout. I pack Tog into the jogging stroller and head around the block. I’m getting a nice little speed going, feeling the burn. Yeah. I go about a mile around.
I round the corner to my street. As I get closer to the house, I’m trying to decide if I’m gonna go past the house and bust out another half mile. Can’t decide. I’m feeling a little winded. But also motivated to keep going.
As I’m coming up to my house, trying to decide whether to go inside or keep going, I see the tree in front of my house.
And something on that tree freezes me in my tracks. And my mouth drops in horror.
[I’m feeling itchy and twitchy as I write this. I hope you’re happy Dr. Gordon]
Suddenly, my knees felt weak. My throat tightened up and I couldn’t breathe. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was revulsion, fear and dread–all in one heavy knot. I quickly turned to the house, grabbed Tog out of the stroller, ran up the stairs and slammed the door behind me.
I put Tog in her high chair, turned on the television and then collapsed on the sofa, my heart still pounding, my throat still tight.
I closed my eyes and tried to forget what I saw on the tree. But I couldn’t. No matter what kind of calming techniques I used, I just kept seeing It. It. It. Over and over, flashing in my mind, like a scene from a horror movie that keeps you all night.
I went to the front door–though I didn’t want to. I looked outside. It was still there on the tree. I moaned and collapsed back on the sofa, my hand over my eyes.
For the next hour–or more, I couldn’t think about anything but what I saw on that tree. I was completely incapacitated. And I thought of nothing else.
I felt twitchy and itchy and scratchy. I felt weak and just off.
So, of course you want to know what it was. A snake. A huge cockroach. An alien.
It was none of those things.
It was a crop of mushrooms growing in a cluster. All the rain and moist weather we’ve had over the past few weeks have caused some shelf fungus to grow out of the tree.
Here’s a picture of it.
I’m putting myself out there today. Exposing myself to all the world as the mentally ill crazy weird freak that I am. But that shit right there creeps. me. out.
Something about the way that stuff looks makes me want to run to my mom’s house and jump into bed with her and pull the covers over my head.
And once I saw it that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! And every time I did, I shuddered.
I would leave the house for work, keeping my head down to avoid seeing the tree. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. It’s kind of hard to avoid a tree right in front of your house.
Sometimes, I would feel compelled to look at the tree–even though I didn’t want to! And I’d be grossed out all over again.
It was bad.
And then, I felt embarrassed. Cause how do you tell someone, hey. I’m sorta freaked out by some fungus growing on a tree. And I can’t breathe. Can you help me?
[Taking a break from writing to shudder. Scratch my hair and take a deep breath]
Okay. I’m back.
This is not the first time this has happened to me.
Back in ’99, I was working at Billboard. My cubicle mate Dylan had this black velvet coat she wore in the winter. It was crushed velvet and had a circular pattern.
I did not like this coat.
Every time she wore it, I got the heebie jeebies. Even after she would take it off and hang it up out of sight, I would still think about the weird pattern of the coat and it would completely freak me out. I actually told her about it. And she tried to get me to explain why I didn’t like it.
“It’s just a coat, Aliya,” she’d say.
“But it makes me feel weird.”
“What kind of weird?”
“I don’t know. It makes me think I’m gonna have a crushed velvet pattern on my skin.”
[Taking another break to take a deep breath.]
Okay. I’m back.
Dylan dubbed this disorder Velvet Skin. I was afraid of velvet, she decided. She stopped wearing the coat to work just for me.
And that was that.
Until I went on a press trip to Aruba and found myself on a submarine exploring marine life.
“And if you look to the left,” said our tour guide, “You’ll see some lovely brain coral.”
I looked to the left.
And I almost passed out.
Here’s what I saw.
I took one look at this stuff and I felt like I was hit by a two by four. My skin was itching from scalp to toes. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I just wanted out of that boat and onto a plane and back home immediately. For the rest of the trip, I was a mess. And I didn’t say anything to anyone. What was I supposed to say? Hey, I just saw some brain coral and the way it looked just made me want to jump off a cliff. Can you help me?
I called my husband and explained. He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about but he was as comforting as he could be from hundreds of miles away. I remember being in a taxi, coming home from the airport. And all I could think about was that effing brain coral. I came inside the apartment, crawled in bed next to my husband and bawled.
That’s how freaked I was.
I was out of sorts for a few weeks and then it faded away.
A year later, I’m in the bathroom, minding my business brushing my teeth. A drop of water hits the sink from above my head. I look up.
And boom. I’m hit with an image that make me want to run screaming into the hills.
This time, it’s just a collection of bubbles. There was a leak from the apartment above. But we’d painted our bathroom with several coats of paint so the water was just collecting in bubbles and the bubbles were filling up with water.
Somehow, this pattern of puckered up paint bubbles got my throat tight again.
Again, I was a mess. And even when I wasn’t in the bathroom, I kept thinking about that image. It stayed with me for a while. And then faded.
And now, years later.
I’ve been in and out of garden-variety therapy for years. Not for specific issues but just general stuff. Managing work life and home. Mommy issues. The normal stuff.
So I met with my regular therapist and told her about the tree. She was stumped. [Ha. Get it? Stumped.]
She sent me to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who specializes in OCD.
I feared it might be OCD. But I wasn’t sure. I started Googling.
And guess what?
I ain’t the only one.
I found communities of people online who get freaked about the same sorts of things: repetitive patterns, certain mushrooms and fungus, anything that’s in a cluster form.
There is a name: trypophobia. [Update: A better term would be Repetitive Pattern Phobia] It’s not listed on any official lists of phobias. And I don’t think much research has been done in the area.
But it was comforting to read other people say they saw certain images and just sort of freaked out.
Dr. Gordon, the behavioral therapist I met with, is an OCD expert. And after a very long consultation, he gave me the verdict:
I don’t have OCD.
“There’s just a tiny glitch in your brain that processes certain images in a different way,” he said. “It might be evolutionary. There was a time when we would have to avoid things like mushrooms on a tree or certain plant life.”
“So now what?” I asked.
“Now, you work on getting over it.”
I’m supposed to just let the thoughts come and not try to fight them even if they freak me out. I’m supposed to spend 15 minutes each day visualizing that gross cluster of fungus on that tree and just really confront it and think about it. The more I do this. The more it’s supposed to help.
This weekend, I did one better. I sat down next to the tree. Peered at the cluster of fungus. Something about the pattern of squiggly lines literally made me feel nauseated. But I sat there and looked.
Then I plucked one mushroom off. And then another.
I brought them inside and showed my husband.
‘Wow. Good for you,” he said.
Sidebar: I’d like to state in this public forum that TH is the bomb. He’s got a wife with a super weird phobia. Plum crazy if you ask me. And he has been such a trooper. He will park far from the tree if I ask him to. He will let me tell him exactly how gross it is over and over if I need to. And he just gets it. Even though I know he doesn’t quite get it. Shout out to supportive husbands.
Okay. So I bring the mushrooms in. They’re on a paper towel on the table.
And they don’t bother me as much.
Not at all actually.
It’s only when they’re all packed together, making weird designs on that tree, looking like they’re gonna spread over the whole world, that I get freaked.
I saw Dr. Gordon yesterday. I brought my mushrooms in a Ziploc bag. He was very proud of me. He made me sit there with my eyes closed and visualize the clusters of fungus on that tree and just give in to feeling itchy, weird and uncomfortable.
When we were done, he told me the next step was to take a picture of the tree and put it up in my house. Look at it all the time and begin to desensitize. The next step after that he said, is to share the issue with people I know and trust.
See there’s three things at work with this weird phobia:
1. The phobia itself. I see the image and I freak.
2. The recurring thoughts. Even when I don’t see the image, my mind conjures it up for me.
3. Shame. It’s such an embarrassing thing for me! It’s hard to explain. It’s super rare. There’s not a lot of research. And it just doesn’t seem to make much sense. I want to talk about it. But I can’t. ‘Cause. Well ’cause I don’t want people to think I’m a loon.
Dr. Gordon says that exposing myself to the images repeatedly will help with the first two issues. As for the issue of shame–I need to talk about it.
As soon as he said that, I knew what I would be blogging about today.
I’m gonna conquer this weird thing head on.
And I’m going way out of my comfort zone by sharing this weird phobia with the Internets.
Dr. Gordon, I hope you’re happy. I did it. I’ll see you next week.
Do you have any weird phobias? I promise I won’t judge. I have a cousin who freaks out over cotton. And another relative who once threw away a batch of fish sticks because they creeped her out. Is it just my crazy family? Or do you—or anyone you know–have a phobia too?
I’d love to hear from you.