Coming to terms with phobias

PHOTO: Coming to terms with phobias

SINGAPORE - My older daughter dreads the wet season and it's not because it keeps her indoors.

She knows that the cold spell from the rain quite often attracts moths into our house at night.

Occasionally, we have to put up with rain flies which swarm around our lights.

When it gets really bad, we lure the flies out by switching off all our lights and opening our windows and the main door. The lights in the common corridor become their refuge.

To me, these insects are a nuisance, albeit harmless. However, they strike terror in Yanrong, who has an abject fear of flying pests, including cockroaches. I don't know at what age she developed this phobia, but I recall she was no more than three when she fled screaming after a fly had buzzed around her face at Tiong Bahru wet market.

Today, even a single bug entering her room is enough to send her running out.

Once, when she had not got home from school at the usual time, my wife went out to the balcony to have a look-see. To her astonishment, she saw Yanrong peering up plaintively from the foot of the block. On seeing her mum, she beckoned frantically.

Apparently, Yanrong had been pacing back and forth downstairs as she could not bring herself to tiptoe around some cockroaches to get to the lift.

They had crawled out dying, following a fogging of the rubbish chutes that morning.

Yanbei, my younger daughter, does not like insects either, but she isn't as squeamish.

Conventional wisdom has it that phobias are learnt traits and not inborn. However, for the life of me, I couldn't recall how Yanrong came to fear bugs to such a degree.

I have exposed my daughters to the great outdoors from a young age, taking them to playgrounds, parks and gardens. I have also taken them to Butterfly Park in Cameron Highlands, which the girls enjoyed visiting.

If anyone is wondering, I'd like to state that I am not terrified of insects.

Neither is my wife, whom the children think is braver than me when it comes to the creepy crawlies. It is to her mother Yanrong runs to when she wants to get rid of an offending insect.

The only pest which I have a deep loathing for is the rodent, the consequence of being bitten by a mouse when I was about five years old. In my case, my phobia is borne out of trauma.

It isn't conclusive, though, that phobias stem from learnt behaviour.

There is an emerging school of thought which postulates that humans are genetically predisposed to fear or loathe certain creatures - spiders and rodents - or situations such as acrophobia or the fear of heights.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of heights.

I'm afraid Yanrong shares my phobia. It wasn't always the case. When she was about five, she would gamely accompany me on heart-stopping water rides which even I had trouble with in bottling my fears.

However, as she grew older, she learnt to fear heights, as well as any stomach-inducing motion, such as riding the roller coaster.

She confessed to being petrified whenever she was asked to participate in high-element challenges during school camps.

I have looked up the Internet to find ways and means to help overcome her phobias. A common advice is to use logic.

I have tried variants of "the moth doesn't bite" and "the instructor is there to make sure you don't fall" arguments to no avail. I have not had much success either with other suggestions, such as gradually exposing Yanrong to fear and getting her to relax.

Yanrong has no desire to confront her fears, unlike me.

In secondary school, I joined the Boy Scouts, hoping to build up my courage by participating in the many derring-do activities which I had been told about.

I succeeded to a certain extent. By the time I was promoted to the rank of Patrol Leader, I could climb trees and rocks, abseil, jump safely off a 4m ledge and execute a dead man's crawl.

However, there was one fear I could not overcome. Where I grew up, there was a river which had a giant water pipe - the kind which runs between Johor and Singapore alongside the Causeway - spanning one embankment to the other. Back then, it was common for people to treat it as a makeshift bridge, as it offered a short cut across the river.

Try as I might, I could never bring myself to negotiate the narrow path on top of the pipe with the river flowing lazily below, despite knowing that hundreds of people were using the crossing daily.

Some fears are just insurmountable.

I don't know if Yanrong can grow out of her fears, but I'm certain that she and I will never set foot on scenic but perilous tourist spots, such as Shentang Valley in China, where every step is, as the locals describe it, soul-destroying.

dennis@sph.com.sg


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