About two years ago I developed a phobia. I’d never had one before, so it took me a little while to realize what it was. At first I thought it was just another expression of rampant pointless anxiety, but this was an overwhelming, uncontrollable fear that took over my body and mind and embarrassed the hell out of me. This was one of those things that had a medical name: cynophobia.
A phobia has always been sort of a ridiculous concept to me. How could someone be so scared of something that they’d be unable to control it? When I was a child I felt invincible. I climbed trees, threw myself off high dives, hid in small dark places, rode horses, sang in public, befriended the most popular kids in school, never turned down a dare. I experienced flashes of fear, but the amazing people on tv, movies, and in the books I read did these things and so I did them too, and the fear always evaporated.
When I was nine, I was playing with some friends when we came upon one of the neighborhood dogs taking a nap in the shade of a car. I had a pack of grape Bubbalicious and unwrapped a piece and offered it to the german shepherd who lifted his head as I knelt down beside him. The next thing I remember was waking up in a mud puddle, except that I hadn’t been asleep, I’d passed out, and the mud puddle wasn’t mud, it was blood that had come out of the holes in my face the dog had made as he’d drug me around.
Three decades later, I still have the physical scars, but had never even imagined that there were emotional ones until a couple of years ago. For three decades I hadn’t felt any fear around dogs unless they were aggressive and coming at me in which case I’d just get out of their way.
Some of my holistic work involved going into client’s homes, helping them set things up according to the theories of feng shui to bring about balance and facilitate change. On this particular consultation, the client was a lovely woman whose husband had died the month before of a heart attack, so heightened emotion was already part of the picture. When I got to her house and she opened the door, I saw that she had two huge german shepherds and felt a little nervous.
"Are they okay?" I asked her.
"Oh, sure," she said. "A couple of sweeties."
"Are you sure?" I asked again. "They don’t bite?"
"Oh, no. They’re nine years old and never even nibbled anyone."
I came in, put my things down and we chatted for a minute. I still felt uneasy around the dogs and the client noticed so she went into the kitchen and came back with some dog biscuits.
"Give them one of these and they’ll love you forever," she said with a laugh.
I knelt down to give offer the big furry guy a treat, but instead of taking the biscuit he leaned his head in close to mine. I thought he was going to sniff me, much like my cats do, and so I closed my eyes, to allow him to do it without me looking into his eyes which I knew was confrontational to a dog. But instead of sniffing me, he quite calmly bit me in the face, right between my eyes.
It took me a moment to realize what had happened. Wetness was rolling down my nose and as I reached up to touch it I saw that it was blood. The client was standing there smiling, not comprehending.
"He bit me," I said.
"What?" she asked, puzzled.
"He bit me," I said again.
"No, he didn’t," she said.
"He did," I said and held my hand out to her which was covered in the blood I had just wiped from my face.
She just couldn’t grasp it. I left her standing there looking at the dog, while I went into the bathroom and washed the blood off to see that it was a small wound, but a bleeder that wouldn’t stop. The client came to help and she kept offering to take me to an emergency room. I could tell she was nervous. She’d worked in the corporate environment for years and I’m sure the word LITIGATION was screaming in her head. I reassured her that there was nothing that needed to be done other than ice and antibacterial salve. She brought them to me and in a bit the bleeding stopped. The shaking, however, was getting worse. Then came the hyperventilating.
One of the things that I always prided myself on was my professionalism. It didn’t matter if I had just been through a terrible break-up – I could get up in front of a group of a hundred people and give a talk on joy and stress management. It didn’t matter if I was so depressed that I could barely get out of bed – I could go teach a workshop on finding the love within. I never considered this to be hypocritical, just part of the work that I did, and part of the sludge of being human. On this particular day, though, I just could not hold it together. I started crying and could not stop.
The client, a veteran workshop facilitator and a downright emotionally evolved chick, entered into this next part with me with humor and courage and heart. As I cried and hyperventilated and held onto her, I began speaking a stream of consciousness monologue. It began with the tale of the first dog bite, how I had tried to be sweet and nurturing and hook him up with bubble gum, and how in return he had tried to tear my face off my head and had left me scarred for life. Then I began talking about the men I’d been with in my life, about how I had tried to be sweet and nurturing to them, and how they had tried to rip my heart out of my body and had left me scarred for life. I talked about how I never knew that men could be so awful when they seemed so sweet, when they claimed to love me and want to care for me.
"Man and Beast," I kept repeating. "Why didn’t anyone ever protect me or teach me how to protect myself from The Beast?"
And the client told me a story:
Once there was a lovely Frog. She lived in a beautiful river and played in the sun and ate yummy wiggly things and swam and dreamed sweet froggy dreams. One day, a Scorpion came to the bank of the river, and seeing that he could not cross, he called the Frog over to him.
"Please, Sweet Froggy, will you carry me across the river on your back?" he asked.
"Oh, no," she answered. "You are a Scorpion and would surely sting me and I would die."
"Please, Sweet Froggy," he pleaded. "I give you my word. I will not sting you. I mean you no harm. I must get across this river and you are my only hope."
"Okay, I will take you," she answered, and on her back the Scorpion climbed.
Halfway across the river he turned his tail to her and stung her.
"You gave me your word! Now we will both die," she cried. "Why did you sting me?"
He shrugged his little Scorpion shoulders and sadly said, "I’m a Scorpion. It’s what I do . . ."
I sat with the client and we talked for about an hour – about men and beasts, about her husband, my ex-boyfriends - before I left and we rescheduled the feng shui consult for another day.
And ever since that day I have been absolutely terrified of dogs. It doesn’t matter if they are teacup poodles or sweet lickaholic retrievers, when I see them I lose my mind. The waves of fear are so intense that I can think of nothing other than getting away. I hide behind furniture, other people, trees, all the while trying hard not to pass out or burst into tears.
I’ve made some inroads with it the past six months and am able to go in and out of consciousness, or at least set things up so that they are better for me. Before entering people’s homes I ask if they will put their dogs out or shut them up elsewhere. If I’m out walking and I see someone with their dog I holler that I have a serious phobia around dogs and would they please hold on to their dog very tightly while I walk by. I let the people with me know a bit of what is going on for me so that they can help me a little. And occasionally I breathe and pet a dog, let it lick my hand once or twice before I go racing off behind a chair.
I grew up with dogs. I adore them. And I know that at some point I will have to yet again face the fear of them, let them back into my life. I know also, that there is fierce metaphor going on, and that eventually I will have to face my fear of the Beast that lives in Man, let him back into my life.
But for now, I run around and hide behind the furniture, waiting until the time I am absolutely sure that I have either the wisdom to get out of the way before the Beast strikes or if the Beast goes to bite me, the courage to punch him in the nose :)