Friday, August 22, 2014


Spencer Dryden

I want to be careful with this topic. It's too easy to relay seemingly comical stories that are insensitive to genuine suffering.

Years ago I had a client who always took the stairs when I would see her at the office building where we both worked. She was trim and fit. I always thought she did it for the fitness. Once at a conference, at the host hotel, we were headed up to the same hospitality suite far above the city. She was headed for the stairs, but I persuaded her to ride the elevator with me. She must have been ashamed to tell me of her affliction. The door closed and sure enough, the elevator lurched, then stopped. I though she was going to die right there. The door opened in only moments. We exited, she was hyperventilating. She breathlessly confessed her phobia at the edge of tears. I walked the stairs with her.

My sister-in-law is deathly afraid of flying. It started when a cousin, a flight attendant, switched flights with another attendant as a favor and ended up on a flight that crashed on take off, killing everyone on board.

Occasionally she ramps up her courage and tries to fly, but more than once has freaked out at the gate during boarding. These days when someone freaks out at an airline gate, it brings the bright lights of Homeland Security to add to the pain and humiliation. It's been an expensive and heartbreaking ordeal for her and my brother-in-law.

I thought I would have nothing to contribute of my own to this topic until I pulled the lens a little wider. Phobia's are irrational fears. When I think of the damage and opportunities I missed because of irrational fears, I want to weep.

To begin, I have a deep-seated fear of authority. I blame it on being a Catholic of the early baby boom. We arrived like a tsunami, a crush of new humanity. Institutions were overloaded. Martial law was required. We were trained to be quiet, obedient and to never, never, disturb an adult, especially with questions. Curiosity was crushed with the same grinder that was applied to rebels and misfits. Questions distracted adults from peace keeping duties. "Look it up", or "you should know that" were standard answers even though the recipient couldn't read yet.

In my generation, kids at school were spanked, knuckles rapped, legs whipped with the tassels of the cinch chords on the habits of the priests and nuns. Boys were routinely slapped across the face. Pain and public humiliation delivered by God's ordained people awaited anyone who was out of line. I got the message.

One story from my past is illustrative.

I started grade school in 1956 at a Catholic school that looked like a prison. I still tremble in fear remembering the hallways and classrooms.

My class had 57 students and one teacher. We had the old fashioned desks that were attached to skids. She could push a whole row of students. She was the crabbiest, meanest adult I had encountered in my short life.

Parents brought children to class the first day. I remember trying hard not to cry in front of my dad, but I was so frightened.

We were to go home on the school bus. My fourth-grade sister was to meet me at a designated spot to be sure I got on the right bus. I came out of school at the end of that first day to a sea of kids and a line of busses that extended over the horizon. There were no adults escorting children to busses. My sister didn't show. I timidly asked the first bus driver if his was my bus, holding up my bus pass. He yelled at me that I was supposed to know that. I scrambled back down the stairs, chastised that I had disturbed an adult with a question.

The busses left one by one; my sister was still nowhere to be found. It seemed hopeless until I realized I knew my way home. Sure, I'd be crossing busy streets but I set out with more assurance of success than Columbus, and I wouldn't have to disturb any more adults.

I arrived home to find my sister in hysterics with my mother trying to unravel the mystery of my disappearance. Then suddenly, there I was. We were both in trouble then.

Nearly 55 years later, it's still a source of humorous controversy between my sister and me. Did I go to the wrong spot or did she ditch me? I think she was more traumatized than me. She was in such a katoozle (a family word for a melt down) over losing me that a teacher had to drive her home. We both felt humiliation beyond redemption for failing at such a simple task.

I have millennial children. These days when a child gets lost, it's the adults who get a beat down and not hapless children.

That was just the beginning of a long life of fear and trepidation. All my life I have cowered in front of authority figures, stood by mute  when I've  witnessed injustice, failed to try many things for fear of failure-especially to follow my heart instead of expectations.

If I could trade all that for fear of flying, I believe I would. Although I might end up with a much longer walk home.


  1. Hey, Spencer,

    I'm not Catholic but I have some stories that are very similar to the bus story. Somehow I always ended up feeling guilty, that things were my fault. And I was terrified of simple things like making phone calls. In fact I still hate doing that - though not at the level of a phobia.

    Thanks for an honest and moving post!

  2. I hate hearing my phone ring. There's always someone at the other end who wants something from me. I like texting. I'd love to hear your bus story. Maybe its a generational thing-that our younger contributors haven't experienced. My boys have grown up in such a different world from mine, especially in the way adults and children relate.

    1. Sounds like there is a large generational component. I was going to say I don't back down from authority and never have... but then again, neither did James Dean's characters, so maybe the concept isn't so new after all.

      (My mom's always telling me to keep my mouth shut or I'm going to get myself shot... and that takes some doing, in Canada, but she's probably right.)

    2. James Dean was a character and not a real person, but his rebelliousness resonated with a lot of kids in my generation who didn't have the ability to act it out until later.

      Do you remember East Of Eden? Different story.

  3. I remember Catholic grammar school. Every year, it won;ld be: Is she *nice*? Meaning is the nun courteous, polite and loving? which some of the nuns actually were, when we lived in New Jersey. When the family moved about 3 miles as the crow flies to Pennsylvania, there was a different 'order' of nuns, "Sisters of the Sacred Heart". My first day there, (must have been 1955) I saw a kid get the shit beaten out of him, which I never saw with the Franciscans in Trenton. My parents told me that the kid must have done something awful, but the beatings continued and of course I couldn't tell my parents when it happened to me 'cause they always sided with the nuns. Finally, in 10th grade when I was brought home in an ambulance, they allowed me to go to public school.

    Funny, how they always said that you got a better education in a Catholic school. Yeah, you learned the answers because they beat them into you, but the answers were filtered through a Catholic context and they were often the *wrong* answers. In 10th grade biology, I had one one-hour class on evolution, since they had to teach it for state requirements. How the fuck do you teach biology and ignore evolution?

    Luckily (or not) I took the another route, and challenged authority at every chance I had. Still do.

  4. Shudder. Spencer & Daddy X, I am so glad I never went to Catholic school. I've met so many people of my generation who have, including my Chilean spouse. As she puts it, the nuns who were on her case in elementary school were fresh from the Spanish Inquisition. (They prob. weren't literally that old.) I started public school in 1957. If memory serves me, school never gave me nightmares, even though my academic parents and their friends described it as a broken system staffed by rednecks. (But in elementary school, niceness in teachers counts for a lot more than knowledge, and I was blessed to have some who liked their students.) Despite some praise & encouragement, I remember the general culture in
    those days, when anything that went wrong was officially the child's fault.

  5. One time, in Catholic High school, I, and a few other boys were asked to set up chairs for the mass we had to go to every Friday. My homeroom was just across from the gym. In the meantime, a different homeroom teacher substituted for the one supervising the mass set-up. I'd finished my job in the gym, and came back and sat in my chair. Not long later, a hard slap hit the back of my head, bouncing my forehead against the desktop. Before I could tell him I was across the hall, he hit me again, the same way, this time hard enough to draw blood. I got smart and shut up. Needless to say, the bastard never found out he did what actually happened, and probably still thinks I was late to class. (If the s.o.b. would remember, or is even alive-- or in hell) A couple of years after I was taken out of that school, I had to be talked down several times from going back and kicking some ass. A bunch of them needed a good beating.

  6. Luckily I attended public school and my mother was always champing at the bit to go yell at a teacher who might be mean to me. She'd suffered greatly as a poor child (8th of 10) during the Depression, telling me of how the nuns had beaten her one brother's hand bloody until he learned to write with his right hand, though he did everything else left-handed. She called nuns "black cows" and usually accompanied that with a choice swear word. My dad was an orange-man from Scotland, so he felt he'd married "beneath" himself, since he'd married a Catholic. (FYI, on the Irish flag the orange is for Protestants, the green is for Catholics, and the white stripe between them is "for the peace there'll ne'er be between them.")

    About the only generational thing I can think of is the whole showering in front of your peers thing. My kids are horrified at my memories of having to take nude showers after gym class beginning in 7th grade, and continuing all through high school. You could literally flunk the class if you refused to strip down and get soaking wet, including your hair. The teachers would watch as we got out of the shower room and if you weren't wet enough, they'd march you back there and watch while you immersed yourself. Of course these days that would be considered "kiddie-porn", and "child abuse", so the fixtures in my kids' schools are all rusted out with disuse, except for in the boys' showers in high school where the jocks use them after games. But NO ONE takes showers, let alone nude, soapy ones, in the public schools during gym class anymore.

    It's not a phobia with me as much as for my kids, who've never had to shower before strangers. When we go camping, if we're going to shower in the public bathrooms, my kids are extremely nervous about the idea of anyone watching, where-as when we went to the places where only the spigot was in a private tiny space, I'd strip in seconds flat and jump into the shower, to my daughter's mortification. She'd make me hold a towel in front of her while promising not to peek while she undressed behind it.

    1. Showering around strangers never bothered me.

      Trenton public schools would open the indoor pools to local kids in summer, two days a week for boys, two days for girls. Boys weren't allowed to wear bathing suits, but the girls could. Of course, boys and girls never got together, and the lifeguards were the same sex as the kids. But still...? WTF?

      Actually, that situation probably helped make me comfortable with nudity. It's probably a healthy thing, at least I see it that way.

      I hate wearing clothes unless for warmth. So constricting!

  7. Hi Spence!

    I wouldn't call it a phobia but I have a problem with authority to some extent also. In my case its more of a fear of confrontation. I'm always compromising, trying to get along with dificult people.. I'm not sure this has served me well, I don't think it has but it has become second nature by now. I think everything is adaptation. Maybe in the right context these things can be good.


    1. Garce:
      I've got that too. My solution, avoid people.

  8. Spencer, this is a really great post. I love that you started with showing how phobias impact people's lives and then segued into your own story. My mother has a pretty amazing bus story that's similar to yours. I don't have a bus story because I never took a school bus. When I was young my school was far from where I lived and my mother drove me, and later I was just inside the range the bus would travel and I walked to and from school. I agree with you that there's been a societal shift from blaming kids for being away from where they're supposed to be to blaming adults.