Guest: The fabulous therapist, dream analyzer, writer, blogger, and much more: La Belette Rouge
It is the Mission of HAVEN newsletter to provide a safe place to share. Please feel free to share your experiences with phobias and, if relevant, how you moved through them. Those who do will be eligible to win a free, signed copy of THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS. This month we will forgo a live chat and focus on giving you a platform from which to express yourself and some room to breathe. I hope we all learn something. Yrs. Laura
Me and the Otis Company. By Laura Munson
I like to think of myself as a level-headed person. Calm in crisis. Rational in an argument. I can multi-task with fluidity and be proud of the results. I generally go into group problem-solving situations with instant leadership tendencies. I’m happy to sit in the Exit seat. The driver’s seat. Take the lead on the trail on foot or horse. So you might think this incongruent: I can’t stand elevators.
Sure, I spent the good part of an afternoon when I was five in an elevator in the John Hancock Building in Chicago, trying to find my way back to the apartment my family was occupying for the weekend. But it wasn’t like I was stuck, necessarily. I just couldn’t reach the right button. My older brother and sister and I had been to the pool, and on our way back, they exited the elevator, and before I knew it, the doors closed and I was being sucked back down a thin shaft in one of the tallest buildings in the world. I remember thinking, “Uh-oh. This is bad.” So I kept jumping up, and hitting the buttons I could hit, (including STOP ELEVATOR) waiting as the elevator doors opened and shut, opened and shut, opened and shut. I went back up as far as I could reach in fits and starts. And back down again, floor by floor for every failed jump and push. Finally, a teenaged girl entered at one of the stops, asked me if I needed help, I told her “yes, I do,” gave her the floor number, and after peeking under door after door, I finally recognized the emerald green rug, the glass and chrome table, an orange quilted chintz floral sofa, and pacing espadrilles and Gucci loafers. We knocked. My father opened the door, and there were my siblings, sitting on that chintz sofa, slumped over in the we’re in trouble pose. My mother stood, facing them, her face red. She looked up and said, “There you are,” and hugged me, thanking the girl. I remember feeling really badly that my siblings had gotten into trouble. I remember feeling like it was my fault that I hadn’t followed them faster out that elevator door. I remember crying and saying I was sorry.
Elevators never really bothered me though after that. They weren’t necessarily happy places, but I was oblivious to them. They took you places; great places. City places. They were simply transportation.
And then college hit. There was a small elevator in the English department that brought you, sardined with self-important future writer types, (wink) up the ten floors. I got in, one minute perfectly happy to be on my way to learning about Proust, and suddenly went cold, wet, pale and other more high-brow adjectives that one co-ed chose to point out. And I shouted, “Don’t let the doors close,” and pushed past them all, back into the foyer. Either I was allergic to English majors, or I was having a latent reaction to something from my past, because very suddenly, I was claustrophobic. And not just in elevators.
I’d never liked tight places. Had momentary distress on rollercoasters when those metal bars came over your head and locked you in to place. Really didn’t enjoy standing in back-to-back humanity on the spiral staircase in the Statue of Liberty with no way up and no way down unless I screamed “Emergency!” which as a pre-teen, I wasn’t about to do. Or chair lifts which stopped, high above any reasonable jumping-off place, and just swung there, who knew, indefinitely. I’d suffer through situations like that, laugh it off and say, “I was a breech baby. I have an innate sense that I am stuck and that I need to get out. ” But I’d never had it like it hit me that day in college. I must have tried three times to get into that elevator. But even when it opened up empty, I couldn’t get myself into that evil steel chamber. So for four years of college, I walked the ten floors. Said I liked the exercise.
When I spent a year in Italy, it didn’t help that my family lived on the 8th floor. But I wasn’t about to put myself into that cage. The stone steps that climbed around it were just fine by me. And when I delivered flowers from a delivery truck in Boston after college, I was happy to have the doorman call up to the recipient, and tell her that if she wanted her flowers, she’d have to come down and get them herself. I did everything I could to avoid taking crowded buses and subways. I started to become keenly aware of where Exit signs were and ensure that I had a bottle of water with me, because if I was trapped, Lord knows I’d need water. And maybe something minty, like Halls, or Altoids, and maybe some herbal calming pills, and later, maybe some hardcore pharmaceutical tranquilizer like: Lorazepam. Just in case. Ask me if I have a bottle of Lorazepam in my purse. Ask me how many I’ve taken. The answer might not impress you. Think: placebo.
I was ashamed. I’m still ashamed. And I ask myself: just in case of what? It’s not that I’m scared of small places. It’s that I’m scared of myself in small places. I’m scared of the story that I tell myself when I’m in them: that I can’t get out, and I need to get out because if I don’t there’s no fresh air, and I’m going to get hot, and it’ll be hard to breathe, and I’m going to feel faint, and my heart’s going to race, and I’m going to…to…what…die? No. I’m not going to die. So what’s the big deal? What is my problem? For shame.
One night in the early 90s, I was travelling from Chicago to Boston in a freak March snow storm that hit hard. There were 64 airplanes that sat on a runway two miles out from the gates at O’Hare. I was in one of those planes. Not a particularly large plane. They ran out of food and water. I, of course, had water, and truth told, I hoarded it. It was a blizzard and one of the planes, in turning back, had spun out and blocked the runway for the rest of us. We waited there for 12 hours. Over and over I thought, I’ll say I’m having a medical emergency, and they’ll have to let me off. But I instead talked to the people around me, met a charming girl from India who wrote down a bunch of recipes in my journal that I still have. Got to know an older businessman with kids my age who told me great stories about a trip they took to the Galapagos. Comforted an academic who was to be, that night, honored at an awards ceremony at Harvard. This was before cell phones and other glowing screens. People either slept, or read, or talked. When I walked out of that airplane, I felt like I had been cured of ever being claustrophobic again.
And then I moved to Montana. And after 17 years of living in Big Sky country, so open and free to roam in endless terrain, I’ve got it worse than ever. I’ve been to therapy for it. I know how to wrap my mind around it: I’m safe. I’m contained in my body. Nothing can imprison me if I don’t let it. We even took a long look at my breech birth. I know all the mental-ese, and devoutly try the spiritual-ese…and still, I duke it out internally when I’m in the small planes that fly in and out of our valley, and when I am faced with an elevator, I stand there and try, and try again, people looking at me strangely as the doors open and close, open and close…and then I turn around and ask for the stairs. I don’t care how many flights I have to walk up. Sometimes they don’t let me take the stairs. And I have no choice. So I push that button—I am the right height now for all the buttons—wait for the doors to pull open, take a deep breath, and cast myself out to the non-infinite non-sea of that little sturdy box that unfairly I have called fickle instead of faithful, carting people up and down all day long, year after year, with groceries, and heavy equipment, and briefcases full of important deal making moxie. I suspect that one day, I will be thankful for the ride. Old bones, and old lungs and old heart. And then I will know better than to think that there is such a thing as being stuck, or that there really ever is a good way out. Or that there really ever is a place where you are not free.
But for now, no. I’m not going up, but thank you for asking. I’m taking the stairs. And no, I’m not proud of it. Maybe freedom starts in giving yourself a break for who you are and what scares you. Especially when what scares you is not outside you. It’s just plain old you. That’s good news, right? It means there’s room for growth. I am dedicated to that growth.
To that end, let me introduce the wonderful therapist, dream analyzer, writer, blogger, and new friend, who online goes by Belette Rouge for purposes of privacy and whimsy.
A tale of two phobias by La Belette Rouge
The story goes that I was three years old and happily playing out in the garden while my mother was in the house; she came out in the garden and discovered that I was playing with a snake. Not a garter snake, some overgrown earthworm, but a SNAKE. In my mother’s version of this tale, it was the size of an anaconda. My mother, having a long-standing terror of snakes, reacted in a completely calm and measured manner: she called the fire department, the police department and the Marines. Okay, maybe not the Marines, but there was a whole lot of hullaballoo, and I remember being lectured repeatedly that I must never play with snakes ever again.
It was not an anaconda or even a rattlesnake that my mother had reported to the 911 Operator. It was a Kingsnake. The firemen explained to my mother that this was a very good snake that would keep the bad snakes away. My mother didn’t care. She remained terrified of it and wanted it out of her garden, “NOW!” That day was the birth of my snake phobia.
After that snake incident, there were no other childhood run-ins with legless reptiles; that day was enough to turn my non-poisonous playmate into an enemy. At first I was just afraid of them, but as I got older I grew increasingly terrified. I couldn’t go into a pet store unless someone verified they weren’t selling any snakes. Before seeing a film I had to ask the theater if the movie was snake-free. When I moved to Las Vegas with my husband, I called the Chamber of Commerce to ask them how many people died of snake bites a year in the city. The woman who answered the phone had the nerve to laugh at my question and warned me that the casinos were a much bigger threat to its residents and visitors than its snakes.
I never considered getting treatment for my snake phobia as I was convinced that there is some wisdom in being afraid of creatures that could kill you. That said, since I had only had one rather harmless run-in with a snake, I did often wonder what my snake fear was really about.
I began my first Jungian analysis when I lived in the city where what happens there stays there. I hadn’t planned to tell my Jungian analyst about my snake fears, but she saw that they had been starring in my nightmares. When my analyst asked my associations to snakes, I replied, “If I see a snake I will die. Just its mere presence will kill me. It doesn’t even have to bite me. I will just die.” Even as I said it, I knew it sounded irrational and yet felt true. Happily, my analyst didn’t argue the point. “Tell me more about snakes,” she invited. “Snakes are creatures without legs. They are unpredictable. That’s what I don’t like about them. You never know which way they are going. That terrifies me.” My analyst surmised, “Snakes are symbolic of a fear that you inherited from your mother. They are symbols of your greatest fears. They are not actually your greatest fears—they are hers. And in your encounter with a snake you didn’t die. What died is your sense of the world being a safe place.”
In my Jungian work we never worked directly on my fears of snakes. My analyst never worked with my fear literally but always metaphorically and symbolically; working this way was much more appealing than attempting to get over my literal snake terror.
Just three months after I began my Jungian analysis, I went into a Vegas pet shop with snakes in a large aquarium right at the entry of the store. I found myself uncharacteristically fascinated by them. I didn’t walk up close to their glass container, but I stood at the door and stare at them. This was HUGE. Only a few months ago I would have darted for the car, filled with terror that somehow one of them had escaped and found its way into my Volvo sedan. Yet there I stood, watching them–I was amazed to hear myself thinking that I found them strangely beautiful.
Six months after that, my husband and I were hiking in Big Sur, and I meandered off from the main path and came upon four little snakes curled up in a nest. I calmly pointed them out to my husband, who was in disbelief. He knew of my terror firsthand, as on our first hike we had encountered a baby Kingsnake (and I had scaled him like a tree). It was shocking–I had seen snakes and wasn’t climbing up my husband or fleeing the scene.
The next night I had a dream (we Jungians are big on dreams). I was in my kitchen and there were lots of little snakes. Dozens of them. I was picking them up with my hands and putting them in small Ziploc bags. I didn’t need my analyst to tell me what the dream meant. My fears were now smaller. They could be handled. And they were contained.
That said, I still have no interest in visiting a reptile house at the zoo. And if I saw a large Kingsnake in my garden, I can’t promise you that I wouldn’t overreact. But I do feel sure that my snake phobia is more manageable, and that is good enough for me.
After a particularly horrible experience on the 405 freeway many years ago, I developed a fierce case of freeway phobia. This is not a good affliction when living in L.A., a place where every road leads to a freeway. After a few weeks of trying to take surface streets from the South Bay to Venice (a truly epic ordeal that added an extra hour to my already hour-long drive), I decided to see an EMDR therapist to help me get over my extreme fear of the 405. My reason for choosing to work with an EMDR therapist on this issue was that it didn’t feel like my freeway phobia was symbolic, but was literal. Unlike my snake fears, I was highly motivated to get over this fear, as I was feeling trapped, dependent and significantly inconvenienced by my inability to drive on a freeway.
I made an appointment with a well-regarded EMDR therapist who practiced two freeways away from me. Two times a week for a month, my husband drove me to her office. I would sit across from her and recall the initial experience that had begun the phobia. My therapist would ask me to rate my anxiety as I recalled the memory on a scale of one to ten, “one” being not anxious at all and “ten” being the most anxious I ever felt. “Ten,” I answered. Then she would ask me to close my eyes and stay with the memory and the feelings, as she alternately tapped my hands or had me listen to bilateral auditory tones on a headphone. After about 30 seconds, she would ask again, “How would you rate the anxiety now?” After the first set it would go down to about an eight. She would then ask me to share briefly anything that came up during that set, and would begin another set of tapping or bilateral tones as I focused on any thoughts, feelings, images, or memories that had been triggered.
In all honesty, at the time I was sure I was wasting my money, and that I would NEVER-EVER-EVER be able to drive again on a freeway. I imagined having to hire a driver and my life as a 30-something version of Driving Ms. Daisy. I kept going to the EMDR sessions even though I was full of doubt. Yet at each session my “Subjective Units of Distress” began to get lower and lower. I had started at “ten, being the most severe anxiety I had ever known” and was sure that I would die if I ever drove on the freeway again. But by the fourth week I was down to one. I was no longer terrified of driving. The memory of the initial trauma still existed in me; only now, when I thought of it, it felt like the emotional volume had been turned way down and I could no longer feel or hear all the negative cognitions that had once accompanied it.
When I got down to “one” as a subjective unit of distress, I decided to make a chart called “Freeway Successes.” Every time I went on the freeway, even if it was only getting on at one entrance and off the next, I would get a sticker for my accomplishment. I mostly used the kind of gold, red and green stars that teachers use to acknowledge work well done. And when I took a long trip, like L.A. to Santa Barbara, I would get an extra special sticker, a horse or a rainbow or the stickers they give to kids at Trader Joe’s for waiting patiently as their parents’ two-buck chuck, cheeses and gourmet goodies are bagged. With each sticker I would imagine the day when the chart would be full and I would have it professionally framed to hang on the wall. Now when I look at that chart, all these years later, I am reminded of how I was sure that I would never drive again and how I can now drive anywhere, anytime on any freeway. I am so grateful for this visual reminder that I can get over the most immobilizing fears–that fears can lie and how I can overcome them, star by star, sticker by sticker.
The Anxiety and Phobia Handbook
Belette is a writer and a lisenced Marriage and Family
Therapist/psychotherapist. She holds a Masters Degree from Pacifica
Graduate Institute in Counseling Psychology. She trained extensively
at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. She is presently enrolled
in the Adult Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program. Belette
has lectured on psychology at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest,
Illinois and The Jung Center of Evanston. She is presently in private
practice in Los Angeles, California, and works as a
Clinic Therapist at the Jung Center in Evanston.
Belette studied creative writing at UCLA and has published essays and
short stories. Her poetry was selected for an inclusion in a anthology
tribute to Charles Bukowski. She worked as an entertainment editor and
had a weekly column. Belette has maintained the successful and award
winning blog, La Belette Rouge, since 2007. Her blog was named one of
the top ten blogs for Francophiles and in the top 20 of psychology and
memoir blogs. Her writing will be featured in Jamie Cat Callan’s
forthcoming book “Bonjour, Happiness” and the soon to be released
Belette offers Dream Coaching by phone, Skype or email.
La Belette Rouge
Blogging since 2007