Friday, June 10, 2011

Phobias Part I: Fear and Loathing and Hard Boiled Eggs

I hate hard boiled eggs. Mind you, I don't hate every kind of egg, just hard boiled eggs and the recipes made from them. The last time I had a hard boiled egg was in 1985. I ordered a boxed picnic lunch from a deli and the sandwich included was egg salad. Hungry as I was, and in need of a shot of protein, I overrode my tongue's objections and took a bite of that sandwich. It didn't make it lower than my uvula. I gagged and retched that sandwich out, and haven't had a hard boiled egg since. Except I eat eggs in other forms; scrambles, custards, omelets, quiches, so clearly, it is not about eggs in general, but hard boiled eggs in particular. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time wondering about my hard boiled egg phobia, and why I have it. After all this time and contemplation I've come to this conclusion: I hate hard boiled eggs because as a child, I was traumatized by an Easter egg.

Easter was and is a popular kid candy holiday. Think about those chocolate bunnies, jelly beans and marshmallow treats. I think that for kids, Easter probably ranks between Halloween and Valentine's Day as a time to score a lot of sweet treats. Traditionally, Easter included the making and dyeing and hunting of hard boiled eggs. This practice has fallen off in recent years, due to several highly publicized cases of food poisoning, but in my youth it was an integral part of Easter. I remember "blowing" eggs in school to color. Imagine your child putting their lips on a raw egg in today's classroom. Now prohibited by law, I think.

My mom, Fran, was well aware of the after-effects of a ton of cheap sugary candy on my little bloodstream. So at the sugar holidays, she would insist on eating something proper before the orgy began. At Easter, it was hard boiled eggs, and we couldn't access our baskets until we ate our hard boiled egg. My sister would breeze through her egg and be happily biting the heads off bunnies while I sat with that chalky, green-coated, bile-yellow ball surrounded by a rubbery cold white casing. That did not look tasty to me, and I didn't want to eat it. But I wanted that candy, and I wanted to get it at the same time my sister did. So I sat, and sat, and refused to eat that hard boiled egg until Fran would allow me to "just eat the white part". After more drama, I could generally get her down to "just try it". Then I would grimly take a bite, reenacting the scene from the movie, The Ten Commandments, where Moses has his minions pour molten metal down the throats of the idol worshippers. Candy basket received.

As part of Fran's Alzheimer's paranoia, she fears men. She sees men as untrustworthy, suspicious and threatening. It is my belief that at some point in her young life, something traumatic happened to her that involved a man or men. I have no idea what this might have been, or when it happened, but it is real for her. It has made caring for her difficult, particularly when she accused various caregivers, friends and family of hitting her, robbing her, or being up to no good in general. This has been painful for those accused, as well as traumatic for Fran. Recent research in memory suggests that if the experience of an item or event is accompanied by fear or pain or trauma, even if that trauma is unrelated to the item or event itself, the brain adds a little extra "push" to the memory of that experience to mark the memory down as particularly pertinent. Apparently for some people, this push and reinforcement can result in phobias, often of unlikely things like cats, clowns or children. Why I have a phobia of Horseshoe crabs, I have no idea.

As rational adults, we can have our phobias and memories desensitized through therapy, and it appears, drugs. Apparently, every time we access a memory and re-store it, we have the ability to alter that memory. It becomes colored by our mood at the time, our feelings and preferences about how we want that memory to look. Indeed, the most accurate memories seem to be those that have not been accessed multiple times, but stored and then forgotten. Unfortunately for Fran, she can no longer do the processing required to suppress or desensitize her phobia to men. Stuck with a phobia that now can no longer be ignored, seeing a man can send her into high levels of fear and anxiety. I have had to take over her phobia management, to find therapies to calm her fears by other means.

Next Blog Phobias Part II