I’ve been reading Allen Shawn’s book, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life. What piqued my interest in the topic was a comment made by an AK (Assembly kid) to another AK, “They made us afraid of everything.” That synched with my awareness that quite a few FAM’s (former Assembly members) experience “social phobia” to one degree or another, ranging from reluctance to make phone calls to full-on panic attacks–sweaty palms, racing heart, lightheadedness when in a room with a large group of people. Not to mention Bible triggers, hymn triggers, etc. Maybe some aspects of this guy’s life would shed some light. What I didn’t expect is that the treatment for phobias is the same as that recommended at Wellspring for “triggers”. We have phobias!! Who knew.
I thought this book would be more of a memoir than it turns out to be. The author does share quite a bit of his personal experience, but the book is packed with i-n-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-o-n about the disorder. Which is actually quite helpful. Here are a few tidbits.
“According to anxiety authority Dr. David Barlow, experiences of extreme stress, such as separation from the mother, experienced early on life, create ‘permanent alterations in brain function that make one particularly susceptible to depression and ‘chronic anxiety’ later on” (p 69).
I wonder if the many spankings AK’s received early in life might produce this kind of extreme stress. Also perhaps disciplinary intervention by people other than the parents, such as a Worker or an Assembly babysitter or a Cornerstone teacher.
Shawn quotes authors M. D. Zane and Harry Milt in their book, Your Phobia: “Parents who cannot tolerate uncertainty transmit to their children the attitude that nothing in life is safe, that unless they watch their every step and take absolutely no chances at all, they are likely to suffer some serious and irremediable harm. This sets these children on a course of trying to insure that everything that affects them is safe, that nothing should be done that might possibly harm them…Everything has to follow a definite pattern or a definite formula; any deviation is threatening. Control means certainty and certainty means absolute safety” (p 213). Shawn says, “In a way I had been raised to feel that the world was a kind of Pandora’s box that was simply too frightening to ever fully open” (p 220). Everyone in the Assembly was conditioned to take absolutely no chances–the consequences were too painful. Walk the straight and narrow, get counsel for every decision, do not stray from the norm of what everyone else in the Assembly is doing. Your eternal soul is at stake.
“There are…some convincing findings about which personality traits accompany phobias…According to those who have observed hundreds or even thousands of cases like mine, phobics tend to be perfectionists, they tend to have an exaggerated need to please others, they tend to seek certainty, and most interestingly of all, they tend to avoid showing certain kinds of emotions. Your Phobia has it that many of us have in common the ‘need and ability to present a relatively placid, untroubled appearance to others, while suffering extreme diestress on the inside'” (p 92). Does that describe how we were trained to be in the Assembly or what!!
Shawn talks about his own anger affects him: “After becoming angry, I always feel as if I have been racked by a terrible storm for which I should apologize. Accustomed as I am to having a ‘good reason’ for whatever I express, rage, when it erupts, is an awful, alien surprise; it feels as if it were coming from someone else. The price of remaining ‘rational’ about anger and not expressing it as it comes along is that it acummulates inside until it either implodes or explodes, or both. Like my father, I don’t seem to know how to express minor annoyance and irritation” (p 213).
It is out of this internal environment that phobias arise. You tend to avoid situations that will provoke conflicted emotions you can’t control. Shawn says, “When habits of avoidance and anxiety persist for a long time, they become a part of you like a chronic pain. The brain gets used to the connections, and they harden.” The good news is, “Even the adult brain can build entirely new connections. The old ones can become undone–if a person is ready to undo them, and eventually, with hard work, replaced” (p 194).
The beginning of recovery is recognizing that the avoidance impulse is a normal defense against perceived danger. In our case, the conditioning milieu of the Assembly, was dangerous, because it was laced through with manipulation, deceit, misinformation, etc. Outside the Assembly system the familiar elements of the Bible, hymns, Christians gathered together, etc. can be safe. “A mind that recognizes phobic fear symptoms….as distressing but benign, and that can address its own confusion and panicky feelings as parts of a natural process, can begin to tame the phobia” (p 87).
Although Shawn himself has not completely conquered his phobias, he describes various aspects of treatment that have helped to some degree. “The treatment approach is based on the premise that in order to get over serious phobias, one needs to start building up a new history of experiences with the phobic situations/triggers–experiences in which one endures them, copes better with them, or even eventually is not terribly disturbed by them. Imagine what it does to your brain and thought patterns when you spend years systematically avoiding something, reinforcing its power as an object of dread so terrible that it can kill you. A new experience in which you practice enduring what you once refused to do is a step toward revising your history in the situation, creating instead the kind of normal ambivalence we all have about things that are unpleasant but that we have learned to tolerate” (p.226).
He says, “As a first step I needed to learn that there was a psychological dimension to panic for everyone. Then, when faced with panic, I actually began to speak to myself out loud, to tell myself that I was still there, that I hadn’t come apart” (p 227), and then proceed to specifically note how this new situation differs from the conditioning situation. As someone learned at Wellspring, “Similar is not the same.”
Part of being phobic about something is the shame that goes with it. Shawn says, “…phobias can bring with them the fear of discovery and of becoming an outcast.” You may tend to avoid being with other Christians because you don’t want to reveal that you don’t read the Bible and you haven’t been to church in a long while. You don’t want to be taken unaware by a fit of weeping when you hear a hymn. It’s important to find safe places where you can begin to desensitize yourself. As might be expected, some churches are safer than others. What worked for me was a church where you could remain anonymous and not be noticed, no matter how many kleenexes you used. Others would prefer a church where people notice and really care. Business meetings, conferences, lectures and social events are also good for dismantling social phobia.
Denial tends to prevent us from being objective about our avoidances. Shawn says of himself, “I have never felt that my phobia problem suited me, and it often surises me. Despite being perpetually on guard, I sometimes walk into a phobic trap without thinking about it. My first coping mechanism when seized by the familiar symptoms of panic is to remind myself that I am in fact a phobic and that I tend to react this way. This already gives me some handle of objectivity on the true situation, which is not that I am in actual danger but that I have a pernicious learned response to many situations.
Still, I remain dumbfounded at how atuomatic, instantaneous, and severe my reactions are, not to mention how trivial the triggers can be.” For us, situations that might take us unaware may be weddings or funerals, where we didn’t think to expect the church-like atmosphere. But these events are useful in desentizing ourselves to the triggers, because they are obviously family events, nothing like pressured Assembly meetings.
It’s hard to make yourself start looking for ways to safely expose yourself to triggers, but it’s important to face the fact that just understanding the origins of your avoidance doesn’t cure the problem. “Simply discovering the experiential origins of the phobias does not free one from them, any more than discovering the reason why one resists practicing the piano would turn one suddenly into a better pianist. For that to occur, one would have to start practicing again. The same thing is true for phobias. The primary “cure” or help for them is in real-life practice…” (p. 120). That is, deliberately exposing yourself repeatedly to the triggers, and talking yourself through the panic to a place of objectivity.