Everyone has fears. Broad, enveloping, all-encompassing fears. Things we don’t like to think about. Grown-up fears that permeate our existence, which we try to handle in a way that’s as minimally neurotic as possible. I’m scared my child will fall down the stairs. I’m scared my husband will get in a car wreck on his way home from work. I’m scared I will get a call that something has happened to one of my parents. As the wife of a Saudi, I’m constantly bombarded by reminders from others that if I were a smart woman, I would have other fears, too: your husband could get another wife. Your husband could kidnap your children. Your husband could transform into a brutal, terrifying, heartless Arab who makes every day of your life a living hell. For better or worse, we all have rational worries and fears that we deal with in varying degrees to the best of our ability.
But then there are the weird, irrational fears. I have them. You have them. They’re the fears that we’ve had since our childhood, fears that we know–know–are ridiculous, but we can’t stop ourselves from engaging them, anyway. Sometimes these fears don’t really manifest themselves in any sort of detrimental way. They’re just there, and we don’t even really notice them until there’s a glitch in our time-honored process of observing them.
For example, I’m scared of tornadoes. That doesn’t seem like an irrational fear, actually, and I suppose it isn’t. Tornadoes are scary stuff. They really can kill you if you ignore (or chase) them. But it’s a residual fear left over from my fear of storms. I’ve always been scared of storms, for as long as I can remember, which sucks if you’re a kid growing up in Tornado Alley, as I was. I used to have panic attacks when I heard thunder and saw lightning. As a kid, I could rattle off all of the necessary safety precautions to follow during a storm or tornado–don’t make phone calls (lightning can strike you through land lines). Don’t take a shower or bath. Don’t be outdoors at all; even though sitting on the front porch to watch a storm pass is a time-honored Ozarks tradition, I knew very well that if you are outdoors and can hear thunder, you are at risk of a lightning strike . If you are indoors, move to the most central room (i.e., a room without windows) in the lowest level of the building (preferably a basement). Lightning strikes the highest thing it can find, so if you are outdoors in a storm, your goal is to make yourself as flat as possible; stay away from the tall things that you would normally gravitate toward to seek some sort of shelter, like trees. Trees are bad news in a storm; not only can the branches break and fall on your head, but if you are sitting next to a tree when lightning strikes it, you’re dead, too. (Cows would tell you a lot about this, if they could. Or maybe they wouldn’t, because as a species, they obviously haven’t figured out to stay away from trees during a storm.) So, if you are outdoors during a storm and can’t get indoors or in a car (a car is a bad place to be during a tornado, but it’s fine for your average storm; if lightning strikes a car, you will be safe as long as it’s a fully enclosed vehicle and you don’t touch any exposed metal in the interior–i.e., no convertibles), the best thing to do is to find an open area, like a field, and lay down flat on your stomach, with your hands over your head. If you are outdoors in a tornado, you need to be looking for a ditch to lie in, again, on your stomach with your hands over your head (although this always struck me as silly, fake advice, like telling kids to duck and cover under their desks in case of a nuclear strike…basically just something to comfort children like me who were terrified of tornadoes and needed a contingency plan for all situations involving them, children who, for obvious reasons, really didn’t need to hear, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, kid. If you’re outside and a tornado is heading right for you and you can’t get indoors at all, you’re basically screwed, because you can’t outrun the thing…and you, Nicole, have asthma, so you really can’t outrun the thing”).
I could tell you all of this by the time I was in second grade.
Now that I live in Riyadh, storms are a rarity, so much that I tend to actually enjoy them because they bring blessed, blessed rain. But I still find myself edging away from windows when a storm comes, even though I know that no tornadoes are going to get me in Saudi Arabia.
I’m also scared of snakes. This in itself is also not an entirely irrational fear. Snakes are creepy to a lot of people. The way they move, the way they swallow things whole, their venom, their teeth. They’re scary creatures. But my fear of them has always manifested itself in a weird way, well beyond not wanting to touch one at the zoo.
See, from the time I was a kid, I was scared of a snake winding its way up the toilet while I was sitting on it. The thought of that has always freaked me out (um, understandably), and for that reason, I’ve never been one to spend a second longer on the toilet than is biologically necessary. I had it in my head that this had happened to my mom once, that I had heard her tell a story like this. And it’s true; she does have a story that goes something like this, although I must have misunderstood it the first time I heard it as a little kid.
“It was in one of the first old houses we rented when we first moved to the Ozarks,” she told me when I asked her about it. “The house was real old and it had a storm cellar and the tub was one of those old claw-legged tubs. And the pipes that attached to the tub came up from the floor. I was sitting on the pot and I was minding my own business when I looked in the direction of the tub and saw a big black snake curling and winding its way up the pipe in the floor. Needless to say, I screamed and ran out of the bathroom with my pants around my legs. The bathroom was right next to the kitchen, and your dad was standing next to the sink. He turned around and saw a pretty picture of his half-naked wife tripping and screaming.”
The real story is scary enough, and certainly didn’t do anything to assuage my fearful reluctance to spend any extra time on the toilet. Now I can’t guarantee that I won’t be scared of any bathroom that doesn’t have bars fixed over all of its drains. But I can guarantee that if that had happened to me right after I moved to Saudi Arabia, I would have been on the first flight home.
Yet another completely irrational fear that I have, and have had for well over twenty years, is the fear of Bloody Mary. Everyone knows the story of Bloody Mary, right? Well, if you don’t, let me enlighten you. There’s a scary story, commonly told among kids, that if you stand in front of a mirror in a completely dark room, and you say, “I do believe in Bloody Mary, I do believe in Bloody Mary, I do believe in Bloody Mary” (three times, just like that), then Bloody Mary will come out of the mirror and strangle you. (It’s supposedly based on the legend of Queen Mary I of England, who was called Bloody Mary because she ruthlessly executed Protestants). Reasonable thing to be scared of when you’re eight years old (even if you’re not Protestant)? Sure. But what about when you’re nearing 32, and you still figure that as long as there’s at least some light in the room, you’re protected from Bloody Mary, so as you’re attempting to climb into bed in a dark room that has very little space for maneuvering, you whack your foot on the side of the bed and make your toe bleed because instead of paying attention to where you’re going in the dark, you’re frantically looking around to make sure that there’s a tiny light on somewhere in the room (the red light on the power strip on the floor next to my nightstand? The power button on the printer?), so Bloody Mary can’t sneak out of the mirrors in the room?
I know we all have weird fears. Still, I worry that mine are weirder than most. But who knows? I’m very aware that the only normal people in the world are the people I don’t know well. I’m just not as good as others at hiding my weirdness.