A few years ago, I saw a BBC documentary about phobias in which an adult woman was being treated for her lifelong, incapacitating fear of birds. Now, fear of heights, closed-in spaces, lawn mowers, I understand. But who’s ever ended up in a hospital or morgue after suffering an aerial assault from a band of militant pigeons? In Ohio where I grew up, flocks of geese were shot every spring because they crapped everywhere and ate berries out of old ladies’ gardens. Not because of the frequency with which they were implicated in human maulings.
The doctor on the BBC show attempted to cure the woman’s bird phobia by forcing her to sit in the room with him while he placed a feather on the table beside her. And not one of those colossal, menacing monstrosities of a tail feather from a peacock or even an ostrich. The doctor put beside her a teeny feather that was so ridiculously small it had to have either been plucked from a baby bird or the underbelly of a duck. Still, the woman writhed in her chair, limbs flailing, brow dripping with sweat, screaming, “make it stop,” as if two horses were strapped to either side of her body and preparing to run in opposite directions.
I couldn’t imagine how something so unthreatening could provoke such terror in a grown woman, just as it’s always been difficult to believe anyone could ever be “afraid” of something as harmless as love.
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The documentary had me thinking about a relationship I was in at the time. Mike and I saw each other off and on over the course of a year. When things between us were light and frothy, we were “on.” When things got too intense, we were definitely “off.”
Only years later when our relationship had long been kaput, did Mike admit how deeply he’d felt. He blamed an icky childhood and rotten divorce for his tendency to spaz out around intimacy like a bird phobe surrounded by chickens. I accepted his explanation, but never quite understood.
Until recently when I saw The Hurt Locker, a film about an American soldier who disarms bombs in Iraq. The soldier lives every second of his life teetering on death’s slippery edge, surrounded by a dismal desert and relentlessly confronted by how cruel the human race can be. The soldier has a beautiful wife and child back home, but he prefers to be in this war zone.
Talk about intimacy issues.
The last thing anyone should be contemplating during a film about war and catastrophe is how it relates to one’s love life. However, there was a moment during the movie where I thought, this guy is like Mike and all the other dudes I’m usually into – über-masculine, rebellious and completely unavailable emotionally. What a dream.
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Of course, this was only a film. But during the brief moment when I stopped thinking about war and catastrophe and thought of romance, I recognized the soldier’s inability to feel satisfied with the love he got from his woman or even his child. Yep, I thought, there really are people who are cut off from their feelings. Some people truly are incapable of love. Some folks do fear it.
On the other hand, soldier boy was a bit of a wacko. Thus, part two of the realization was that healthy people don’t turn away from love. Healthy people aren’t afraid to relate. They know how. They let feelings flow. They can handl