Nora McGreevy | Thursday, November 10, 2016
From about first to seventh grade, I possessed a paralyzing fear of dogs.
The feeling doesn’t lend itself easily to description, unless you’ve also experienced a phobia of some kind — in which case, I’m sorry, and you also might have better words for this than I do.
A dog wasn’t a dog. It was an unpredictable mass of animated fur, one that moved too quickly to control, bolting out from behind doors and around corners. It barked on a whim and startled the quiet space between my ears. It wasn’t human, but it was sentient — so therefore, in my childhood paradigm, capable of a vague and nameless harm that felt extremely real and extremely close.
When my teacher brought in her massive Great Dane to visit our third-grade class, I stayed on the opposite side of the room — an uneasy satellite to the group of small children cooing and laughing over the threatening creature, petting its fur and feeding it treats. At the seventh grade Halloween party, I spent the entire night in a tightly-knit ball of anxiety, perched in the middle of a low couch in the basement, nibbling at candy corn and attempting to make conversation. I knew that my classmate’s small dog wasn’t allowed on the furniture. When the dog tried to jump up next to me and lick me, I cried.
Somewhere along the way, a well-intentioned stranger told me that the best way to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of a dog is to simply stand still. The dog might sniff you, but it’ll ultimately get bored and walk away. So, for instance, instead of running or screaming when a rogue neighborhood dog slipped its leash at a block party, I just stood still, and let the dog lick me with my eyes closed shut and my palms pressed flat against my thighs. And when the dog finally got bored, saw a squirrel or was fastened to a leash by an apologetic and mildly disconcerted owner, I opened my eyes. They were usually brimming with tears. Silent alarms reverberated and pressed against the spaces behind my eyes and underneath my scalp.
Standing still worked, but it was exhausting.
I eventually lost my phobia in the way most people do — through incremental, sustained contact with the thing that scared me. For me, this came in the form of my best friend’s dog, a sweet and cuddly little rescue dog named Suki.
Now, it’s other things that scare me: blank Word documents, for instance. Murky water, nighttime driving, essays, illness, riots, fights with friends, elections. Many of those things are actually viable threats to my well-being, which makes them even scarier.
Somewhere along the way, I think I internalized the “stand still” method to the point where it’s become instinct. In the face of a terrifying thing, I don’t approach it at first. At first, I stand still.
And this is OK. But standing still is exhausting. We’ve been over this. There needs to be a next step, and a next step after that. You need to walk a little closer to that dog, and then maybe sit next to it, and then take ten deep breaths while you let it lick your hand.
Fear is a lot harder to focus on when you’re focused on the motion instead. So, I try my very best to not stand still. It’s hard, but I keep moving.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.