Pam Babcock, a 35-year-old-woman, was found last week glued to her toilet seat. She had stayed in her bathroom for two years, according to her boyfriend, Kory McFarren, who shared his mobile home in Wichita, Kansas with her for 13 years.
According to an AP news report, when authorities found her she had become stuck to the toilet seat and had to be pried lose and taken to the hospital with the seat still attached. Her legs had atrophied and doctors doubt whether she’d be able to walk again.
Asked about it, McFarren said, “It just kind of happened one day; she went in and had been in there a little while, the next time it was a little longer. Then she got it in her head she was going to stay — like it was a safe place for her.” McFarren said he asked her to come out every day but she would always reply, “Maybe tomorrow.” He dutifully brought her food and water.
McFarren provided hints about her past. He said her mother had died when she was a girl, and she had been raised by an abusive father who had beaten her and often kept her confined to the house.
Little wonder than that she developed agoraphobia, a psychological disorder that causes people to feel terrified of going outside the home. In this case she felt terrified of going outside the bathroom.
John B. Watson, an American psychologist, was perhaps the first to discover how people learn to be phobic. Before Watson many professionals thought that some children were born with phobias. He found that a phobia could be conditioned in a person by pairing a neutral object, such as a friendly animal, with something startling, such as a loud noise. His famous experiment with Little Albert demonstrated how a phobia could be conditioned in a one-year-old boy. If each time a small child sees a white rabbit there is a frightening sound, the child soon associates the rabbit with the loud sound and begins to cry immediately upon seeing the rabbit. He develops a phobia of rabbits.
Watson’s experiments would not be ethical by today’s standards, but in his day he was a pioneer who taught us much about how fears can rule our lives. He showed how all phobias can be classically conditioned, including agorophobia.
Those with agoraphobia have often been confined in childhood. Acrophobics usually have a traumatic childhood memory of falling. Claustrophobics often recall being confined in a closed place. Those who fear insects were usually traumatized by some incident in their childhood involving insects. Sometimes a parent with a phobia will “infect” their child with the phobia by overreacting to some feared object. The child will pick up the fear from the mother.
Using systematic desensitization, behavioral psychologists slowly expose phobia sufferers to what terrifies them. If a person is afraid of water, the psychologist may at first show him pictures of water, then take him to the edge of a lake, then having him dip his does into the water, then have him step further and further in. Eventually the person works through his fears and overcomes the phobia.
About one in every 10 people suffer from a phobia, according to those phobias that are reported. However, many people never report their phobias, and so the figure is probably much higher. There are hundreds of them, from ablutophobia (fear of washing) to zelophobia (fear of jealousy). They range from mild to severe and they often go untreated, as did Pam Babcock’s.
Like Pam Babcock, people with phobias find their lives affected by their affliction. One patient with claustrophobia used to walk up 10 flights of stairs each morning to get to his job, rather than take the elevator. Another with aquaphobia could never take a swim, nor could she enjoy watching others take a swim, and she could never bathe or even shower, out of a fear she would drown. Still another could not even look at a picture of a snake in a magazine without going into hysterics. She was afraid to take a hike in the woods out of a terror of seeing a snake. And could never look at buttons because she had once been molested in the woods by a man who was wearing long underwear with many buttons.
The public conception of phobias is that they are simply quirks that one can live with and don’t need to be treated. But in fact they cause people to live in fear and stress and have many affects on behavior and health of which a person is unconscious. Despite the public conception, they impair one’s life and need psychological treatment.