In the Valley of Fear

Victor Mugabo, crack reporter of a leading Pan-African magazine was a nervous wreck, as he sat at the departure hall of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, waiting for a 45-minute flight to Port Harcourt. His eyes were bloodshot and his voice shook as he tried to pick up discussions with two other reporters. Unable to say much, he recoiled into himself, chain-smoking and gulping some more beer from a tall, white glass by his side. “Please give me another bottle of beer,” he said nervously to the waiter, mopping the gathering beads of sweat from his forehead.Among his peers, Mugabo has a reputation as a tough-minded reporter. But Mugabo is scared stiff of flying. “No, I can’t stand it. It’s hell. I’m better today because I’m traveling at short notice. If my editor had told me I would be traveling in three days’ time by air, I would be terribly sick and depressed for the rest of the days leading to the journey,” he said, as he lit another stick of cigarette. After his assignment at Port Harcourt, Mugabo did the unbelievable. He opted for the nine-hour journey by road rather than the 45-minute flight to Lagos.

For Joshiah Ellam, a retired army captain who is now a Pastor in a Pentecostal Church, waiting for a flight to be called is like the last few minutes before firing squad. “To me, the plane is a flying coffin,” he said, shivering with the mere thought of boarding a flight. On a recent flight from Calabar, he sat in the aircraft stiff, his eyes tightly closed as the aircraft gathered speed for take-off. Every time the plane did a variation of route or speed he would hurriedly ask someone what was happening. If an air-hostess went into the cockpit, he was convinced something was wrong. When the plane started to lose height, in preparation for landing, he was ‘sure the thing was about to crash.” And eventually when the aircraft landed with that horrible noise, “I was sure the whole damn thing had finally exploded,” he said. During his days in the army, he said, his colleagues never told him he was due to fly until the morning prior to take-off, otherwise, “I would have deserted.”

Psychotherapists call this morbid fear of flying aerophobia. Phobia is not restricted to flying alone. One can have a phobia about almost anything from snakes to strings. Among well-known and treated phobias are agoraphobia (fear of open space), aquaphobia (fear of water), claustrophobia (fear of closed or tight places), pyrophobia (fear of fire), ochlophobia (fear of crowd), nyctophobia (fear of darkness) and tokophobia (fear of childbirth). There are even such odd and rare phobias as bibliophobia (fear of books), didaskaleinophobia (fear of school), pogonophobia (fear of shadow), gamophobia (fear of marriage), gynophobia (fear of women), parthenophobia (fear of young girls), genephobia (fear of sex), etc. The sensation experienced in all kinds of phobias, according to psychotherapists, is virtually the same: pounding of heart, dizziness, palpitation, sweating and a feeling that something terrible is about to happen.

In Britain alone, it is estimated that there are 4.5 million phobics, 300,000 of whom are agoraphobics. Joy Melville has documented the experiences of some phobic in her book Phobias samplers: “Seeing a spider (arachnophobia) makes me rigid with fear, hot, trembling and dizzy. My tummy drops, I occasionally pass water, my heartbeat increases tremendously, I sweat, and while the spider keeps still I am unable to move. I just stand there, sobbing and shaking unaware of where I am until I faint.” “Mine are churches,” said another phobic, “I even have nightmares about them. I feel dizzy just sighting a church and I can faint if I get inside. Nothing will stop me from being frightened about them.”

A woman who has a phobia about someone touching her neck says she screams in terror “if my husband mistakenly puts his hand on my neck, in fun.” Another woman who has a phobia about traffic lights: “I cannot move one foot before the other. I would rather go the long way around to avoid them.” Yet another woman cannot stand a mass of pips. “I can’t cut open a melon, tomatoes, pepper or marrows, without my skin crawling with ghost bumps and the knife falling off my hand. I wouldn’t go near the kitchen for days.” A woman whose seven-year-old girl has a horror of buttons decided to take her to the doctor. “We go through tears and recrimination every time she has to wear a buttoned garment.”

In Nigeria, a phobia is grossly misunderstood and sometimes misinterpreted. It is often traced to juju or charms. A junior staff of Cadbury Nigeria Limited, Ikeja, who usually experiences uncontrolled sweating and palpitation whenever he enters a bus or stays at crowded places once went home to Bendel State to consult an oracle. He was asked to make sacrifices which he did. It did not help him, of course. Eventually, he decided to see a doctor in Lagos who diagnosed his problem as ochlophobia (irrational fear of crowds). He was referred to a psychotherapist at Yaba Psychiatric Hospital and before long, he overcame his phobia. Another man who always complains that his office was stuffy even though his air conditioner was functioning well came to the conclusion that he was haunted by witchcraft. He would abandon his cozy office to stay with junior workers in the general office. Eventually, he was persuaded to see a doctor who got his claustrophobia cured.

Phobias are serious illnesses to the extent that they place a burden on sufferers and curtail their activities. Phobias are known to have wrecked careers, marriages, and homes, because of the irrational fear of sufferers to do what is perfectly normal. Sonny – IIechukwu, a consultant psychiatrist at the Yaba Psychiatric Hospital, says the problem is complicated in developing countries like Nigeria because of the stigma the society attaches to seeking psychiatric help. “An American will more freely visit a psychiatrist on any problem that is emotionally stressful than a Nigerian.”

The knowledge of how a phobia starts, says IIechukwu, governs the treatment and explains why there are radically different approaches to treating phobias. However, phobia therapists agree on four main techniques of treatment namely desensitization, implosion, modeling, and group therapy. The four revolve around behavioral and analytical instructions on how to control peculiar anxieties and fears. And those who know best how to give such instructions are psychotherapists and hypnotherapists.

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