So very many things scare me.
Recently a colleague reached out to share the story she wrote about contracting dengue, or “breakbone,” fever. (Jodi Ettenberg, of the superlative Legal Nomads.)
Dengue gets its gruesome nickname from the intense pain it can send cracking through your body, like tiny wires threading through every bone trying to snap you apart all at once. This is the disease you talk about in the back of the bar, or laugh at a little too loudly if you feel like whistling past the graveyard. Among other journalists and aid workers we simply refer to it as “the scary one.”
And holy crap is it scary.
You see, unlike malaria, there’s nothing you can actually do to stay safe from dengue fever. It’s mosquito borne; just try not to get bitten by the wrong one. There might be a vaccine coming but it’s new. Mosquito nets help a bit at night, but short of wandering the Earth in a beekeeper’s uniform they do little good during the day. (And let’s be honest, mosquito nets and malaria pills are two of the Very Good Ideas that most of us ditch about 15 minutes into the job anyway.)
Still, dengue haemorrhagic fever isn’t alone. Reading Jodi’s story got me to thinking about some of the other things that really, truly scare me about doing this job. Stuff I wish I could run away from, like…
Let me tell you a story about a night of drinking several months ago. It started out simply. I split a bottle of wine with a friend, then stayed out for a bit and had another beer or two. Not necessarily a sober night it was by no means a mad one, and certainly not the poorest of my many questionable life choices.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up facedown on my kitchen floor the next morning, ready to vomit and in quite a lot of pain.
Now, I am willing to accept quite a lot of punishment for my sins, but I’d like the fun of actually getting to commit some first. As hangovers go this seemed like punishment considerably disproportionate to my crimes; certainly it wasn’t the way I expected a few drinks over a whole evening to end. Climbing to my feet and clinging to the doorframe on the way up, I wondered whether I would need to place a humiliating call to the hospital… and that’s when I noticed the two giant, perfectly symmetrical welts in the middle of my forearm.
Only one bite looks like that, and it’s got the juice to do all that to me and so much more.
You see, I am incredibly, downright majestically, allergic to spider bites. Not your garden-variety, grab a Benadryl kind of allergic either, but the “I travel with an epi pen just in case” kind of allergic. The kind of allergic where it makes perfect sense that a Michigan backyard spider knocked me unconscious and which once led a small bite in college to swell my hand like a balloon until I couldn’t even bend my fingers.
In this case, I stayed sick for an entire week. So you can imagine how scared I am by critters like the jumping Indonesian wolf spider and its many associates around the world…
You may already know this. What may not know is why.
When I was young, my parents once took me to a wave pool. It was one of those packed affairs, with what seemed like hundreds of people jammed in on floating inner tubes all bouncing about. For a small child this was great fun, right up until a group of other kids jerked my tube out from under me.
Just that fast I went from bobbing in the sun to plunging into the dark, crowded water. Like most people in similar circumstances, I took in a shocked breath… and nearly flooded my lungs in the first moments. I swam and hit bottom. I opened my eyes and made for the top, but in the crowded pool I had nowhere to go. Every time I found a gap the bulging tubes would close up and push my head back under water.
Panic set in.
I don’t remember how long this went on. I just remember getting increasingly dizzy and having a harder and harder time finding those bits of sunlight to surface in, that and a growing certainty that I was going to die. Of course, I didn’t. Eventually, somehow, my father found me. He hauled me out of the water and cleared a path for us out of the pool (cementing forever my image of him as some sort of action hero).
Ever since there’s been a deep part of my lizard brain convinced that the water isn’t done with me yet. Gun to my head, I’ll still tell you that I’m supposed to die by drowning. I know it’s not rational, but there it is. Which all brings us back to flying, because every time I board a plane there’s that voice sitting in the back of my head screaming “this is it.” Today’s the day the waves get to finish what they started.
“This plane is going down, down, down, down, down… Look at all that ocean down there… down, down, down… Closing over your head, nowhere to go… deep and dark and down, down, down…”
By now it applies to all flying, even over land. Funny story though? I’m perfectly good with swimming.
Here’s a lighthearted one to bring us back up.
You know how we’re all very impressionable when we’re young? Well then, as now, I was a huge fan of ghost stories and adventure-related video games. So it was that as a kid I stumbled upon a game named Shivers, which mashed both of these beloved themes together. For reasons forever lost to the psychologists, this particular game had a profound impact upon me. I decided that treasure hunts were cool, old legends positively awesome, and to be forever terrified by the story’s grisly protagonists: a made up set of collectible Mayan ghosts named the Ixupi.
That is to say, these ghosts are made up even by skeptical standards. The designers invented them specifically for the purpose of this game. So I can’t get too worked up over a spirit dismissed even by guys who view Supernatural as an underground documentary.
On the other hand, players also spend the game hunted by these ghosts through an abandoned museum littered with broken exhibits and the bodies of other victims. That impression that stuck with me too. So, now I’ve got that running through my head every time the Ashmolean starts to empty out for the night.