I Have a Balloon Phobia

I'll wait while you laugh at me. Go on, I'm used to it at this point.

Feb 22, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

The only episode of the Tyra Banks Show that I ever watched involved phobias. There was a woman who was afraid of ovens.

So, of course, Tyra wheeled out a very retro, awesome oven on a little platform. Then she and the woman had a very serious conversation about how the oven made the woman feel. I think they might have held hands -- Tyra lending the woman strength.

I love Tyra, so I watched the show with a kind of head-tilted bafflement, trying to decide if this was brilliant theatre or... something unknowable and unnamable.

It should probably go without saying that there was a clown on the show as well. I had things to do, though, so I never got to see whether or not confronting that particular fear helped.

By and large, for myself, I think confronting fear is a good idea. Especially when I know something isn't rational. I can never accurately tell what people think of me, but I consider myself to be primarily motivated by rational things. To be ruled by an irrational fear of something bothers the hell out of me.

That's why this balloon thing is more frustrating than funny to me. This balloon thing being: I am terrified of balloons.

I'll wait while you laugh at me. Go on, I'm used to it at this point.

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Balloons make me nervous -- more than nervous, actually. Balloons make me feel like there is some impending terrible thing about to happen -- they threaten to explode merely by existing. I am not good with sudden loud noises, so balloons were never going to be my favorite thing. Throw in the way they smell (ugh, rubbery chemically smell), the terrible texture, the incredibly painful squeaking sounds...

My shoulders are up around my ears, I'm so tense just thinking about it.

Now, as an adult, I actually don't run into balloons all that often. I isn't like I have to deal with them storming onto my front porch and demanding entry into my house. Birthday parties for my grownup friends are more likely to involve fancy restaurants or martini parties than balloon animals.

But then I decided to go to clown school.

Clowns, as you may be aware, often make balloon animals.

I could have skipped the class even though there's an attendance requirement -- there's a syllabus, after all, and I had plenty of notice. But the courseware pairs the intro to balloon animals and the face painting demonstration, and I really wanted to see the face painting demo.

Cookie the Clown is an amazing face painter.

I also just really wanted to confront my fear of balloons, if only to prove to myself that I was capable of it. I didn't hold my breath thinking I'd be, like, immediately cured. But I was hoping that some exposure to balloon twisting (they call making balloon animals "balloon twisting" which is an accurate description of the methodology) would help me at least stop hiding under the table every time a balloon popped.

When I said I was used to being laughed at about this, I really meant it. Being afraid of balloons is apparently right up there with being afraid of adorable kittens and maybe also being afraid of pillows. People don't understand, people think balloons are no big -- and so people laugh.

Laughter is a great way to deal with fear. I just kind of wish that laughing at people who are afraid was not also considered a cool thing to do.

Fear is strange and deeply, deeply personal. We can share fears, have fears in common, but I don't know that we can ever really understand someone else's fear. I don't know that we can ever feel the prickling skin and cold sweat that is unique to each individual. I know it's stupid to be afraid of balloons. If I could talk myself out of it, I hella would! It isn't like I haven't tried.

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The reality of me involves being incredibly high strung and easily startled. Balloons are my natural enemy. Yes, go on and laugh at me -- but I am going to judge you for it.

Consent culture is a thing we hear a lot about in regards to sex. Yes means yes, and that is fucking fantastic. But a lot of people tend to stop there with the idea of consent. One of the most interesting things I've read recently discusses the need to bring consent culture out of the bedroom  -- the need to stop forcing people to do things they don't want to do, even if you think it's for their own good. We're all adults. If someone doesn't want to go to a party, why is that boundary so hard to respect? If someone says they don't like a particular food that is your favorite, why is that so hard to respect?

If someone says they're afraid of balloons, why is that so hard to respect?

Making balloon animals was really hard for me -- but I did it. The more difficult thing to deal with was the lack of any sort of compassion or understanding on the part of my fellow students. Obviously, one cannot go into clowning without knowing balloons will be involved -- and yes, I volunteered to put myself in that situation.

But we have to choose to face our own fears -- you can't shame someone into not being afraid. And, in fact, dismissing someone's fear as unworthy actually adds a lot of layers of extra guilt and humiliation onto the Things That Must Be Processed pile. In other words, I can decide to face my fear of balloons. You can't convince me not to be afraid of them, especially not through making fun of me.

I can hear the hunting horns of the anti-special snowflake brigade from here. The hounds are baying, their refrain of "people need to stop being so sensitive" is loud and clear. So let me say that I'm not actually expecting or even wanting anyone to hold my hand while I hold the balloons as far from my face as possible and squeeze my eyes shut. I'm just asking for people to not, you know, laugh at me while I do something that's intensely frightening for me.

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Halfway through making a balloon flower, the woman next to me leaned over. "Maybe balloons aren't going to be your thing," she said. She sounded dubious. She had laughed at me when I mentioned that I was actually afraid of them. She hadn't understood, I think, that I really truly meant it. Forty-five minutes later, with me flinching and clutching my throat every time another balloon popped, I think she was starting to get the idea.

By that point in the evening, I was pretty tightly wound. There had been a lot of popped balloons. And I was also struggling with my gigantic need to be good at anything I attempt -- being shit at balloon animals does not jive with my perfectionist tendencies. So as much as I was annoyed (at myself and everyone else in the room) (and the ceiling fan -- I was annoyed with the ceiling fan because it kept popping balloons that were lifted too high) at pretty much everything, I was also relieved to hear that from someone else.

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We don't have to conquer every single fear, especially the irrational ones. It's a good thing to try, I really do believe that. But sometimes trying is really as far as you get.

I have a six-dollar balloon pump now. I snicker every time I use it because, yeah, it involves a pumping action. I have a small bag of balloons. I'm going to practice (I might need a drink first) making a few more balloon animals and see what happens. I highly doubt I will ever be a balloon artist -- but I also don't need to be. No matter how ridiculous anyone else thinks it is, just handling the damn things is a big deal for me.

Balloons scare me, y'all. But, you know what? I will paint your face with just about anything you want, how about that?