There were about a dozen of us, men and women of all ages and fears, sitting around a table in the hospital basement. We went around in a circle and introduced ourselves.
“Hi. My name's Jessica, and I have pyrotechnophobia. That’s fireworks. I’m terrified of them,” I said.
I got a few quizzical looks. At phobia support group, most people were there for the typical reasons – fears of driving, flying, heights, and crowds. They were here to overcome the big, mostly unavoidable components of life, not a once-a-year novelty in the sky. Fireworks weren’t even legal in our state. I guess I was there to prove that even seemingly trivial items can spark mind-consuming panic. This was not how most 19-year-olds were spending their summers.
“You must freak out a lot on the Fourth of July,” someone said. I heard that a lot. And growing up, it was true. But as a teenager, I found a loophole. Every Independence Day for the past decade, I've escaped the holiday by checking into a secluded hotel beyond the suburban booms of the night. It’s just off the side of the highway, in a row of clustered office buildings and other commercial enterprises left abandoned during the three-day weekend.
But even during the non-summer months (what I like to dub the “off-firework season”), I'd spent an awful lot of my life indoors and on edge. Now I wanted my independence.
As far as I can remember, I had always been skittish as a kitten, a walking bundle of nerves. While the origins of my phobia remain nebulous, I managed to trace it back to the summer when I was four, thanks to the power of a rediscovered home movie. I stood next to my uncle who suddenly lit off a chain of fireworks in my driveway during a Fourth of July barbecue. Everyone squealed in awe of the loud, colorful sparks. I ran in terror and hid in the basement for the rest of the night ... and the rest of the summer. I can relive this terror whenever I want through the magic of videotape.
Most of my life through early adulthood was like that Fourth of July. I avoided anything spontaneous, impulsive, and yes, fun out of fear of the inexplicable panic it might stir in me. You wouldn't think that a noise heard only a few times a year could wreak so much daily havoc. But such is the nature of irrational panic. I brought industrial strength noise-blocking earmuffs, the kind used by construction crews with jackhammers, to college. Even with those in tow, I barely left my dorm room freshman year.
Just going to class could be a challenge. One day while walking across the quad, I spotted a firecracker wrapper littered on the lawn, the remnant of a wild night before and a horrifying blemish on my otherwise idyllic northeastern liberal arts school. The sight of scattered paper alone made my heart race. I made it to class, but just barely. I told the professor I had to leave immediately. I called my mom. She drove two hours to my dorm, picked me up, and I spent the rest of the week back in my family’s basement.
As a result of this incident (and several similar episodes that plagued my freshman year), my parents coerced me into therapy of all kinds: group sessions, medication regimens, and most effective, exposure therapy. I wasn’t very open to any of these processes. As most people with any kind of phobia can attest, the fear becomes so ingrained in you that it becomes an almost inextricable part of your identity. While I desperately wanted to enjoy summer picnics, late-night parties, and even a holiday display, I didn’t want to lose my phobia if it meant losing a part of myself. Even if it was a part I loathed.
I was skeptical and stubborn for no greater reason than contrarianism. When one of my counselors asked me to rate a recent panic attack on a scale of 1 to 10, I said, “I can’t quantify the severity of my emotional state." I probably should have said “Eight.” Learning to trust the process was a process in and of itself.
Later that summer, I nervously agreed to watch a fireworks show at a local amusement park from a parking lot over four blocks away. My therapist sat in the back seat, I blared the stereo, and clutched a strand of worry beads a friend brought back from Greece, which seemed tailor-made for the occasion. My heart pounded, and I shouted expletives. The noise still terrified me, but even in my phobic state, I was awed by their beauty. Until that point, I'd never witnessed it in person.
Fast forward eight years. It’s the night of my five-year college reunion (apparently such things exist). Never a fan of contrived nostalgia, I was apprehensive to attend for several reasons. Oh and as part of the weekend’s festivities, a firework display was planned. I managed to tiptoe out on the quad, the same exact lawn so many panic attacks took place years earlier. Really pushing myself, I took deep breaths. It wasn't easy. I even ran into the main student center for five second intervals when I got startled, but ultimately made my way back out into the night.