Mushrooms part 1: A story of lifelong, irrational fear

As a small child I used to eat mushrooms, sliced and cooked into amorphous brown pieces, when my mother served them. But the first time I remember seeing one growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, I was very frightened yet just couldn’t look away. Somewhat later, my mother asked me to help her clean some fresh whole mushrooms before cooking them, and seeing her holding one of those things made me cry and run out of the room. Walking in the grass became terrifying, and when my family bought a vacation house in the woods, I started having nightmares about having to walk from the car to the house. My fears persisted and I made many choices (such as which college to attend, and where to live) based on the availability of paved places to walk (but ever vigilant for mushrooms growing out of cracks or pieces of wood). When I found myself unexpectedly or inescapably near where mushrooms were growing I had panic attacks and crying fits. During my childhood, my father told me he would cure me of my fear by putting a mushroom under my pillow while I slept, so that I would wake up with it and realize it hadn’t hurt me. He never actually did it, but I was terribly afraid that he might.

People have always asked me why the heck I’d have this fear. Did I think poisonous mushrooms could somehow hurt me just by sitting there? Or that they’d run after me and attack me? Did my fear develop from hearing about ominous “mushroom clouds” when I was growing up in the early 70s? Was it because mushrooms can sort of resemble penises and (never mind the rest of this question)? I felt sure that the answer was no to all of these things. I also knew it was irrational to fear mushrooms and that they could not hurt me, yet I remained completely terrified of being near them.

I have many other life-long fears that are similarly unusual and irrational. But the mushroom fear is the one that I’ve been working on recently, because accepting my job as a college professor required moving from a city to a place full of woods and fields where I often can’t gracefully avoid mushrooms. In my next few blog posts I will describe my attempts to understand my fear of mushrooms and to learn to think about mushrooms differently; I’ll also describe some of the exposure exercises I’ve been doing this summer, and those I have yet to take on. In essence, I’ve come to realize that fungus is everywhere, whether I can see it in the lawn or not — so I have no choice but to accept and learn to coexist with it. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m making progress and that matters a lot.

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