Mushrooms part 2: Understanding and re-thinking a lifelong irrational fear

After years of thinking about it, the best explanation I could come up with for my fear of mushrooms is a metaphor: You think you have a lovely flower bed, but underneath lies a web of fungus that feeds off of death and decay, showing itself in ugly alien forms that appear seemingly out of nowhere, overnight. In other words, I think mushrooms are a symbol for my difficulty trusting people — because of what goes on beneath the surfaces people present and what awful things they may be suddenly capable of.

Though the untrustworthy friends and romantic partners that I had when I was young didn’t help change my greatly pessimistic view of humanity, this view clearly originates in my relationship with my father. Growing up, nearly everyone characterized my father as a well-intentioned and charming person, though he did get a bit more irrational and upset than other people when disappointed. Since I hold the dubious honor of being the person who has probably disappointed him most, to me he has often become terrifying and (verbally/emotionally) cruel without warning.

My therapist speculates that some scary incident probably occurred to classically condition me to have a phobic reaction to mushrooms. Though I lived in the city for nearly all my life, between the ages of 2 and 4 I did live in the suburbs, and it is plausible that I would have seen mushrooms there. Perhaps one day I expressed curiosity about them, and my father reacted by screaming at me that they were poisonous and going to kill me and that I was stupid for going near them and so on. Or maybe my father went on some random tirade at me in his typically terrifying way over something else entirely, but since mushrooms were nearby I came to associate them with the terror I felt. Of course we’ll never really know, and it hardly matters. Somehow this strong association developed, and here we are.

To start thinking about mushrooms differently, I talked with a mycologist to learn more about them and what he appreciates about them. So instead of thinking of mushrooms as a manifestation of death and ugliness, I try to remind myself that they are part of a process that makes life possible, and a process that contributes to things I like (e.g., cheese, wine, and beer). Also, when I see a mushroom, I try to focus on the interesting scientific aspects of it rather than aspects that frighten or disgust me. Finally, my therapist suggested that when I do start to feel fear in the presence of a mushroom, I should remind myself that my father’s unwarranted rage and cruelty are the cause of my fear, not the sort of silly-looking thing in front of me.

It has become easier for me to think of mushrooms in non-frightening terms when I am not around them, though it is still hard to maintain this perspective while walking across the lawn. But I’m working on that too.

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