My family refer to cotton wool as CW when I’m around. It’s their little way of acknowledging my odd phobia and that I don’t even like hearing the words cotton wool, let alone coming into contact with the stuff. My heart races, saliva rushes into my mouth, the hairs on my arms and neck stand up, I get goose bumps, my toes curl, my hands become fists. I feel sick at the thought of the very particular way in which it would feel and squeak between my fingers. I’ve learned not to scream in horror, but inside I’m churning.
I’ve had this phobia – bambakomallophobia, to give it its suitably ludicrous official name – for as long as I can remember. When I was a young boy I wouldn’t have certain cuddly toys because of their similarity to cotton wool (I had a rubber rabbit instead of fluffy ones). At school, my Father Christmas card had a shredded paper beard, and in my paintings, little fluffy clouds made of cotton wool gave way to clear blue skies. I can remember accidentally cutting myself with a penknife when I was about 10 and being more scared that someone would use cotton wool to wipe the cut clean than I was of bleeding heavily. Visits to the dentist or doctor were just as bad, fearing the swabs in my mouth or cotton wool being used after an injection more than needles or drills. I remember one Christmas when my grandmother produced a lovingly made cardboard house wrapped in red crêpe paper in which she had placed our presents – but it had a cotton-wool roof. Arghh!
So began a lifelong pattern of avoidance. When I have an injection now I’ll request cotton gauze and, luckily, the dentist no longer uses cotton-wool swabs. It was relatively easy to avoid cotton wool until my children started arriving. There’s really no avoiding it when you have a baby’s bottom to clean and wipes result in a rash. That was the first time in decades that I’d been able to touch the stuff, and only after my girlfriend had first made the cotton wool wet for me and squished it flat.
I have worried that I could pass on this aversion to my children – we have three, aged 17, 11 and 5 – but they’re fine with it. Along with pretty much everyone else I’ve met, they find it bizarre and ridiculous and tease me about it – including my youngest, who rolls her eyes exaggeratedly when I ask her to remove any cotton-wool pads I’ve seen on the floor. I’ve started to think that, at 48, it’s really something I should confront and get treatment for. How can I expect my children to overcome any worries or fears they may have when I’m not willing to overcome mine?
I recently chatted to my mother and she told me that when I was two, and my brother was born, I carefully placed all of my soft cuddly toys at the foot of his travel cot the day he arrived home from hospital. I didn’t know that I’d given away my toys – and certainly not in this way. My parents thought this was a sweet gesture, but I think in hindsight it was probably more out of a dislike of their cotton wool-like textures than any altruism. There I was, in some sense throwing my toys out of my pram just at the moment my brother arrived.
According to Cary Cooper, a clinical adviser for the mental health charity Anxiety UK and a professor of organisational psychology and health, my phobia may have had its origins in sibling rivalry. “Your brother’s birth is quite significant,” says Cooper. “It takes the limelight off you; you’re giving up something soft and the metaphor for that could be cotton wool. When it’s a rare phobia like this one, it’s usually associated with a traumatic event. So your brother’s born, attention is off you, you feel like you have to give your toys up.”
Perhaps in later avoiding the soft toys, I was avoiding unpleasant feelings of envy. However, knowing the origins of a phobia doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to address. The fact remains that, 46 years later, the stuff still gives me – in David Foster Wallace’s memorable phrase – the howling fantods.
I ask Cooper if my phobia is clinically recognised. “Yes,” he explains. “A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or a particular situation that elicits an anxiety response, so it could be anything.” It’s not just the understandable, relatable ones, such as spiders or heights; it can be a fear of sponge cake, fresh fruit, knees, even yellow things. In a way, because these are such everyday, benign and faintly amusing objects, this makes them somehow more stressful and certainly more embarrassing.
Where do phobias come from? “In many cases they come from the parents or significant other when you’re a kid – you pick up their phobia,” says Cooper. “Or it’s an anxiety associated with something.” According to one UK study, 13% of the adult population will develop a phobia at some point. Simple phobias most often develop during childhood, but it’s not known for certain why some people are more susceptible to phobias.
Microbiologist Dr Lisa Cross, 42, has a phobia of buttons that started when she was about seven, but she has no idea why. “Buttons have always made me feel revulsion. They are disgusting. They make me feel sick,” she says. There is a strict hierarchy to her phobia, too. “A toggle on a duffel coat is fine, the metal ones on jeans are fine, but anything else on a shirt or similar is awful. Worse than that would be one on the floor, not attached to the garment – even worse if it has a bit of cotton in it.”
For this reason, Cross doesn’t wear blouses and all her coats have zips. She will cross to the other side of the street if there’s a button on the pavement. She has managed to hide any extreme reaction from her eight-year-old son, who has not picked up her phobia, and her method of coping is like mine: “Avoid, avoid, avoid.”
Cross, who lives in Dorset, says she’s had one attempt at therapy, but she couldn’t go through with it. “I’m hugely embarrassed by my phobia, I just feel ridiculous,” she says. The fact that Steve Jobs had a button phobia too (which explains all those roll-necks) and that he did all right, gives her some solace. Also, she’s survived the worst experience she’s ever likely to have with buttons: stumbling across a Pearly Kings and Queens show in London. “That was horrific. Why would anyone do that?”
Unlike Cross, Rowan Moodie, a media relations manager from Buckinghamshire, remembers exactly when her phobia started. “I was stuck in a lift in India in my early teens,” she says. “It was very hot and they said, ‘This has never happened before,’ which was not a great thing to hear. I wanted them to say, ‘This happens all the time and we’ll fix it!’ That experience cemented my phobia of lifts. I just think I’m going to get stuck in a lift for ever,” she says, “and there’s no way out. Bizarrely, I can go in transparent glass lifts, because people can see me and I’d be OK. I’d be saved.”
Moodie admits, “It can be embarrassing. I’ve been at a tube station and I’ve had to ask London Underground officials to take things down in the lift for me, including a buggy with my children in it, even though it’s only one level. I had an interview once at a place where I really wanted to work and I was unable to get into the lift even to go up a couple of floors.”
When it came to the birth of her daughter, five years ago, there was a serious problem. “On my birth plan I put that ‘I will refuse to use a lift even if I’m made to.’ But when it came to it, I had to go in a lift to be transported between two wards. I was told that if I didn’t, then I’d be putting my baby at risk, and I was screaming. Looking back, it’s quite amusing that my biggest fear about giving birth was having to go in a lift, but it was an absolute nightmare.”
Vix Proctor, 38, is head of marketing for a charity, and someone who has also tried to find the funny side of her phobia despite it being extremely distressing. Over the years, she has had many “banana dramas”, as she refers to her phobic reaction to the fruit. “One incident took me two weeks to recover from, after I found a banana slice in a cake,” she says. “I was shivering, the panic attack was so bad. My friend had to kick down the toilet door to get to me, because I’d fainted.” Her friend had bitten into the cake to show her that it was OK, but it turned out there was some banana hiding in it.
Proctor, who lives in south London, believes that her phobia probably comes from her grandmother. She didn’t have a phobia of bananas, but she disliked them so much she banned them from her house. Proctor, who is expecting a child this month, started seeing a CBT therapist as soon as she knew she was pregnant, because she doesn’t want to pass on her phobia to her child. “I want to get to the stage where I can have bananas in the house,” she says, “but I don’t think I could ever feed a baby with a banana. Maybe to have one in the house is a realistic target.”
Funnily enough, Proctor’s fiancé is a bodybuilder. Bananas are part of his regime – he eats at least two a day – but they have to be eaten at work because of her strict house rules. Proctor says she is now making progress with her therapy, so one day he may be able to fuel up at home. “I’m very competitive,” she says, “and I want to try to challenge myself as much as I can.”
Hearing these stories and reading about the efficacy of CBT for treating phobias, I decided to go along for a short CBT assessment with psychologist Kasia Szymanska, co-author of Understanding CBT: Develop Your Own Toolkit To Reduce Stress and Increase Well-being. Szymanska, who has worked with phobias ranging from a fear of heights to a fear of storms, says that avoiding cotton wool for all these years has simply reinforced the idea it’s to be avoided in the first place. “By avoiding it, you keep the phobia going.” Her recommended strategy is that I build up exposure to cotton wool and learn to challenge my negative thinking.
Szymanska gives me a sheet listing 20 categories of distorted automatic thoughts (unhelpful or problematic thoughts). She has highlighted two areas she thinks I may need to work on most: Catastrophising (where you believe what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable you won’t be able to stand it) and Shoulds (you interpret events in terms of how things should be, rather than focusing on what is).
She thinks it could take six to eight sessions of therapy for me to manage my cotton-wool phobia and that I will need to do a lot of work between them to challenge my thinking. She asks me to write down a hierarchy of fears, in which I rate the distress of various situations from 0 to 100 – eg, seeing a picture of cotton wool (20), watching a video of cotton wool being pulled and squeaking (95!) – and deal with the lowest-ranking ones first.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying out a few of her suggestions, the first of which is to switch from referring to CW and to call it what it is. Although this has been met with mock incredulity from my family, it genuinely feels quite liberating to have now broken this particular ingrained habit. Cotton wool, cotton wool, cotton wool! There.
I’ve now managed to hold one of my girlfriend’s cosmetic pads between my thumb and index finger – without moving them, mind – and pushing on through my usual reaction for 30 seconds. I can see how this slow exposure may work, eventually.
I’m really looking forward to my children seeing me start to manage my phobia, to slowly improve, to have – however belatedly – faced a problem and overcome it. Perhaps it will have some other, unforeseen effects. Perhaps I will see that all those other uncomfortable things in life we avoid can be addressed, too.
If you are affected by any of these issues, contact Anxiety UK