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Germ Bag

Bone of Contention

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 6/6/2001

It took 34 years, but finally it's here: my first irrational fear.

Oh sure, I've dreaded many things: roaches, public speaking, fluffy team mascots. But those phobias made sense. This new one does not.

Suddenly, I feel an extreme revulsion to a part of my own body, a part I've been happily toting around for more than three decades. But now, out of nowhere, I can't even bear to think about this formerly innocuous section of me. Just visualizing it gives me a bad case of the willies. And there's no way I can touch it, or let anyone else within a two-foot radius of it.

What I suddenly fear--and it's tough to even write this--is my own sternum, that awful dagger-shaped thing that runs the length of the breastbone, acts as the nexus of the ribs, and has a little appendage that sticks out at the bottom. Oh god, that little hang-y part of it that protrudes at a slightly odd angle just below one's boobs is the worst, the absolute worst! Ugh! Ick!

Believe me, I don't know what this is about. There was no onset event. I was not injured in the upper midriff. All I know is, about a month ago, frequent uninvited thoughts of my sternum just started floating into my head. Those were followed by ruminations about how reprehensible the bony little notch is. Next, I found myself unwilling to wear bras, as I couldn't stand how they constricted the sternum. I also found myself beseeching my man Marty to please not refer to my sternum, or anyone else's. "Please," I'd plead, "don't say the s-word." Thinking I was just pretending to be batty, he'd sing, "Sternum, sternum, sternum!" And I'd double over mentally.

It only took a few days for me to reach an advanced stage of sternal preoccupation, characterized by a strange mix of protectiveness and disgust. All this worrying over the evil bone at the center of my chest started making it seem as though someone was pressing on it. That quickly escalated to the sensation of someone wrapping a belt around my lower chest and tightening it. Oh, the horror. I would slouch and sometimes bend over, trying to shake these feelings. Not a good way to live your life. And the absolute nastiest thing about loathing your own body part, I discovered, is that you can't employ serious avoidance tactics, like other phobia victims can. Because how are you going to avoid your own chest?

Suddenly everywhere I looked, references to sternums poked out at me. A Vanity Fair article had the gall to detail how Lauren Hutton broke her sternum in a motorcycle accident. This spooked me badly for an entire day. Then, a few nights later, I tuned in to David Letterman just in time to hear him tell Jenna Elfman how he'd had bone marrow extracted from his sternum. Criminy!

That was a hideous thing to have to hear, but it turned out to be therapeutic. That's because I got to witness Jenna Elfman skeeve out something fierce. "Your sternum?" she gasped. "They took it out of your sternum? Oh my god! Not your sternum!"

Whew, I thought. I am not alone.

To confirm this diagnosis, I got on the Internet and hunted for that long-ass list of phobias that gets e-mailed around every so often. I figured once I found the official name for my new affliction, I could get in a chat room and hash this out. But when I located the list and did a search for "fear of your own sternum," I came up with nothing. I tried "fear of your own body part." Again, nothing. Then I just did "sternum," then "body," then "breastbone," and "rib." All I got was the empty set. There are folks out there who fear philosophy and balding people, otters and balloons, but no one who's offended by the existence of their own sternum. Great.

Next I thought I'd attempt to understand my sternum. For anesthesia, I downed a beer, then embarked upon a general Internet search. Within seconds, I was gawking at some ghastly medical drawings. I saw that the sternum looks like a necktie with a tongue sticking out at the bottom. I learned that the tongue part, the section that truly unnerves me, is called the "xiphoid process," and that it's made of cartilage but becomes bony in "later years." Gosh, maybe mine is ossifying as we speak, I thought. Maybe that's what this is all about. My next stop was a site that featured "sternum saws" and a video of a sternum being split open for heart surgery. I quickly logged off.

That night, I lay in bed, feeling jittery and wondering how much pressure my sternum would feel during the second and third trimester of a pregnancy. Would the baby's head push the xiphoid process out toward the world at an even odder angle? Probably. Maybe I'll adopt.

Next I thought about being at the gym in the supine position and having a barbell fall on me and crush my sternum. Then, flashing on Pink Floyd: The Wall, perhaps, I envisioned a roving band of wild and angry hammers, all of which want at my sternum. With that, I made a sort of tent over my chest with the covers so that my cats wouldn't walk on my terrible protruding bone of doom. My breathing became labored. I felt the belt again.

Thankfully, a ray of hope pierced my head: my sister! That's right--she fears her own shins! I'd forgotten that all you have to do is mention shins and she goes rigid, holding her hand up in the universal "please stop" motion. "Shins, shins, shins," I'd taunted for 20 years, just to see her writhe. All along, I just didn't understand the shin thing. But now I do--and how.

The next morning I rang her up to tell her that suddenly I'm a full-fledged member of her tribe, empathizing with her in a way I never could before. I milked her for theories, feeling certain she'd have the answer. Did this ridiculousness come from our very eccentric father, now deceased? She said no.

"Yes, but he always tried to be so manly," I countered. "Do you think if he feared his own, say, elbow, that he would have admitted it? Probably not."

"Face it," was all Marcia said. "We're just odd."

Needing something more than that, I cast about for more firm hypotheses. First, I wondered whether my particular affliction was related to my upcoming wedding. After all, my heart's just behind and to the left of my sternum. The sternum exists to protect it. I don't consciously fear my impending nuptials, the act of giving away my heart forever--but perhaps there is fear in there deep, and this is my psyche's whacked-out, indirect way of showing it. Or is it simply a posture issue? Lately I've been attempting to sit up straighter, which involves some chest thrusting. Is my sternum simply scraping against my chest skin, and thus feeling more vulnerable? Or could it be my pre-wedding bridal workout program, which has involved a lot of huffing and puffing on chest-focused Nautilus machines? Perhaps I've just pulled something, that's all.

Or maybe my brain has taken to inventing things to fuss over. After all, most major elements of my life seem to have fallen into place lately. Having permanently landed a stellar man, I've no more love-life conundrums to wring my hands over. Having quit my job and gone freelance, there are no more a-hole bosses to whine about. Perhaps the fret section of my frontal lobe, not knowing what else to do with itself, has taken to concocting things to brood about. And hey, why not start with the thorax region?

Or maybe it's just my mild asthma causing troubled lungs to swell against bone. Oh, I don't know. I'm not about to go to a doctor to figure it out, because surely he or she will probe my sternum, and Christ in a sidecar, I can't have that.

Feeling confounded and alone, I began desiring communion with others who are spazzed out by bizarre things for no apparent reason. I sent a group e-mail to pals and readers asking if they harbored any freaky phobias, and two days later I was awash in kooky but comforting tales. Thankfully, it turns out I'm part of a huge, pulsating, anxious, nail-biting group that probably needs to be sedated.

I learned that my friend Mark worries about evil children hiding under his bed, children who are eager to slash his Achilles tendons as he walks past. I learned that Monica fears big, fluffy white clouds because "nothing that massive can be up to any good." I'm told that John fears "the Dutch"--that is, people from Holland--and everything about them. Yvonne worries that when she goes to see live music, someone will spill a beer on an amplifier and the lead guitarist will be electrocuted to a crisp, along with several other band members. She even has nightmares about it.

Faith revealed to me that she fears Sasquatch, and worries that there are four or five of them out there. She thinks about it a lot. "I do suspect that he's likely a vegetarian," she wrote. "But I don't want to find out. He doesn't have to consume me to still dismember me in a hairy blue rage."

Jason, I learned, fears clowns, and lipstick on napkins because it makes him think of the makeup that clowns wear. Several people suspect that birds are up to no good, with one person singling out penguins as particularly evil. Another individual can't stand the sight of Jacques Cousteau "because he goes underwater, where you can't breathe." One person fears left turns, and will drive all over creation to avoid making one.

Bill, a pilot, fears heights, and also worries that whole crowds will suddenly turn on him and kill him. Rebecca fears taking a bath. Why? "Sharks," she said. One of my nephews fears "flying hobos," while Elise worries that piles of snakes will fall from trees and engulf her body. Cara fears paper cuts on her eyeballs. Jeanne reported getting shaky near all bodies of water: "I feel like some lagoon monster with crab pinchers and tentacles is going to pull me under." Nicole fears planes will crash into her house. Bryson is scared of boiler rooms.

Three people reported seeing a doctor for their phobias. Jeanne #2 sought therapy for her crippling fear of alien abduction, while Mary help overcoming her fear of canned tomatoes. Mary's therapist used exposure therapy to eventually eradicate her fears. First Mary had to touch small cans of Romas, then larger ones. Then she advanced to making a pizza. Since Jeanne's therapist couldn't do that with aliens, he postulated that the slimy gray ones with big eyes were representative of the areas of Jeanne's life she had lost control of. The third, Kathleen, underwent biofeedback and relaxation therapy to battle her fear of centipedes and millipedes, critters that seemed to grow to epic proportions when she raised a flyswatter to them.

Of course, all of this made me feel much better, as did statistics from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Mental Health. Apparently, 18 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from some kind of phobia, with 4 to 5 percent of those being "clinically significant." A lot of it, scientists say, is pre-programmed fear responses left over in our brains from the days when we had to look out for big, nasty predators.

No, there's no mention of fear of one's own body parts in the literature or in any of my friends' responses, but that's OK. I think I've figured out a way to beat this thing. The experts warn phobia sufferers not to try exposure therapy at home. But screw that. The way I see it, the answer lies in the fondling of anatomical models, as soon as possible. If I can just get my hands on a life-size plastic likeness of the ribcage and sternum and spend lots of time rubbing it, I think I'll be all right. Trouble is, these things cost $289, not including shipping and handling.

But like I've told Marty, my birthday's coming up.

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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
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