This is insane, I thought. What are you going to do, pass on this fear to another generation?
“It’s more scared of you than you’re scared of it,” coaxed Sherri, my counselor, as I stood frozen to the spot. “Keep moving and it will fly away!”
I barely heard her. I was too stunned to speak, my tongue no longer working. There is no way in the world that it’s more scared than I am right now, I thought, as I inched my way forward.
Sherri took hold of my hand. “If you stay there it’s going to sting you. You need to move!”
I was in a clearing in the woods, far from my bunkhouse. The bee was on my arm, and the bee was big. Correction: It was massive. Gigantic! The size of a lizard! Well, to my eight-year-old mind, anyway. And it cloaked me with the familiar paralysis that occurred every time a bee made its unwelcome appearance.
Still, I kept moving. Sherry pulled me along as fast as she could. My eyes were huge, round, glassy and unfocused. Until the bee finally flew off, the world may as well not have existed. I wasn’t just terrified, I was full-on phobic.
I know, I know. Most people don’t like small buzzing, flying things which can sting and leave an uncomfortable blotch. But I had a huge, overwhelming fear of bees. It was inherited from my mother, who was allergic to bee stings, and would react in panic when a bee appeared. From a young age, I have hazy memories of her screaming in fright when she saw a bee and running in the opposite direction. Even though I had been stung before, and I knew I was not allergic, her fear had taught me that bees are dangerous.
If a bee was in the house, I’d lock myself in my bedroom. If a bee was on a bush in the garden, I’d jump into our swimming pool to escape. A bee pretty much anywhere would send me into hiding, where I would remain for the duration, until I thought that the bee was for sure gone. Only then would I slowly venture out.
My mother, to her credit, saw my terror and learned to mask her fear when she was around my younger siblings, so they grew up less fearful. They did not have the same response to bees that I did. But me? To me, bees were fear itself. And a wasp? Forget it. A wasp was like a helicopter. Hiding was the only response I knew.
My phobia was part of my daily life, especially in the summer. In school, the fear was less obvious since most girls hate bugs and flying creatures, but there were other times when it got embarrassing.
During Seminary was one such occasion. I was babysitting at my chesed family, and the kids were scared. “Elky, there’s a bee in the kitchen!” Hello, Fear. I so badly wanted to save the day and kill the bee, and I tiptoed to the kitchen to take a look. There it was, in all its glory, calmly sitting on the refrigerator door, its stripes in sharp contrast to the white laminate. One look at it, and the color drained from my face. I turned around, locked the kitchen door and sent the ten-year-old to call a neighbor.
“The babysitter’s here but she’s terrified because her mother’s allergic to bees,” I heard her explain to the confused neighbor as they clattered through the door a few minutes later. The neighbor nodded as if he understood, then opened the kitchen door and killed the bee in one quick swoop. I thanked him profusely and told myself to breathe. I wished I wasn’t so terrified, but I also didn’t really know how to be any different.
But there came a point when I realized this could not go on any longer.
I was married with a baby, and I was still terrified of bees. When a bee flew into my apartment on a beautiful summer day, it was the final straw.
My husband was out learning. With no alternative, I grabbed my baby, dumped her in the stroller, and walked briskly to my sister-in-law’s house, where I stayed until my husband came home and caught the bee. But I knew this could not continue. This is insane, I thought. What are you going to do, pass on this fear to another generation? This has to stop! But then came a more practical question: What am I going to do about it?
Salvation arrived from an unexpected source. At the time, I was working in a special-ed school near my home, and a teacher, Mrs. Frenkel, was doing a unit on bees. The students were learning about beehives and honey and pollination, not about fear. In passing, I mentioned to Mrs. Frenkel that I had this terrible phobia of bees, and she suggested that I needed to desensitize myself, so that the fear would be less intense.
“Could you look at a picture of a bee?” Mrs. Frenkel asked me. I hemmed and hawed, then decided I could look at a drawing. So she found a drawing of a bee, and I looked at it. So far so good.
Seeing that the drawing was not an issue for me, Mrs. Frenkel then went to pull out a photo. It was a real close-up of a bee — all the color, all the detail. As soon as she showed it to me, I started to shudder, then turned away. “Try to look at it, Elky,” she coaxed, and I sneaked a peek again.
After that, desensitization became a project. Each day, Mrs. Frenkel showed me that close-up photo for a few more seconds, until I was able to look at it for a while longer. Then, she upped the game: This time she took out a photo of a gigantic swarm of bees — black and yellow in one massive, terrifying cloud. “Can you touch that, Elky?” Mrs. Frenkel asked. I held out a trembling finger, then withdrew it, fast. “No.” So that was what we worked on for the next few days. First looking, then touching, until my pulse wasn’t leaping a million miles a minute, and my fingers no longer trembled when they got near the paper. I was getting somewhere, definitely, but it was still much different than facing an actual bee.
Hashem obviously thought I was ready for the next stage, because just a few weeks later, I was in my laundry room when I saw a bee. Not a large one, just normal-size, but a bee, nonetheless. Okay, I said to myself, I can do this, we’ve been working on this. I picked up a towel like a true heroine, then dropped it again. No, I can’t do it that way. I deliberated, then realized we had bug spray in the house. It was in another room. Determinedly, I ran, grabbed the bottle, then slowly, slowly walked back, and gingerly opened the door to the laundry room. The next step happened quicker: squeezing my eyes shut as tightly as I could, I waved, sprayed, then waved and sprayed again. I hoped I was aiming in the right direction! I was sweating as if I was running the marathon. It was fear and determination, all mixed up, coursing through my veins, faster and faster.
I was shaking and perspiring, but I killed the bee. I did it. It was a heady feeling. And the beginning of a new era.
From that day on, things changed. Do I love it when a bee shows up? No! If there’s someone else around to kill it, will I let them? Happily! But that need to run away, to avoid, to lock myself up, has baruch Hashem disappeared. I’m able to shoo a bee out to where it belongs (with my eyes open!), while feeling calm inside.
I left my job at the special-ed school and I lost touch with Mrs. Frenkel. But what she did for me allowed me to overcome a phobia that had ruined many moments in my life until then. I had wanted to overcome my challenge, and Hashem sent someone my way just at the right time to help me do it. Wherever she is, she should be gebentshed! And as for my fear of passing the phobia on to my children, my kids are totally unfazed by bugs.
So hello, Fear — apparently, you’re welcome here.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 898)
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