Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kitchen Knives and Classical Conditioning

Very early in my adolescence I developed a phobia of very sharp things. If I were to create a scale, the least fear inducing sharp object was scissors, box cutters would be in the middle, and the most fear inducing objects would be my NM's very expensive, very sharp kitchen knives. The biggest ones were the scariest, and without a doubt these were the sharpest objects in the house.

Before I continue, let me explain a little about how phobias usually form and work. Phobias tend to be the result of classical conditioning. One of the most well known experiments with humans in this area is the Little Albert experiment. To summarize, classical conditioning is when a Neutral Stimulus is paired with an Unconditioned Stimulus that elicits an Unconditioned Response, such as fear. After one or more pairings, the previously Neutral Stimulus will elicit the same response as the Unconditioned Stimulus without the presence of the Unconditioned Stimulus. Thus, they become the Conditioned Stimulus and Conditioned Response.

Poor Little Albert was exposed to a sudden loud noise and became fearful. This was an Unconditioned Stimulus and Unconditioned Response. When he had recovered he was introduced a white rat. Little infants have no natural fear response to little white rats like they do to sudden loud noises, white rats are a Neutral Stimulus. But then, as Little Albert approached the white rat, BAM, the horrible loud noise! Fear! After repeated exposure, Little Albert would become fearful whenever the white rat was introduced, even without the loud noise. The white rat was now a Conditioned Stimulus and he had a Conditioned Response to white rats. Not only that, it generalized to similar things fuzzy things like rabbits.

The most common phobias are for things that could be dangerous to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Water (drowning!), heights (falling!) , poisonous snakes (generalized to all snakes), poisonous spiders/insects (generalized to all bugs), small spaces (trapped!), and so on. But we can become phobic of anything with the right conditioning. So how did I become afraid of sharp things, you wonder? Were they paired with an Unconditioned Stimulus and fear response in my adolescence? Yes and no.

The stimuli were all in my head, they never happened in reality. I had a strong urge to cut myself, although I never acted on it. And if I was going to kill myself, I was fairly certain I would do so by slitting my wrists. Usually I thought of using the kitchen knives to do so since as I mentioned earlier they were the sharpest objects in the house. Not only that, they were easily accessible, sitting on the counter in their knife block. Never acted on the urge to slit my wrists, either, but all these thoughts created anxiety for me, and they happened often enough that I developed a phobia of sharp things. These self destructive urges and suicidal thoughts, along with benignly putting away knives as a child were my only experiences with knives as NM had no interest in teaching me to cook, so I had no view of them as useful tools for cooking. They were simply sharp, dangerous things in my world once my self destructive thoughts crystallized into urges to cut and/or slit my wrists. I think the phobia was in weird way a kind of self defense mechanism against those self destructive and suicidal urges I experienced (especially when I was angry or upset), so I can't say it was a bad phobia to have. It simply became less useful and more of a hindrance as I got older. To this day I still experience the urge cut myself when I'm experiencing strong negative emotions, but I have since overcome my phobia through years of self imposed gradual exposure. I can handle the biggest kitchen knives now and even own a decorative sword! The only thing I don't do is hand wash our kitchen knives; DH takes care of that. Recently I did wash one myself, though, so that's another step forward.

Moving along! Now that I've established this background, their are two knife stories involving my NM, one of which involves the aforementioned phobia.

When I was about eight years old, and before NM had bought the really expensive kitchen knives, I was putting away clean dishes. Presumably my sister had loaded the dishwasher as that was usually how we operated. One loaded, the other unloaded, then we switched. Unsupervised, as always. The cheapo knives did not merit the care of hand washing and were always loaded into the silverware rack. A paring knife had put loaded with the blade sticking up. I picked it up very carefully with my thumb and index finger, but ended up cutting the tip of my thumb. First and only time I've ever injured myself with a knife. It wasn't deep, it didn't traumatize me, though it sure bled a lot. What did I do? Did I go to my mother? No. I was afraid, terrified even, that she would think I had been playing with the knife and I would be in trouble! I remember it so clearly. I bandaged up my thumb myself and pretended I had a paper cut when she asked about the bandage. She never asked to see underneath. I feel it speaks volumes that a wounded child was afraid to let her mother know she was hurt. You know what else tries to hide injuries from others? Wounded animals. I was like a wounded animal trying to conceal my injury from a dangerous predator! I realize now how NOT normal this whole situation was. Children are supposed to be able to go to their mothers for comfort and aid when they are hurt!

Flash forward to sometime in my teens, probably around 15 years of age. By now I had a full phobia of sharp things, especially those expensive, sharp kitchen knives, which required hand washing. Although my NM didn't know the extent of my fear, she knew that I was afraid of the knives. I would usually leave them for somebody else to wash or put away and nobody ever made a fuss about it. One day though, for some reason, my NM decided to make a big deal about my not doing the knives. It happened in the kitchen, by the sink, probably when I was by the sink, which was in a corner. I don't remember what was said. I only remember her being angry. I remember being cornered, counter to my left and at my back was the sink, extending to the right behind me. Next to the sink were the knives, and I remember my NM holding one of the large ones with her left hand. She wasn't holding it like she was going to stab me or anything (besides, she's right handed so if she was going to stab me she'd have put it in her right hand), just holding it, her wrist resting on the counter as she held it, while her other hand rested on the counter to my left, trapping me in the corner. There was no way around her and she had a knife. I don't remember anything that was said, I don't remember when she let me go, only that eventually she did, but it seemed like forever to me.

I was terrified. Utterly, horribly, absolutely, terrified.

And I was in therapy at the time.

I never told my therapist about what happened. Crazy, right? That's how messed up I was. And I've never mentioned the incident to my NM since it happened. I doubt she would me believe me, either she'd say it didn't happen at all, or that she wasn't holding the knife. Or maybe she'd try to justify it by saying she wasn't pointing it at me. I don't know. It doesn't matter what she has to say about it. I know it was real, I know it happened. I will never forget the fear.