She sat curled up on the couch across from me, watching me warily from beneath the long brown bangs that covered her eyes. She was scared. In a small voice she told me that the panic attacks and severe anxiety had finally gotten the best of her, and she couldn’t fight them alone anymore. “Can you help me?” she pleaded, the note of desperation apparent in her eyes.
I asked the required myriad of questions and she answered, becoming calmer and more open as the minutes ticked by. This 22-year-old young woman had been plagued by a fear of bees since childhood, and with summer and all its flora in full bloom, her phobia had escalated. “I can’t go outside in the yard without thinking about them”, I can’t go to cookouts without fear and I can’t have a normal life.” She revealed the ridicule and exasperation she regularly receives from friends and family when she is suddenly frozen with panic and can’t breathe at the mere sound of a buzzing bee on a nearby flower. She processed the shame she feels when she turns down invitations from friends to go on a hike or to the park. She expressed the anger she suppresses at their laughter when she turns and runs at the sight of a wasp. “No one understands”, she explained sadly, tears brimming at the edges of her brown eyes. “It is so ridiculous, I know it’s just a tiny insect, but to me, it’s a monster. I feel like I am going to die when I see or hear one and just knowing they are all around, makes me want to stay inside and hide”.
I listened and gently encouraged her to talk. She slowly and reluctantly began to open up. She unveiled an incident at age four in which she watched her older brother climb a crab apple tree on a warm sunny summer day. She recalled him falling and screaming. She sat frozen and saw “yellow things” crawling all over him. She recalled that he was flailing his arms, covering his face and rolling on the ground. She remembers her mother running out of the house, frantically screaming. She remembers the sirens, the ambulance and the car ride to the hospital. She can still hear her mothers choking sobs when the doctor told her that the stings had been too many. Her brother had disturbed a nest of yellow jackets and been stung over two hundred times. He had been allergic to the venom and had died.
Her small shoulders shook and tears fell down her cheeks as she recalled this trauma. In her experience, bees killed. Her fear, based on a childhood tragedy, is as real as it gets. My heart went out to her. The exposure to bees has always been a reminder that a beautiful summer day can turn into the worst kind of nightmare.
I vowed to do my best to help her. We have a journey ahead, but we will take it together, at her pace and hopefully, she will one day be free. Bees may always make her jump, but over time she will come to know that she will not, like her brother, die.
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