This blog entry marks the second in a new series called "Quirks." I've often thought about how I have some strange and unique personality traits that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to hide while growing up. Now that I'm older, I'm realizing my quirks are just part of what make me, me. And who knows?...maybe others can relate to some of these. So, rather than hiding my quirks, as I've done in the past, I figured I'd go the complete opposite route and just bring them to light.
Today's quirk: "Lepidopterophobia"
Ok, where do I begin with this one? Lepidopterophobia is a fear, disgust, and/or general dislike of butterflies and moths. The Latin word "Lepidoptera" literally means "scaly wing" and the species is comprised of various forms of large-winged insects. Lepidopterophobics, like me, are very uneasy around the presence and/or pictures of butterflies. For the most part, people develop phobias because of one or more previous experiences, so let's try to break down my situation a little bit.
I have disliked and been utterly grossed out by butterflies for most of my life. Let me be clear however: I have no fear of being hurt by them. I have never been attacked by them (I mean, what exactly does an attacking butterfly look like anyway?), nor have I had any kind of horrifying experiences associated with them (ie, watching someone get killed as a butterfly simultaneously flutters by). I can really only trace my negative butterfly experiences back to two separate events from my childhood; both of which seemed very normal and innocent at the time.
At the age of five, my kindergarten class was doing a butterfly project; one that most kindergarten classes probably do at some point. We had a big caterpiller in a tank full of sticks and leaves (as the late Mitch Hedberg would say, "to recreate what he's used to"). At the time, I felt that this caterpiller was pretty freaking ugly and I was quite happy when it finally disappeared into its chrysalis. I'm not sure how much time passed by -- to a five year old, a matter of weeks is an eternity -- as I waited and waited for the culmination of this promised butterfly to emerge from its pupal stage. I have to admit now, I was skeptical at the time that this little science project would actually come to fruition.
Finally the day arrived. I was across the room when I heard my classmates yelling excitedly around the tank. I looked over just in time to see this new winged creature emerge and flutter up to the top of the tank where it hung, suspended upside down. I remember thinking that if they opened the lid, that thing was going to get out and somehow the thought of that disturbed me.
At recess time, we all came outside to watch the great butterfly release. My teacher brought the butterfly outside in a tupperware food container, which for whatever reason, I found severely off-putting. When she opened the container, I had hoped to see it take off to the skies and out of sight, much like a bird, but it fluttered around unpredictably, which really freaked me out. Finally, it headed straight for the front door of the school. Maybe we had somehow domesticated the dumb bug. It came to a rest on the small set of steps that we had to climb to get back into the building, and well, it just planted itself there and wouldn't move. I kept looking at it, hoping it would just take off, but it laid there motionless. All throughout recess I was uneasy. I kept looking back at the steps and dreaded the call from my teacher that recess was over, for fear of having to step over the newly freed insect, lest it fly up at me in mid stride. Finally, right before we were summoned back inside, the butterfly took off. I recall feeling much relief after returning inside, yet somehow that previous feeling of uneasiness stuck with me.
Several months later, I was playing in my back yard, digging and doing whatever little boys do. I was grabbing sticks, rocks, and leaves when I came across a giant leaf in the middle of the yard that I thought would be perfect for whatever it was that I was building. As I came within an inch of picking up this giant leaf, I suddenly realized that it was not a leaf at all, but a gigantic dead butterfly. I jerked back in disgust and called out to my Dad, who came outside and exclaimed how beautiful it was. I did not share in his sentiment. He then moved it to the side of our back yard, where I slowly -- and somewhat morbidly -- watched it decompose day after day until it was simply no more. And at that point, my intense aversion to all things butterfly-related had officially set in.
Over the next few years, I came to a conscious realization that I really didn't like butterflies. Being in very close proximity to butterflies would -- and still does -- cause me to sweat, experience chills, and exhibit various other panic attack symptoms. So while I generally tried to avoid them, I would occasionally do the opposite and try to find ways to come face to face with my phobia for no particular reason. On various occasions, I would trap butterflies in nets and seal them off so that I could look at them up close and not have to worry about them touching me. One time I trapped a big monarch butterfly in a net, sealed it off, brought it into the house, looked at it for a while, and then forgot about it. My Mom found it dead in the net a couple days later and forbid me from doing that again. Another time, for a sixth grade art project, we were creating fake stained glass windows made from aluminum foil and colored plastic sheets. I did mine of two giant butterflies perched on a stick. When I was done, I got a lot of compliments on it, but I could barely look at it without feeling chills up my spine. Still at other times, I would collect small caterpillars -- for some reason, I didn't have any aversion to picking them up -- and put them in a plastic container to recreate the kindergarten butterfly project that had turned me off to those things in the first place. When the caterpillars would inevitably transform, I would get severely grossed out and pretty much toss the whole container outside. I did this a few times until I finally came to the realization that I was just being a glutton for torture.
As I reached my high school and college years, I realized that my phobia wasn't going away, so I just tried to ignore it. This worked out fine for the most part, but when you're outside with your friends and a butterfly grazes by your head and you involuntarily hit the deck as though it was a bullet, people have a tendency to notice. I would usually try to play it off as though I didn't realize it was just a butterfly, but that defense only worked the first time. So yeah, I got teased for it, which is always a great feeling during your most hormonally emo years.
I started dating my eventual wife Tara in the summer of 2004. One day, as we were taking a walk through a really nice public garden and trying to get to know each other better, I decided to let her in on my little phobia. As I recall, the sentence went something like this: "Tara, now that we're together, I figured I should tell you, I have this weird, irrational phobia of...." at that moment, I kid you not, a giant swallowtail butterfly made a b-line for my head. I swatted and flailed and when it didn't fly away, I bolted in the opposite direction. I ran about fifty feet and realized that it was still right behind me. So I cut and turned and bolted in the opposite direction, only to look back in horror and see it right behind me again. It's like the thing was attached to me by some invisible string. Three times I sprinted back and forth until, in exhaustion, I screamed "Why are you chasing me?!?!" At that point, it fluttered off and I looked at Tara, who was literally in stitches laughing on the ground. After a few minutes of catching my breath, I finished my sentence and let her know I have an irrational phobia of butterflies. The news was, of course, a complete surprise to her.
Well, why am I now able to come forward publically about this? How am I able to be vulnerable about this rather embarassing quirk of mine? It's quite simple really. I've come to understand that just about everyone has really weird quirks and insecurities that they're in fear of having discovered, and that some of these quirks are just as silly or even sillier than my Lepidopterophobia. And that if we're actually willing to talk about them, there's a lot of freedom in being willing to laugh at yourself a little bit and potentially even discover others who share in the same phobia. Believe it or not, while I've never met another person with a butterfly phobia, there is a website called I Hate Butterflies dedicated to individuals like me who share in the collective disgust toward all forms of Lepidopterans. Some individuals have shared on the website that they've reached the point where they can't even go outside for fear of seeing or encountering a butterfly. While I have personally never had any issues in simply going outside, I can certainly sympathize with what these individuals are feeling. The moral of the story when it comes to your own quirks: lighten up!
I still find it kind of odd that I kill centipedes and spiders in my home on a regular basis and don't really think much of it, but if a moth or butterfly of any kind gets in the house, it's my wife's duty. Overall, this phobia has little to no impact on my day to day life, so no one really has a clue unless I tell them. But if you invite me to join you at one of those hideous Butterfly Pavilions, I will most likely have a previous commitment that day.