But, Bourne continued, there was good news: Specific phobias respond well to treatment.
* * *
“I don’t think people realize how effective this therapy can be,” said Katherina Hauner, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Northwestern University specializing in phobia treatment. I’d called her to get her thoughts on conquering cetaphobia. Unlike treatment for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Hauner said, treatment for specific phobias has a 95- to-98-percent success rate.
The clinical term, she said, is “exposure therapy.” Under the guidance of a therapist, people approach the object or situation they fear in measured, careful steps. In a 2012 study in Hauner’s lab, people with arachnophobia began with talking about spiders, then a cartoon drawing of a spider, then a realistic photograph, and so on, until they were touching or holding a real spider. Each step forward caused a fear response, but instead of running away, the study participants stayed put to confront both the trigger and the feelings of fear, training their brains that the trigger was not a threat. Even people with severe arachnophobia, Hauner said, “were able to touch or hold a live tarantula in their bare hands within three hours of exposure therapy. None of the participants could believe that they had achieved this, but every single one of them did.”
By the end of the study, she added, “a lot of people ended up liking spiders.” I was dubious.
“The worst thing you could do” for a specific phobia, Hauner said, “is not even try.”
And so, 20 years after the fourth-grade field trip, I've returned to the museum. I find myself glued like a barnacle to the cool, curving wall of the Hall of Ocean Life, pitting curiosity against fear.
The whale is still there. It’s even bigger than I remembered. Goosebumps rise on my arms. The room feels cold. My blood feels cold. I spot a security guard, and decide a little conversation will distract me from the sound of my pounding heart. I try to play it cool.
“Some kids are afraid of the dinosaurs or the butterflies,” the security guard tells me, “but the whale? No. I’ve never seen anybody afraid of the whale.” He must be new here, I think. My knuckles glow like knobs of bleached coral against the brass banister.
I walk slowly around the perimeter of the room to view the whale from all possible angles, gradually getting closer and closer. The closer I get to coming face to face with this thing, the colder I feel. As I near the whale’s head, my fear-charged legs propel me out of the room and behind the dusty body of a taxidermied Bengal tiger.
It’s ridiculous, I realize: I’m hiding behind a tiger to escape from a whale.
I retreat to the gift shop, but stride out again almost immediately; in my panicked state, I can’t even stand the pod of plush whales near the cash register. Down in the cafeteria, I sip a fountain soda and glare at a display of whale-shaped sugar cookies. The royal-blue icing skin gleams dully under the fluorescent lights. Rows of sinister black sugar eyes stare back at me. My legs twitch. I want to go home, but I won’t. Not yet.