May 19, 2014

#56 Psychological Counseling
All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

At least once a month, someone has to tell me the long story of their attempt to find a comfortable motorcycle helmet. It’s always a sad, painful tale with lots of good intentions and an unhappy ending. In fact, it’s always one of two stories with either rain or family as the motivating factor. I’ve tried to be sympathetic, but, when the tale is told, I’m not particularly impressed with the storyteller’s common sense or courage. In fact, I’m usually about one breath away from saying what I think, by the end of the tale of woe, and calling the woe-teller a “girly-man.”

Of course, claustrophobia isn’t one of my personal phobias, so maybe I’m less than understanding. I can sleep and read upside down in a moving and cramped van full of family, musicians, or personal effects. I snorkel and scuba dive in caves and wreaks. I can wriggle around in basements, crawl-spaces, and closets installing plumbing or wiring (although I hate plumbing). I can work for years in an 8x6 cubicle without taking a shotgun to the execs who sacrificed my working conditions for their quarterly zillion-dollar bonus. Of all of those tight spaces, the cubicle was the worst. However, that was more because I was regularly asked to be a lying sack of canine excrement to protect those executive bonuses, which bothered me a lot more than the physical restriction. Cubes suck, though, and anyone who can tolerate that work environment but claims that a helmet is “too restrictive” needs consistency counseling. No question, though, I can wear a properly fitting, full-face helmet for hours, or days, without freaking out.

The usual tried-and-failed helmet story goes something like this, “I was on my way home from work when the sky fell. I was drenched and flying blind, so I stopped at a local Harley (or name your favorite store) shop and decided it was time to own a helmet with a face shield. I found the largest size on the shelf, so I knew it would fit. I put it on, and freaked out! I thought I was going to suffocate” Lots of quivering and eye-popping panic is demonstrated during the story telling, so I don’t have any problem believing the story. My first reaction is to say, “get over it.” Lots of things are a little difficult the first time, but if you really want to do something you have to get over your mental problems and get on with the task.

My father was so chronically shy that he hadn’t had the guts to ask for a date until he was in his mid-twenties. He was also really good at math, so he planned to spend his life as a retail store’s accountant until he discovered how miserable he was stuck in closet for ten hours a day, adding columns of numbers all by himself. He went back to college and became a high school teacher. He was scared shitless for about three years, until he gradually got over the fear that one of his students would know more about his subject than he did and learned to relax, a little, in the classroom. Sixty years later, he is still shy but he is also able to overcome it to do many of the things he wants to do.

I recommend the same tactic for helmet-phobia. A local women’s columnist, Kim Ode, has some useful suggestions to offer those of you who are anxiety-seized. For example, she says “fear may be our best source of power.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds encouraging. Ode quotes Harriet Lerner, the author of Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, who says that, when we’re fear-driven, “decisions become based on emotions more than facts, or on who’s making us feel better at the moment.” Obviously, a lot of those paranoid folks who want to believe that helmets restrict vision, limit hearing, and accentuate hat-hair are listening to people who make them feel better about being timid, paranoid, and irrational.

Ode and Lerner suggest, “spreading the anxiety around to a variety of things that affect our lives, it eases the obsessive focus on one thing. Put in a more positive light, it’s not that we’re fearing more things as much as we’re paying attention to more things.” And so on.

For example, while you’re feeling nervous about your helmet, you might consider worrying about going deaf riding that noisy twin without hearing protection. You could consider the primitive condition of your cruiser’s brakes, frame geometry, and tires, all of which ought to make you want to wear every piece of safety gear ever invented. You could remove the front brake, so you’ll be without 70-90% of your braking horsepower. Put a pair of ape-hangers on the old bike, and then you can worry about not being able to maneuver the bike under the most benign traffic conditions. Add two feet of low-tensile fork tubing, so the bike can’t be turned in less than an airport runway. Ride wearing sandals, a t-shirt, and shorts. In that gear, you ought to be afraid of touching your own engine, let alone falling down at any speed. Now, you’re ready to try on that helmet again. With all that other stuff to worry about, you can be at peace with a little claustrophobia.

Ode also said, “some people are so afraid of feeling anxious that they start avoiding life. Maybe they refuse to fly, or let their kids go to the playground, or obsess about their jobs.” Or they don’t ride unless the weather is perfect and the long-range weather report claims it won’t rain for the next 30 days and the day-and-night temperatures will be exactly 75F +/-2F. Still quoting Ode, “In fact, the more we practice avoidance, the more our brains convince us that our fear is real.” Or you could find a helmet that fits, haul your garage candy into the sunlight, and go riding.

MMM August 2006

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