On making yourself believe things

When I was a young adolescent, I became obsessed with the idea that I was going to eat something that would kill me. Looking back, I wonder if this fear was planted in my mind when I read Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire. Godden’s heroine, a naive Englishwoman attempting to live a “simple life” in an Indian hill village, unwittingly alienates her neighbours (including those whom she employs in her home) to the extent that she finds ground glass in the food cooked for her and her daughters. After I read Kingfishers, my fear of finding glass in my food grew and grew. Almost as soon as I woke up every morning,  the idea would wake up too. I ruminated constantly about all the different ways this could happen. Was today the day I would be poisoned? Would it be my breakfast that was contaminated? The packed lunch I took to school? The dinner I shared with my family?

Every interaction with food that I was going to eat was fraught with danger. Picking blackberries, I couldn’t stop imagining ways in which the fruit could be contaminated with broken glass. If I dropped a blackberry and picked it up, could it have come into contact with a fragment of glass on the ground, which would then make its way into the container I was putting the blackberries in, and then into the blackberry crumble and onto my plate? My heart started to beat faster at the thought of the inevitable horrible death.  My fear expanded to include other sorts of ingestible death. A pie cooked in an enamel pie dish; is enamel poisonous? Could a chip of enamel come off the plate and into the pie filling? Could the metal exposed by the chipped enamel be poisonous? The otherwise blameless Mary Rodgers, author of  children’s book Freaky Friday, introduced me to botulism in the follow-up A Billion For Boris. The idea of botulism made me very apprehensive about eating anything from a tin or a jar.  Every time I ate, the clockwork in my mind would start, and my mind would click into its routine of thinking of ways in which my food could have been contaminated.

We all know that if you think about a bodily phenomenon, it gets more noticeable. If you’re aware that a particular illness has a certain symptom, you may well decide that you have that illness if you think you can detect the symptom. Similarly, if you think you have a particular illness or syndrome, everything you feel is confirmation-biased into a symptom of the ailment you believe you haveg. So for me during this time, my every bodily sensation became a symptom of poisoning. You might think that a perfectly healthy young adolescent wouldn’t have any physical sensations that could be interpreted as symptoms of poisoning, but you’d be wrong. Every borborygmus, every muscular twinge, each time I felt fuzzy or lazy or headachey, I knew, I just knew, that this was the onset of a slow, hideous death by poisoning.

If social media had existed then, I would certainly have been online looking for information, and would doubtless have found a community of people who also thought they were about to be poisoned.  As it was, I didn’t tell my parents or anyone else about my obsession with poisoning. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Because I knew, with the part of my mind that hadn’t bought into the idea of being poisoned, that the idea was ridiculous,. I also knew that my parents would, probably in most unsympathetic terms, tell me that it was a ridiculous idea. The current fashionable parenting style is to give all your children’s ideas a sympathetic hearing, even if you believe them to be ridiculous, but actually my parents’ rather more bracing attitude was helpful because it prevented the idea from getting too much of a grip.  It also prevented me from developing obsessive behaviours based on my ruminations about being poisoned. I didn’t systematically avoid certain foods, or start washing everything a dozen times, but it took an effort of will on my part not to start doing this.

I am also aware that if my parents had known what I was thinking, and had agreed with me (“yes, darling, you are at imminent risk of poisoning”) and facilitated it, it would very quickly have developed into a full-time, full-on obsession. If they had used their adult powers of persuasion, as well as the influence parents have over their children, they could have turned what was a mild obsessional phase lasting a few months into a proper, life-long delusion. It’s very clear to me how easy it is, or would be, to embed ideas in children’s minds, or to detect an embedded idea and to reify it.Reading the origin stories of young people who believe themselves to be transgender, it’s notable that just as I would constantly examine every twinge for its resemblance to symptoms of poisoning, these young people constantly examine every passing thought and emotion for its similarity to the “dysphoria” they’ve read about online.

Thinking back to my reading habits, I don’t think Kingfishers Catch Fire was the only begetter of my phobia about poisoning. I think it was the key to a lock which I’d already installed with my fascination with the section on household poisons in Mrs Beeton. Perhaps I was a rather eccentric child. I don’t know anyone else who obsessively read any of Mrs Beeton as a youngster. But no child in the UK, or in the US or Canada or Australia, can escape the installation in their mind of the lock of gender identity; social media, mainstream media, the school curriculum are all designed to embed that lock in their psyche. The miracle is that so many of them are avoiding picking up the key to that lock.

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