Bizarre phobia: “It’s wet and juicy and smelly..."
WHEN Anna Cox, 35, was in primary school she remembers her mum trying to bribe her to eat a piece of fruit.
"She said something like, 'I'll give you a dollar if you eat a grape,'" the mother-of-four recalls. "I couldn't do it."
For as long as Anna can remember she's had a phobia of fruit. Not a dislike of fruit. A proper phobia, one that affects her everyday life. When faced with a piece of fruit she experiences a rush of adrenaline and panic that many of us get when we see a spider or a snake.
"It's that it's wet and juicy and smelly," she says. "The thought of touching it, getting it on me, is horrible."
Anna, from Sydney's inner west, can vividly remember almost every distressing fruit encounter she's ever had.
"One time I was in high school and I accidentally let my hand brush up against someone's mandarin peel," she says.
"I raced to the bathroom to wash my hands but I couldn't get the smell off. It was horrifying. I couldn't get that smell of mandarin off my hands all day."
A few years ago she was at her prayer group with her eyes closed to pray when a small boy wandered up and put a mandarin in her hands. "I screamed," she said.
She also recalls neighbours squishing banana through their teeth to frighten her as a child and has a strong memory of someone eating an orange loudly and feeling "grossed out".
Contrary to what many believe about phobias, Anna says there was no single traumatic event in her childhood that triggered her fear of fruit. She didn't get food poisoning from an apple or find herself trapped in a locked cupboard with rotting bananas.
This, says phobia expert Corrie Ackland, clinical director and principal clinical psychologist of the Sydney Phobia Clinic, is quite common. "People think there must be some childhood onset, some single event that 'caused' the phobia," she says. "In fact, phobias can emerge at any time in a person's life, without an obvious reason."
Ackland says phobias are usually divided into three groups: Animals (often spiders, cockroaches or dogs), situational (such as heights, confined spaces or flying) and blood/injury (the most common being a fear of injections).
She says she hasn't treated anyone with a phobia of fruit before, but suggests it's likely Anna's normal "disgust" reflex - the impulse that steers us away from eating rotten or poisonous food - has, in her case, simply attached itself to fruit.
Many of us can control our fear of spiders or flying on the occasion we're forced to face them. But for some, the phobia is debilitating. Anna has had to eat around plates of food with fruit on it at dinner parties - leaving most of it behind. And she's had moments of real fear when friends have served fruit salad ("The brown bits all mixed in together!" she recalls with horror).
Then Anna had children, and felt that their nutritional needs had to come before her fears. "I felt guilty that I wasn't feeding my kids fruit so I forced myself," she says. "But they still don't eat a lot of it."
When her eldest daughter began to eat solids, Anna forced herself to cut up bananas - with a knife and fork and wearing gloves. She found that dealing with fruit puree was less distressing than whole fruits, and so bit by bit allowed herself to feed her daughter pureed apple.
"I like the kids to be in a highchair so I can control it - I know it's all going to stay in one place and there's less chance it'll get everywhere," she says.
Ackland says Anna's ability to slowly expose herself to fruit is admirable, and the best way to fight phobias. Her clinic uses a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and gradual exposure therapy to help sufferers overcome their fears.
Yes, says Ackland, the exposure therapy is the bit that terrifies everyone the most - at first. "But by the time we get to that part they're ready," she says. "I had someone this week with claustrophobia go up Centrepoint Tower in that tiny lift four times. He coped amazingly."
For the most part, Anna Cox has made peace with her phobia - and will happily have a laugh about its quirkiness. "People ask me about it all the time, which is fine. I don't mind talking about it. It's just a part of who I am."
Besides, she says, it seems like fruit is kind of out of fashion these days. "All those fad diets around at the moment ban fruit, don't they?" she says laughing. "I'm just ahead of the curve."
OTHER UNUSUAL PHOBIAS
- Anna says that she doesn't even have the most outlandish phobias out of her friends. "One of my friends is terrified of buttons," she says. "Not when they're on clothes, but when they're loose." Another, she says, fears people with limps.
- Reports earlier this year suggested President Donald Trump has a phobia of stairs and ramps, also called "bathmophobia". The rumours emerged after he was seen to grab the hand of British PM Teresa May as the two were about to descend a ramp. However the White House has not confirmed this either way. The President has, however, acknowledged that he has a phobia of germs, once calling the practice of shaking hands "barbaric".
- Brad Pitt has admitted that he has a phobia of antique furniture. "I just don't like old stuff. I'm creeped out by it, and I have no explanation why," he told The independent. "I don't have a phobia about American antiques, it's mostly French - you know, like the big, old, gold-carved chairs with the velvet cushions."
- Nicole Kidman is said to have a phobia of butterflies - or lepidopterophobia. She once said: "Sometimes when I would come home from school the biggest butterfly or moth you'd ever seen would be just sitting on our front gate. I would climb over the fence, crawl around to the side of the house - anything to avoid having to go through the front gate."