What It's Like Living With A Phobia Of Polystyrene

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If you take a quick look around at the world today, you will observe that very little makes sense. Donald Trump might end up as leader of the free world. Joey from Friends is a Top Gear presenter. Justin Bieber is considered a serious artiste. There is no logic. We’re all just a load of atoms hanging together because of electromagnetic force.
I don’t make the rules, baby. Just play by them.
The no-logic of Nothing Makes Sense has manifested itself in several different beautiful ways in my life, but the big one is that I have a phobia of polystyrene. Apparently polystyrene was invented by a psychopath called Eduard Simon, who has somehow managed to ruin my life all the way from Berlin in 1839. Fuck you, Eduard. Fuck you very much.
As with toxic ex-boyfriends or former colleagues, I will cross the street to avoid a block of the foul stuff if it’s out in the road. I cry if it’s near me, and run out of the room shrieking if anything I order comes packaged in it, conveniently leaving boyfriends and housemates to set up the new TV by themselves. I tend to maximise my time avoiding polystyrene by sticking my fingers in my ears and loudly humming "Jerusalem" to myself in the loo. It’s just to remind myself of strength and resolve in the face of supreme squeamishness.
It’s the SOUND. The revolting, revolting sound. My teeth hurt typing this. I can trust myself around polystyrene because I won’t touch it and make it produce that noise and fill the air with that horrible, rustling not-quite-plastic. But other people cannot be trusted and make it squeak against cardboard and scrape against carpet and break it up into hideous little bits so I have to spend the rest of my life throwing up and lying in the foetal position on my kitchen floor while my boyfriend removes my takeaway from its packaging and hates me. Put it this way, if I was given the choice between spending half an hour in a room with the bear in The Revenant, or a toddler and a heap of disgusting poly blocks I would have a tough time making my decision.

I asked around on Facebook if other people had any “weird” phobias, and the answers came in thick and fast. Worms, peas, butter, mayonnaise.

Honestly I’m being very brave just looking at pictures of it online right now and if Frank Lampard can get an OBE, then, well. I don’t know, it’s for the Queen to decide.
I asked around on Facebook if other people had any “weird” phobias, and the answers came in thick and fast. Worms, peas, butter, mayonnaise. Tomato ketchup is the stuff of Sarah Arnold’s nightmares. “I freak out. Go completely irrational,” she tells me. “Like, can't be in the same room.”
So how does she avoid that staple of hangover food and lazy fish-finger dinners? “Bottles are not to be put on tables when I go to restaurants or I freak out. Avoidance is key. Anyone who is close to me knows to move it. I will avoid a place or a table rather than asking someone to move it because I am aware that I'm not being rational.”
Lucinda Borrell has a similarly improbable fear – of putting her feet on wet floor. See above disclaimer re: my not making the rules. “It makes me feel nauseous,” she says. “I'm fine in the shower, but as soon as I step out and my wet feet touch hard floor I genuinely feel like I'm going to throw up.” Lucinda concedes that she’s never actually thrown up, “but it creeps me out so much. I think it started when I was about 10 and I was swimming and the baths got evacuated. In the process I nearly stood on a dead mouse and since then I've been like this. If a floor is wet and I need something in another room, I slide along on a towel.”
The fact that I find their phobias laughably silly and mine Very Serious either points to a major flaw in my character or the fact that humans aren’t great at empathising with each other. It makes sense to me that someone might be afraid of vomit or rats or spiders but these are a bit ridiculous.
Chartered psychologist Robert Edelmann says that there probably are reasons people are afraid of weird things. “Why we fear more obscure objects can sometimes be difficult to explain and may have a number of possible complex explanations,” he says. “It may be possible to find out why from a comprehensive assessment; sometimes there appears to be no specific reason.”
Phobias develop for one of four reasons, Robert explains. “The first cause is by a process of conditioning – associating an unpleasant event with the feared object, e.g. if bitten by a dog we learn to fear dogs – this can generalise to barking or other sounds or other animals. The second is biological preparedness. That is, we are primed to fear certain things as it was useful evolutionarily, e.g. the dark, large, fast-moving animals. Third is ‘modelling’, learning to be fearful by observing other's fearful responses. Thus if a parent jumps on a chair at the sight of a mouse it increases the likelihood that we will as well. Fourth is thoughts of danger or harm which trigger fearful responses.”
If you want to kick your socially shameful phobia, Robert recommends following relaxation techniques. There are some good ones here and I follow them a few times before approaching my light white nemesis. Setting aside 15 minutes for a few days to relax different muscles groups and focus on breathing helps dull the fear.

I take a ball out of the bag and let it rustle against the palm of my hand, dry-heave, and put it back. I do it a few times. I hate it. I can’t break it up.

“When you feel able to get yourself in a relaxed frame of mind, commence the exposure process – this should be a step-by-step process of gradually getting nearer to the feared object,” says Robert. “Get a friend to put some polystyrene in another room and then approach it slowly – do this gradually, relaxing in stages until you are able to stand near to it. Another time start near to it and then try to touch it. Gradually build up to being able to handle it, break it up and so on, whilst relaxed.”
There is no way in hell I’m having a poly block in my house, so I settle on a little bag of “Kraft 4 Kidz” balls designed for children aged four and older to paint. They sit on my sofa like unexploded bombs. After a few days, I open the bag, put my hand in and allow the balls to rustle. I shudder, dry-heave and put the bag back on the sofa. A few hours later, I take a ball out of the bag and let it rustle against the palm of my hand, dry-heave, and put it back. I do it a few times. I hate it. I can’t break it up.
I don’t want to look at the balls or touch them again, but at least now I know I can if it’s a necessity. I can hold those spherical fuckers in my hand and hate them, but allow us to co-exist. Blocks will be the next big stage, and I’m not ready for it yet. But I feel that if I really wanted to unpack a new DVD player I probably could. Probably. Maybe. One day.

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