The Observer - 26 August 2013
Image courtesy of The Observer Newspaper.
A passing mention of an irrational fear of the dark brought Mariella Frostrup one of her biggest ever mailbags. Here, our agony aunt faces up to her demons, and looks for answers from Lulu Appleton Hypnotherapist at the Harley Street Hypnotherapy Clinic.
This may come as less of a surprise to readers than it does to me but I'm not nearly as functional as I imagined. Think of the classic fright-flick poster: blonde woman, eyes wide in terror, hands clasped to cheeks as she confronts some unimaginable (and to the viewer invisible) horror… that's me most nights.
When I went public on my fear of the dark, writing "me too" in what may have been one of my least helpful responses to a troubled reader, a deluge of sufferers wrote to admit they were similarly afflicted. The letters weren't just from those sensibly nervous when wandering an empty street after midnight, but full-on phobics like myself left paralysed with fear and virtually unable to sleep alone.
Is it some form of mass hysteria or is the dark, as I've always believed, actually scary? I can't sleep in an isolated place without pills, earplugs and both my children in bed with me for fear of scary, feral characters with a hankering for the wilderness.
In the city I wake bolt upright in the small hours convinced that intruders are marauding through our apartment despite Swiss bank-style security arrangements. Instead of delivering me into oblivion, too often exhaustion heralds hours of agitated wakefulness, initially kick-started by a creak in the floorboards or the rattle of a window pane. A few months ago I vowed in this magazine to attempt hypnosis as a cure for these night fears and I return with the assurance that all my worst nightmares are in my head. Admittedly, that's not much of a comfort. To my relief, "fear of the dark" isn't as irrational as it seems.
According to the esteemed psychotherapist Phillip Hodson, to whom I turned for a more informed opinion, we needn't feel foolish in our trepidation. "From tales of the Egyptian gods," he says, "to all the most successful series on HBO, the shadows are employed to create an air of menace by relying on the vulnerability and lack of control we experience in darkness." He has a point when it comes to the way night-time is abused by film directors. A diet of movies where nothing good happens after the sun sets, from To Kill A Mockingbird to Batman to Friday the 13th, doesn't help to nurture a healthy relationship with the small hours. Great terror maestros such as Hitchcock knew how to play on such fears and manipulate them into paroxysms of terror.
One of my few childhood memories is as an eight-year-old, refused permission to watch the Hitchcock season on Irish television, sneakily viewing The Birds though a crack in the living-room door. It transformed my hitherto perfectly enjoyable half-mile walk to school, down a country lane patrolled by watchful birds, into a terrifying ordeal.
The hypnotherapist I consulted, in my effort to understand what seems to me a shameful condition for a near-50-year-old, was more than a little curious about the "Grand Blanks", as I've dubbed my early years. Mentally mislaying a vast chunk of your life doesn't automatically qualify you for membership of the fear-of-the-dark brigade but it certainly seems to help. I sat in a reclining leatherette armchair in Lulu Appleton's Harley Street Hypnotherapy Clinic consulting room while she listened sympathetically to my symptoms. But instead of lulling me into a gentle hypnosis and convincing me that nightfall was as soft as it sounds, she wanted me to elaborate on my wiping-out of memories from eight to 16. Poking around in those dark recesses seemed to her, a firm believer in the curative powers of inner-child work, the obvious place to find more tangible demons.
It's a universal truth that no parent wishes to acknowledge that the fear and phobias we are in thrall to in adulthood almost invariably connect back to childhood experiences. Obviously there are exceptions: grown-ups exposed to unprecedented negative experiences – whether extreme violence, war, rape, premature loss and so on – develop psychological issues later in their lives, but it's clear we take on most of our collateral damage before we've reached double digits. Knowing that you've got a lot of scary stuff safely stored in the cellar is one thing, letting it out for appraisal is a whole other issue.
Extracting memories from oblivion is a challenge relished by the subconscious-curing community (and one I may pursue privately before spreading my dirty linen out for all to peruse). During the day I feel every minute of my age but at night I return to being a terrified child over and over again. According to Hodson it's because, despite the outward ageing, I'm still the eight-year-old child sneaking a glimpse at a scary movie while my parents' marriage unravels. He offered me a typically obtuse quote from his most famous beard-stroking predecessor, Sigmund Freud: "I once heard of a child who was afraid of the dark who called out, 'Auntie, talk to me, I'm frightened.' She replied, 'What good will that do, you can't see me.'" No wonder therapy takes years!
I think what he was saying was that talking helps dissipate terror. Despite most of the good things that happened in my life – from meeting my husband to making my babies – occurring at night, I can't seem to shake my bad attitude to darkness. Into the shadows and spaces that night creates stream a cast of terrifying characters; rapists, murderers, psychopaths, and yes, even the undead, occasionally drop by. In the patient tones of a man long used to making sense of such mental mayhem Hodson talked me through the plausible reasons for "irrational fear", a term he assured me was inaccurate. Among all the assorted psychological flotsam that creates a distorted view of the night there are tangible reasons we can cling to.
Most nocturnal creatures, up when the world is asleep, have developed alternative senses to cope with the lack of light. Humans, on the other hand, despite an evolutionary journey that's seen us move from four legs to two, from instinctively to intellectually motivated creatures, haven't adapted but been forced to invent to compensate for our challenged abilities. Electricity and the humble torch are the two most obvious contributions. Despite most adults in the northern hemisphere spending up to a third of their waking hours in darkness we remain pathetically reliant on sunlight.
Without illumination, we stumble around, blind and at our most feeble. If we're in danger of doing ourselves a physical injury when we're awake in the dark, once we're asleep a whole new set of problems emerge. Our freewheeling psyches, released from the constraints of consciousness, take us to places we really don't want to go. It's one of the reasons why those in the grip of depression find sleep such a challenge. The more you keep locked away in the recesses of your brain the more vivid your journey when you let go the reins. Elevated stress levels are as closely related to irrational phobias as European royalty are to each other.
At night the unconscious and the conscious mind are locked in mortal combat for control of the brain. Thankfully most of us have a sort of nuclear-alert system that keeps us from all-out meltdown. Keeping a lid on the instincts that lead us to murder and mayhem and indulging our impulses to the maximum means that, for a few hours a night, we need to be assured that we won't be victim to a hostile takeover. As a result our clever bodies make it harder for us to sleep. It's partly why sleepwalking is such a terrifying habit: the thought that we can lose control of ourselves to that degree.
Clearly my monitoring system needs a good service. And now, there is guilt. I seem to have passed on my condition to my six-year-old son, who sleeps with assorted weaponry scattered across his pirate duvet cover in case he's required to do battle when the rest of us are asleep. "What are you afraid of?" I ask this pint-sized action man, and he replies with great seriousness: "Monsters". I'd laugh if he wasn't identifying the demons of my own nightmares. Perhaps not the monsters of his imagination, fanged and ferocious, but the real-life monsters of media hyperbole, those men who stalk the shadows and put fear in our hearts.
So what happens between the vulnerability of boyhood and the bravado of the grown man? I didn't receive one letter from an adult male admitting to night terrors. Are men truly the opposite sex? Is it suppressed under decades of gender stereotyping or are they simply braver than us? "Men," declares Hodson, "are outrageous concealers and liars – constantly monitoring their inability to concede and admit vulnerability. They place their fears somewhere else beyond the world of reason." I sense a glimmer of light down this deep, dark tunnel. Does that mean that despite the seeming irrationality of our fears we women are being more "functional" by experiencing and expressing such vulnerability? The answer is resoundingly affirmative.
"Women are at a higher evolutionary stage: they take account of more information when proceeding through life, and enjoy a much more sophisticated operating system with sensors that men can only dream of." May the Queen recognise this man for his services to my sex. I asked my husband if he was afraid of the dark and received a confusing answer. "Yes," he concurred. "I'm terrified when I'm in the corridor of bumping into something or tripping on a banana skin. Pragmatic fears like that." Ah yes, so much less frivolous than my own nightmares.
I had intended to conclude with a cure, a prescription for night fears that might free us from the assault of such energy-sapping phobias. Instead my journey ended in the aforementioned Lulu Appleton's consulting room, finally under hypnosis, sobbing quietly as she led me back through the tangled paths of the last four decades to a little girl, walking a lonely lane, while the crows cackled menacingly from the telephone wires. Interestingly, fear wasn't my prevalent emotion but an overwhelming sadness and empathy for what struck me in that moment as an incredibly lonely child. It was a surprise to confront the emotional state that, I'm beginning to understand, might have shaped my early years. Having been briefly reintroduced to my young self I'm tempted to revisit this familiar stranger in the near future, assured by both Hodson and Appleton that it's the most likely way to ensure that I return one day to sleeping like a baby.
Meanwhile I've decided to embrace my early-hours sensitivities as a healthy form of catharsis. Why shouldn't my demons have a bit of a dance when no one else is looking? If my subconscious wants to party while my body is resting who am I to complain, just so long as he keeps himself to himself when I'm up and on my feet? You might wonder how I know he's a man but if you were privy to the material of my dreams and nightmares I can assure you there'd be no need to ask.
Hypnotherapy can treat many phobias from fear of the dark, to fear of flying or fear of spiders. Hypnosis gets to the route cause of the phobia, enabling the client to lead a happier, freer life, free from the insecurities of before. Lulu Appleton practices hypnotherapy at The Harley Street Hypnotherapy Clinic in London, and covers a range of issues with hypnotherapy. Phobia hypnosis is one of these issues as well as weight loss hypnosis, confidence hypnosis, etc. Hypnosis can remove fears and phobias, putting you on the right path to a more enjoyable life. Contact one of our expertly trained hypnotherapists at the Harley Street Hypnotherapy Clinic for hypnosis to cure your phobia.