Phobia: The Betrayal of Cats

 

 

One of the conditions that often brings people to psychotherapy is the experience of a phobia. A simple definition of a phobia is: an intense and irrational fear triggered by the presence of an object or situation which provokes anxiety and complicates the daily life of a person. Typical examples of those fears include being afraid of: flying on an airplane, specific animals (i.e. snakes or spiders), or being in enclosed spaces.

 

It is important to remember that the phobic fear can even be triggered by the anticipation of an object or situation, that is, without even confronting it directly. This is the case I will examine here, in which although the afflicted person acknowledges that her fear is irrational and excessive, she still cannot avoid it.

A couple of years ago I treated Jennifer, a forty-nine years old woman, seeking help with a specific phobia. When we started working together, the first thing she told me was: “I want to get rid of my fear of cats.”

Jennifer stated that she knew her fear was “way too stupid” but she had still been living with this phobia for almost ten years. She said she decided to address this problem now because it had gotten worse: at first she did not like touching cats, thinking she might get bitten by them, but by the time she came to me she was afraid of walking on the streets of her hometown, for fear of running into a cat.

Throughout the session, she commented several times about how “stupid” this situation seemed to her and, later on, admitted that one of the reasons why she had not gone to a psychotherapist before was that she was ashamed to tell a stranger about her fear.

 

In the first session she explained that this phobia “started out of the blue” as she had never had a negative experience with cats, “I have known people who begin to be afraid of dogs after they got bitten. That is understandable but it’s not my case.”

Her family didn’t know what to do, since her fear of cats had increased to the point of her not being able to work. Jennifer said to me: “I avoid the streets where I could run into one of them. The problem is that there are so many, that I am not able to move around the city.”

What should we, as therapists, do in this case? We must listen to Jennifer’s words and try to find the position from where she speaks. By listening in this way we can help her move from that subjective position to find one in which she no longer needs this symptom.

Using a purposefully innocent tone, at the end of the first session I asked her what she associated with cats.

With a serious look, Jennifer replied, “they are treacherous.”

 

This statement became one of three phrases that directed my work with Jennifer: “get rid of my fear”, “too stupid”, and “they are treacherous.” I will explain the significance of these three declarations as we move further through this case study.

At our second session I started to ask Jennifer about her life, including her family and work, before she developed this phobia. Even though I told her the reason I was asking was to understand her background, in truth I was also looking for other factors that could be associated with her phobia.

To summarize what she told me, the patient had been married to her husband, Joe, for thirty years, she had three daughters in their twenties, and she did not see any problems in her life other than her phobia. She stated that she did not miss her job as a secretary since, “at this point the money that my husband makes is enough for us.” In short, at first sight, everything seemed to be going well in her life.

At the end of this session she asked me when we would start the treatment to cure her phobia. What Jennifer did not know was that her treatment had already started.

 

My insistence that she told me her story was beneficial, and by the third session, the issue of treachery came up again, but not in reference to her feared cats. In discussing her life Jennifer stated, “I haven’t had betrayals in my life, though many people wouldn’t agree with me.”

When I asked her what she meant by that, she explained that her friends have told her several times that her husband was cheating on her. Even their daughters believed it so. Nevertheless, every time she confronted Joe, he had some excuse and made Jennifer believe in him again.

“Although everyone tells me that Joe is cheating on me, I do not believe it… my friends are now even telling me that I am stupid.” Here we can see the word “stupid” again, the same word she used many times to define her phobia, this time used in reference to her trust in her husband.

Jennifer chose to follow this thread in the next few sessions and continued talking about her husband, rather than her phobia. In one session, she said that if there was something with which she had to agree with others in her life, it was that her husband “tricked” her.

When I asked her about this, she explained that Joe is a lawyer and when Jennifer’s mother died some years ago, he took care of her mother’s inheritance: “My sisters were the ones who first told me something… Joe charged too much for the procedures and paperwork that he was supposed to do. In the end we have spent so much money that they asked another lawyer. He told them that Joe defrauded us, that the fee should not have been as high as Joe told us.”

I invited her to continue, surprised by the fact there wasn’t just one but now two―at the very least― possible betrayals from her husband.

 

“When we confronted him, Joe accused me of being disloyal, that I did not trust him and he said he would no longer work on the case. He never returned a dime, because according to him, he had spent it on paperwork and the time he had spent on the matter. I felt betrayed.”

In contrast to her statements about Joe’s purported infidelity, in this instance Jennifer considers his ‘treacherous’ behavior a fact. I asked her when all of this had happened and she replied that it occurred ten years before. I then asked when the possible infidelity had occurred. “That same year,” she replied.

In the next sessions she told me other parts of the story with her husband without any mention of her phobia. Sometimes she mentioned again how stupid it was to have been defrauded. Stupid for not realizing that he might be unfaithful. Stupid for having forgiven him. And, above all, stupid for having tolerated him all this time.

I stopped her at this point simply saying: “Why did you?” The answer to this question clarified what was happening:

It was fear. Ten years ago my daughters were not independent like they are now. Joe was the support of our house. I had to look the other way, and try to forget what he had done. I had to put distance between me and my sisters, who couldn’t stand my husband anymore. My friends kept telling me I shouldn’t be stupid, that I needed to face him on the subject of lovers. But in the end I decided to ignore it.”

Jennifer’s words show in a clear way the mechanism of phobia. Faced with a reality we do not want to deal with, we decide not to assume a position which would force us to do it. Instead, we move the feeling of the problem to another issue, usually connected to the true source of the fear by some hidden logic.

Ignoring the problem by developing the phobia, Jennifer unconsciously decided to worry about the treacherous cats instead of her treacherous husband.

 

After discussing her husband’s behavior and her choice not to confront him over the course of the four sessions, she mentioned she was no longer afraid of cats, that she had seen some on the street and didn’t experience any feeling of anxiety. Despite this ‘cure’ for her initial reason for seeking therapy, however, she kept coming to her appointments, trying to find the courage to confront her fear of facing her husband’s behavior.

 

It took her a couple of months but she did it. After a long conversation at home between the two of them, her husband admitted that he, in fact, had been having an affair for years. He even confessed that he used part of the fraudulent fee from her inheritance legal work to continue maintaining this double life.

 

In the sessions following this conversation Jennifer cried a lot. You might think she cried a great deal over Joe’s betrayal of their marriage but most of her tears were shed over the fact that it took her so long to face her fear. Little by little, as we continued our work after her talk with Joe, Jennifer told her story once again and this time she was able to see, for herself, the evidence of all that had happened. At the same time, she began to talk about her future and what might lie in store in light of finally confronting Joe’s infidelity and ‘treacherous’ behavior.

 

At the end of the treatment, Jennifer was not living with her husband anymore; she was happily living alone with a cat.

* I have modified the names, jobs, and other identifying information to maintain the confidentiality of the psychotherapeutic process.

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