“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”
–O’Brien, speaking to Winston Smith, in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four
Back in my glory days of teaching high school English, one of my favorite novels to share with (force upon?) my juniors and seniors was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is a political commentary set in a totalitarian, futuristic society in which the Party is successfully crushing individuality by controlling every thought and every action with the very real threat of “Big Brother is watching you.” Those who rebel against the Party (as does Winston Smith, the main character) are eventually “vaporized,” but not before they are first subjected to brutal beatings and psychologically draining interrogations in an attempt to “cure” them of their insanity. The final step of their interrogation takes place in Room 101, the place where each prisoner’s worst fear awaits.
Winston Smith has a blinding, gut-wrenching fear of rats. When he is dragged to Room 101 and a wire cage filled with starving, snarling rats is fitted onto his head, the final stage of his political “re-education” is complete when–just before the trapdoor is raised and the rats are released to bore into his face–he screams a betrayal of his lover (“Do it to Julia!”), accepts the Party’s doctrine, and expresses his heart-felt love of Big Brother.
The novel provided many interesting, thought-provoking topics for conversation with my students–among them, the concepts of being perpetually at war, the use of surveillance by the government, and the possibility and consequences of public mind control. One of the most interesting topics, though, revolved around a creative writing assignment I frequently challenged them with at the end of the novel: What Is in Your Room 101?
Their answers always forced me to contemplate my own fears–what would be the absolute “worst thing in the world” to me, that one thing that would force me to do anything, betray anyone just to avoid it? My answers varied over the years:
- Being burned alive in a high-speed, fiery crash (a very real concern that has yet to drain the lead from my foot);
- Having a family of hairy tarantulas creepy crawling across my face and neck (oh, the horror!);
- Being locked in a tiny closet for weeks on end while being forced to listen to the non-stop nonsense spewing from Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh (or, even worse, being subjected to both at the same time);
- Being force-fed meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy (with a side dish of pinto beans for added gag reflex);
- Suffering permanent brain damage after falling into a time warp and landing in Hazzard County, where I would dress in Daisy Duke duds and fight off the lusty affections of Boss Hogg (and would secretly like the attention).
Now, I realized that some of my fears–even though they were the stuff of nightmares–would never actually materialize (no one is going to force-feed me anything, I tell you), and I would most likely never have to face them. But there was one spine-tingling, heart-pounding fear that I frequently did have to deal with because it was a common denominator in several unavoidable activities, and that was my fear of a little, pointy, hollow thing used to inject substances into and withdraw substances out of my trembling little body.
The mere sight of a needle sends my blood pressure sky-rocketing and sets my palms to sweating and my knees to quivering. I know it’s silly and childish and that any pain induced will be fleeting–but knowing these things does not diminish my fear. Twice a year I am forced to have blood drawn for lab tests–an event that requires a lot of deep breathing exercises and calming visualization techniques before and massive amounts of reward shopping afterward. But I’ve never had a flu shot (and I’m approaching that “high risk” age bracket when flu shots are strongly recommended), and I’ve been known to refuse shots of antibiotics that would have alleviated my symptoms much faster than the horse pills I insisted on swallowing instead. Two more weeks of sneezing and dripping and coughing and choking–or a quick hip jab with a hypodermic? Pass the Kleenex, write me a prescription and I’ll be on my way …
Last year my New Year’s Resolution was to lose at least 20 pounds. I accomplished my goal (and then some), and that accomplishment gave me the confidence and courage to set a few new goals for myself. And so this year’s resolution was to “pull up my big girl panties” and finally face some of the fears that had been overwhelming me for years and preventing me from living a fuller life. (Of course, I didn’t announce my resolution publicly at the time because I was afraid of failure. Ironic?) I resolved to take more risks: I would travel solo, I would open myself up more to others, I would knock a few items off the bucket list, and I would pursue new opportunities for sharing my writing.
And, most daringly of all, I would willingly drag myself to Room 101 by going to the dreaded dentist–and willingly let him stick needles into my gums–not because I was in excruciating pain at the time and needed his immediate intervention, but simply because it was the right, long over-due thing to do.
If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you may remember that I have an extreme dislike of going to the dentist (refer back to “I’d Rather Have Piranhas Nibbling My Toes,” posted on February 24, 2011, to get the full picture). So it took me until the middle of February even to get up enough courage to pick up the phone and make the appointment–but with shaky hands I punched in the number, and with a sense of accomplishment I agreed to an appointment just a few days away.
And on the day of the appointment I arrived with a Valium-induced sense of calm and a detailed list of all the procedures I wanted completed during my visit. Clean my teeth, please, fill any cavities, slice out that fibroma under my lip, and fill that hole left by the molar that was pulled last year. I knew so many procedures would take a considerable amount of time, and I knew they would create an unbelievable amount of pain, but I had psychologically prepared myself to face this fear–and to do it all at once and be done with it so I would be good for at least another ten years.
Unfortunately, my dentist had other plans.
Visit #1 entailed a thorough cleaning of my teeth (which, by the way, revealed no cavities), but that was it. I would need another visit to slice away the fibroma and stitch the resulting hole (way more information than I needed to know), I would need a third visit to be fitted for a bridge to replace the missing molar (which would include grinding away parts of the adjoining teeth–again, too much information), and I would need a fourth visit to ram and jam and cement the bridge into place. Four dental visits in the space of a month–ARE YOU KIDDING ME? My trip to Room 101 was supposed to be a one-time, fear-defying battle against my inner demons; I was NOT psychologically prepared for repeated visits, and a new Valium prescription was definitely in order.
I’ll spare you the gory details of those visits . . . the sting of those frightful needles as they plunged and swiveled below my gum line, the sight of the pulpy little fibroma (formerly a piece of me) as it lay discarded on my neck apron, the sound of the drill as it ground away at healthy teeth, and the intermingled taste of grit and blood. The important detail is that, as of yesterday, I have miraculously survived all four visits to Room 101–a little battered and bruised and shaken, perhaps, but with my “insanity” intact. And I can now (hopefully) look forward to another ten years of dentist-free calendars (and I would imagine my stressed-out dentist is looking forward to my absence as well).
Now that I have successfully faced my fear of going to the dentist, I’m ready to move on to overcoming the next phobia (which may–or may not–also involve the use of needles). My quest to live fearlessly continues . . . I’ll do my best to simply avoid time warps, meat loaf, and Rush Limbaugh, but all my other fears need to take notice: I am empowered and ready for battle.
How about you, reader? What are some of the fears you need to face–what’s in YOUR Room 101?