Conquering My Fears in Room 101: Step I


“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?

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Another unfounded fear ... being mauled and eaten alive by a hungry tiger escaped from the zoo! (photo by me)

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About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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22 Responses to Conquering My Fears in Room 101: Step I

  1. Tina says:

    Room 101 is constsntly being pushed out of my head, thats where I like it (at least for now)! Lol

    • Good for you! I’ve spent most of my lifetime trying to push those thoughts out–just decided it’s time to confront a few of them and be done with them once and for all. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Jamie Adams says:

    Great post! I am shocked that you’ve NEVER had a flu shot! Needles don’t bother me. Think about jet injectors — a type of medical injecting syringe that uses a high-pressure narrow jet of the injection liquid instead of a hypodermic needle to penetrate the epidermis. 😀

    I must admit (sadly) that have never read 1984. Shame on me.

    As for fears, it is snakes. Can’t stand them.

    • I’ve never had one and don’t plan on getting one until I’m forced to. Being around sick kids for 30 years has given me a very strong immune system … not sure how long that will last after retirement! And thinking about “jet injectors” does NOT help! I am reserving you a copy of 1984 and putting it on your “must read” list (I would be interested to hear your take on it; a “book report” will be expected!) Only poisonous snakes bother me; the rest I think are pretty cool!

  3. O. Leonard says:

    I want to take this moment to thank English teachers, such as yourself, for forcing me to read books like “1984” and “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair, and others. I never would have picked them up, and while I was reading them, It was hard to put them down. I’d forgotten about “Room 101” over the years, but I would have been an easy mark. Too many choices of things that would torture me to the point of denouncing anyone. That’s why I stayed away from spy work.

    • On behalf of English teachers everywhere, thank you, Mr. Leonard! You would be surprised (or maybe not) at the number of former students who, at the time, groaned over being “forced” to read such works and have since expressed their appreciation. And I’m probably like you in that it wouldn’t be too hard to get me to “sing like a bird,” either (I’m quite the sissy!). Thank you for stopping by!

  4. DCircle says:

    I LOVE that Tiger photo. Where was it taken? And if you don’t mind, I may be asking for a copy of it for my private “awesome pictures by my friends” stash.

    My biggest fear; being burned alive in a tiny space. Claustrophobia and being burnt would not work well in my book.

    • Donna, thank you for the compliment on my photo–because I’ve only recently been bitten by the photography bug, I am particularly pleased when others appreciate my photos! I took the picture at Dickerson Park Zoo back in January–through a fence, using my zoom lens. I will be happy to send you a copy of it, and I’ll try to remember to do that on Facebook. I’m not that claustrophobic (unless I’m surrounded by people invading my “personal space”); however, being burned alive has always been one of my terrors.

  5. John Bradley-O'Neill says:

    “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

    Quite the thought-provoking post today, Karen. In high school, we were required (like countless other schools) to read both “Nineteen Eight-Four” and “Fahrenheit 451”. Suffice to say that back then my still developing and immature brain didn’t quite ingest and assimilate the true essence and the dark underlying messages/warnings each contained. These are two books (amongst many) that I returned to as an adult – the overwhelming joy of figuratively seeing the forest for the trees was incredible for me. “Fahrenheit 451” especially filled me with a sense of dread – as an avid bibliophile, the mere thought of the dreaded and feared Guy Montag the Fireman setting my beloved books ablaze was a nightmare to behold while holding the book in my hands.

    “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
    – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    These two sublime literary works were penned by, in my humble opinion, two exceedingly prophetic authors – each brilliantly captures our warped and darkened present time. Orwell and Bradbury were two men truly ahead of their time. I won’t go into details re the worlds of Oceania and Bradbury’s city and the frightening parallels we see around us today. That’s for individuals themselves to ponder and hypothesize…if they care to open that particular Pandora’s Box.

    I can empathize re your fear of dentists. For me, my primal fear of them stems from the fact that when I’m in the dentist’s chair I’m in an extremely vulnerable and defenseless position…the “fight or flight” instinct kicks in, yet I can’t do either. Yikes!

    As for my own Room 101, it’s pretty dark. My Room 101 is situated in a building somewhere in the future – being shut away in a seniors home, alone and forgotten. Discarded…left in my wheelchair to gaze out the window at the living parade passing by – one I’m no longer part of – while flickers of distorted memories of the life lived before dimly illuminate my mind’s eye as the faces and smiles of loved ones long gone beckon to me. I’ve seen this very scenario over the years with others, and it fills me with an icy terror. Buddha bless them, one and all.

    Now I don’t know if you permit Youtube links here, but as a child I also would have loved to enter Room 222 at Walt Whitman High to be enlightened and inspired by that great teacher, Pete Dixon. I have always loved this old show and intro theme:

    Have a wonderful weekend! Sorry for the lengthy reply!

    • Thank you, Mr. O’Neill, for your wonderfully thought-provoking response. I loved both of those books when I was a student; I never taught Fahrenheit 451, but I taught Ninety Eight-Four for years, and after writing this post I realized I would like to go back and read it again. I’ve always thought my fear of dentists was mainly a matter of “sensory overload,” but I agree with your “fight or flight” philosophy as well; I am a control freak, and I really do despise not being in control of a situation that affects me so profoundly (i.e., painfully).

      And your personal Room 101 would be a terrifying place to be. I recently lost my dad, who suffered from dementia, and as difficult as his disease was for the rest of us, at least he was happy in his own world. I fear being incapacited physically some day but still having the mental facilities to know and mourn all that I have lost. “The mind is everything.” And thanks for sharing the video clip; I had forgotten all about “Room 222” … a nice little trip down Memory Lane.

      • John Bradley-O'Neill says:

        I recall you posting about your dad’s passing. We never truly recover the loss of a parent. My own father has been gone nineteen years now; my mom twenty-eight. I lost them both when very young.

        Definitely go back and read those books. To reiterate, it’s simply amazing what we miss the first time around, and reading them from the vantage point of age and wisdom (I’m still waiting on the latter!) offers a whole new perspective.

        On a lighter note, one Room 101 of mine would involve being tied to a chair and being forced to watch back-to-back episodes of “Murder, She Wrote”. Every time that damn Jessica Fletcher showed up, a corpse would be sure to appear. Who in their right mind would invite this dame anywhere? She was worse than the Black Plague of Europe, and if you ask me, she murdered them all…she was a true sociopath, courtesy of the CBS network.

        Another Room 101: Being unemployed, and the only available job would be working at Fox News (Faux News) as Bill O’Reilly’s assistant…or, working for Nancy Grace! Aaaaaah!

      • Mr. O’Neill, I believe you have successfully “one upped” me in the Room 101 nightmare department! I could ignore Jessica Fletcher, but Nancy Grace’s voice alone would send me looking for the nearest ledge.

  6. Gail says:

    Gosh, I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was a senior in high school back in ’76-’77, and I had forgotten all about room 101. I must go back and read it again!

    I used to be terrified of needles when I was a child. Just driving by the pediatrician’s office terrified me because I always equated that place with “getting a shot.” My sister once ran out of the exam room when she was told she was going to have to get an unexpected vaccination. Somewhere along the way, I got over my fear of needles. Not sure when it happened… maybe not until I was in veterinary school and had to learn how to give vaccinations. Ha!

    Room 101 for me would most definitely be a room filled with red wasps. Yes, red wasps…. my one true phobia. They absolutely terrify me, especially at the beginning of spring when they tend to get disoriented and come into my house and basement. There’s a good three weeks or so every spring where I just won’t go down in the basement. Unfortunately, that’s where my washing machine and dryer is so I get VERY behind on laundry.

    • Yes, you should read it again! Even though I read it several times when I was teaching it, it has been long enough now that I want to read it again, too. I know my fear of needles and my fear of the dentist are both silly–but that’s just the way it is, and when the two are combined it’s definitely the makings of a melt-down. Fortunately, my dentist understands my fear, and his decision to have me take a Valium before each appointment has been helpful (to him as well). As for the red wasps, I have a really cool picture I took last week of a red wasp feeding on a forsythia bloom; I’m glad I did not include it in my blog–that could have been very bad for you! Hope you can get caught up on your laundry soon!

  7. bronxboy55 says:

    I went to Catholic school, where I learned about martyrs being burned alive, so that’s always been an intense fear. But even worse: being buried alive, because it would drag on for a longer time. Getting eaten by something would have to be on the list, too.

    I’d have loved to be a student in your English class, Karen. But please don’t wait another ten years to go to the dentist. As unpleasant as it is, the secret seems to be to stay on top of things a little at a time, rather than putting it off until there’s a major problem. Something like reading the assigned chapter each night, instead of trying to get through the whole book the night before the exam (which is what I usually did).

    Great post.

    • Being burned to a crisp or torn limb from limb by a hungry jackal–yep, also on my list of Room 101 possibilities (just thought I might spare readers the graphic images I could have manufactured!).

      As for being a student in my class, Charles, I have no doubts you would have been a star pupil–particularly in my beloved creative writing class (where we never studied martyrs being burned alive, but we did write our own epitaphs and eulogies). HOWEVER, please don’t take offense, but I THINK in order for you to have been my student, you might have had to be retained a couple years (i.e., I may be old enough to be your peer but not to have been your teacher!) 🙂

      And the analogy about “reading the assigned chapter each night, instead of trying to get through the whole book the night before the exam”–not fair. Not fair at all.

      Thank you.

  8. RayEtta says:

    While reading the title, before I read the blog, Fear 101 brought to my mind the fear that clutched me when I walked into Speech 101 as a freshman and was asked to speak that day! Fear 101 was even English Comp 101. I love reading and I have to admit “Nineteen Eighty-Four” showed up on a reading list though it may have been when I was and adult doing college courses, it was never a book I particularly liked. In high school I do remember reading almost of Steinbeck’s works and quite a bit of Shakespear. Steinbeck I liked and could relate to, Hamlet and the like, not so much. Steinbeck was chosen because I went to high school not to far from where.

    The only real fears were people being able to humiliate me, or an accident or act that left me maimed or dead.

    I have in later years re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four and still did not care much for it and have re-read some Shakespear as well and loved some of it. I think they were introduced to me at too young an age. Just because I liked to read, did not mean that I had lived enough life to relate to it. TV was pretty safe, no internet, my world was pretty protected growing up in the 50’s, I truly thought I had very little to fear.

    • Very fair … we all have our own tastes, in literature and everything else. I love John Steinbeck, and The Grapes of Wrath will always be one of my favorite books (I taught it as well). The thought of public speaking used to terrify me, but I’ve had to do it so many times over the years that it is no longer quite as intimidating. Thank you for your comments!

  9. RayEtta says:

    Please excuse my typos in my comment, but my computer is jumping about some today so I can barely keep up with it.

  10. Pingback: Drinkin’ the Wild Air, Part I | Iced Tea with Lemon's Blog

  11. Shira says:

    I can’t even thank you enough for this post. 1984 is one of my favorite books, and the Room 101 scene really spoke to me. I have the same phobias and nobody understands, they just tell me it’s stupid and I need to get over it. I am also in a similar situation where I have to have a procedure done, which will be my own personal Room 101 experience. My phobia is bad to the point where it takes over my life because I can’t stop thinking about it. Glad to see at least someone understands…

    • There’s no such thing as a “stupid phobia,” and advice to “get over it” is never helpful. I can tell myself that my fears are silly, that others have combatted the same fears successfully and that I can do the same–but telling myself that and actually making it a reality are two very different things. The mind is a very powerful tool–sometimes our greatest ally and sometimes our own worst enemy. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I wish you the best of luck in getting through your procedure.

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