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McIntosh apples.Ned Jennison

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

When we decided that this week's challenge would be about confronting a long-time fear, I knew what I was going to have to do. Like most people, I have a phobia. Unlike those of most people – a fear of heights or bugs or enclosed spaces – mine is bizarre. For as long as I can remember, I have been terrified by one of the most harmless, wholesome substances this planet has to offer: fruit. I don't eat it, I hate smelling it and I do whatever I can to avoid being in the same room with it.

True story: My sisters used to hide apples and bananas in my bed on April Fool's Day to torment me. Another true story: I recently pulled over on the drive to cottage country, and made my friend eat her apple on the side of the highway. The list of unreasonable fruit reactions goes on. I don't do any of this to be purposefully strange or eccentric or bratty. To understand the acute revulsion I feel in the presence of fruit, imagine how you might react if the person sitting beside you started snacking on a dirty diaper. I don't know how or when exactly it started (though I can recall rejecting apple slices in a high chair). I have never looked into fixing it because (duh) that would mean eating fruit.

Fruit for thought

Of course I am not alone in having an unusual phobia. I have a friend who is freaked out by children whispering. Just children. I once met a girl who can't let velvet touch her skin. One of my old co-workers recently told me about someone who is afraid of buttons. Not "doesn't like" buttons, but actually fears them, which is bonkers, but then, so is a fear of fruit. My condition technically isn't a phobia; it's what's called a disgust response, which can cause similar anxiety, but is based on being irrationally and extremely revolted by something rather than fearing it.

In search of some context and advice, I reached out to Martin Antony, who is a professor of psychology at Ryerson University, and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. He told me that sometimes these things have an obvious genesis (one woman who is afraid of bananas was force-fed them as a child), but more often the root cause is unknown. He said that disgust responses to food are relatively normal and asked questions that made me feel understood: Was there a hierarchy of fear, i.e., are some fruits worse than others? (Answer: Absolutely, apple is worst, next would be pear). Is it more taste or texture? (Texture. I am actually fine with almost all fruit in juice form or baked in a dessert). Could it be a germ thing? (No, I would rather lick a trashcan than eat a tangerine). Of course, I have contemplated such questions ad nauseam over the years, but it was different hearing them from a professional.

Operation Big Mac Attack

Antony told me that if I were coming to him for treatment we would embark on a program of gradual exposure, beginning with the "lesser evil" fruits and working our way up. I attempted a more efficient version of this technique at home, though part of me viewed it as unnecessary time spent in the presence of the enemy. Exposure No. 1 was placing an apple on the table while I watched TV. I was able to do it, but felt very anxious and vaguely nauseated the whole time. (No, I am not kidding.) Exposure No. 2: I sliced an apple and felt like peeling my skin off. When the week of confronting my fear was almost up, I summoned every bit of rational, logical thought in my head and I ate an apple. Okay fine, I took a bite of one (remember – dirty diaper!). It was both not as bad and far worse than I thought it could be. I did it in close proximity to a public garbage can. Somehow this felt safer, like I could leave the experience (and the evidence) behind when I was done.

I imagine the professionals would tell me that truly getting over this sort of fear takes commitment and time and can't be solved in a few self-administered therapy sessions. Facing my fear may have caused some regression, since now I can induce an anxiety reaction simply by thinking back to the bite. Clearly I didn't conquer my fear or come anywhere close, but I did prove to myself (and to all of you other fruit-o-phobes – I know you're out there) that it is possible to temporarily put mind over matter. Or, in this case, over McIntosh.