The Hole Story

I am freaked out by things that have holes in them. Swiss cheeses like Emmentaler and Gruyère. Trees with their bark peppered with stowed acorns, the clever work of industrious woodpeckers. Various corals. Honeycomb. And the worst of the worst, the Surinam toad.

There’s a name for my fear of holes, trypophobia, which is an aversion to the sight of patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps. Trypophobia is not officially recognized as a definined psychological disorder, but may be diagnosed as a specific phobia if excessive fear and distress occur; also, it is more common in people who have obsessive compulsive disorder. Trypophobia typically presents with an autonomic nervous system response at the sight of repeated and irregular patterns of holes, such as those in the lotus seed pod. Upon seeing these shapes, some people will feel their skin crawl, have panic attacks, perspire excessively, have heart palpitations or feel nausea. Trypophobia is a singularly unpleasant experience, with both physical and psychological symptoms. For this reason, I consider trypophobia to be a bona fide neurocognitive difference.

While many people express disgust at the sight of trypophobic imagery, people like me have a much more flagrant response. I can clearly remember the first time I saw a Surinam toad. I was at a client’s home providing a therapeutic massage on the morning of her wedding. Her kindergartner daughter was in the room with us, and in order to keep the girl occupied, my client tuned the television to Animal Planet. The program was an exploration of creatures from South America, and while I tried to remain focused on my work, the description of an amphibian who bears her eggs embedded in her skin drew my eyes to the screen. I caught the program just at the moment dozens of newborn toads leapt from holes in their mother’s back. I was utterly disgusted and couldn’t get that image out of my head.

I still cannot unsee that moment. I try to remind myself that nature is magnificent and creative in her survival strategies. I recite the refrain to the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. I try to focus on something that brings me joy, like the fuzzy tummy of my Jack Russell Terrier Lucy, or the sound of crashing waves at Ocean Beach. They help, but it’s ridiculous how much effort it takes for me to calm myself down after viewing trypophobic images.

In fact, I tried to talk myself out of writing this post about trypophobia because in order to do so, I would need to search for photographs to illustrate my essay. And I would need to revisit my introduction to the Surinam toad. In doing so, I have felt deeply on edge this morning, and distressed to the point of tears. I am horrified by my Google search results for holey things to create my featured image: my chest hurts, I feel short of breath, and I cannot wait to be done. In fact, I feel like I could have lived my entire life without knowing the Surinam toad exists. Searching for her on the interwebs has me feeling like I might puke.

With this essay now published, and the photo illustration in place, I am making my plan to get out of the house and into nature. I need a psychological reset after my many encounters with my trypophobia this morning. I just hope I don’t see any magnolia seedpods. Or wild morels. Or…or…or…