Climacophobia and bathmophobia are two terms you may have heard quite a lot of in the last week or so. Broadly speaking, they’re both defined as the fear of stairs. Bathmophobia is the fear of stairs and slopes in general, while climacophobia is the fear of climbing or falling down them.
The only people who’d ever hear these terms are people who trawl “weird phobia” sites for interesting things like triskadecaphobia (fear of the number 13) or hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliaphobia (the fear of long words). But after it was rumoured that the President of the United States may suffer from bathmophobia, news sites and Twitter feeds blew up with jokes, mockery and jibes about how daft it is to be scared of stairs.
Mocking people in positions of power is always important, especially when the person in power is someone like him. But when that sneering is due to something that hits quite as close to home to me as this, I feel like I should give some context for what exactly it is people are mocking.
So hi: I’ve got climacophobia. I’m scared of stairs.
According to my parents, I have always had problems with them. I regularly used to fall down stairs at school (partially due to my joint problems), but it wasn’t until a school trip that my general difficulties with stairs really turned into an actual phobia. The entire year group had gone to a museum where two of the floors were connected by a flight of backless stairs suspended over large, open space on the ground floor.
I’ve never been scared of heights specifically, but there was something about those stairs, their flimsy-looking wooden planks for steps, and the sheer drop it was suspended over that made something click in my mind. Add to that 100+ bustling children stuck in a crush on them and I lost it. At age 12 or 13 there I was, stood having a full on sobbing panic attack in front of everybody, unable to move or think or breathe.
Even if I couldn’t explain it at the time, I was utterly convinced the second I step foot on those stairs that they would collapse and everybody would die. I spent the rest of the day taking elevators instead, and had a lovely time once that episode was over, but the phobia didn’t go away.
For years any stairs at all would fill me with dread. The worst were backless ones, much like that museum’s. If I could see the drop, I’d turn into a petrified, hyperventilating wreck. Lessons at school had to be moved if there was what I deemed a “bad” staircase leading to it, and even the ones at home made me nervous. Holidays, day trips, school trips, hospital visits, anywhere stairs could be were an absolute ordeal.
Phobias are, by definition, irrational. It wasn’t potentially falling down stairs that bothered me, as I’ve done that enough times and come out of it unharmed to be used to that. I was worried about the stairs themselves giving out from underneath me. In my mind, every staircase was put there by a cowboy builder who’d kept them together with celotape, or the years of erosion that I had imagined would finally give way that exact moment and crumble. I didn’t trust buildings, and I certainly didn’t trust the people I’d never met who’d built them.
I’m writing all this in the past tense, but the truth is that the fear still exists today. Forcing myself to confront stairs in the years since has helped reduce it from a full-blown phobia, but I still have to focus on breathing whenever a particularly nasty staircase rears its ugly head. It’s no longer causing me to have an emotional breakdown like it did at the museum that day, but it’s still deeply unsettling and even upsetting for me.
Don’t stop mocking the President. Don’t stop challenging him, don’t stop engaging in the political process and don’t stop your activism, because they’re important, especially now. But remember that when you mock him for a phobia he may or may not have, you’re also mocking hundreds of people struggling to confront their fears. Phobias exist, and people know they’re irrational. We get they’re silly and funny to others, but that doesn’t stop the panic attacks or the embarrassment they can cause.