Sunday 22 July 2012

It's twenty years now since I wrote this account, which was published in the Daily Mail, but it is every bit as fresh in my mind today.  To accompany it, I had a photograph taken with an enormous white cockatoo sitting on my arm!
'How old are you?' asked the hypnotherapist.  'I'm two.'  My voice sounded childish.  'What are you wearing?'  'My blue coat.'
            I wasn't convinced I was reliving this: I've seen photographs of myself wearing that coat.  Then I heard myself add, with a giggle: 'I'm not wearing my bonnet.  Mummy makes me wear it because of my bad ear, but Daddy lets me take it off.'
            That was disconcerting.  It sounded like a long-forgotten truth.  I honestly didn't know where it had come from.
            I was in regression therapy, trying to rid myself of a phobia that had haunted me for as long as I could remember.
            I fed birds in winter, adored my daughter's cockatiel and my mother's budgie, but the prospect of touching them or of them touching me turned me into a gibbering idiot. 
            As a child I woke sobbing from nightmares, paralysed by the terrible conviction that if I moved I would encounter … feathers.  I was once sick when I walked into a butcher's shop and found myself surrounded by unplucked Christmas turkeys.  I couldn't touch a picture of a bird; I couldn't even look at one.
            As I grew up the nightmares came less often but the terror remained, blind and unreasoning.  And the fear of knowing that I would lose total control if suddenly faced with my phobia only made things worse.
            Once, I found a dead bird which must have come down the chimney, and flipped completely.  All the use went out of my legs, I was screaming, hitting out blindly at my husband as he tried to comfort me.  For hours afterwards I snatched my hand away from everything I touched as if it, too, had become that bird.
            I was panicked by the flutter of wings, but it was the sight of a dead bird that touched the depths of my horror and brought the most extreme reaction, and especially a black bird.
            I consulted a local hypnotherapist, John Hudson, who said my terror was probably rooted in something that had happened when I was young.  If I could remember it as an adult, he said, there would be no phobia.
            Often people think they recall the traumatic incident which was to blame, but almost certainly what they are remembering is the earliest occasion on which they were confronted with the trigger.  The true cause is buried deep, resulting in a reaction irrational to an adult, yet impossible to control because subconsciously we are programmed with the emotional response of a child.  What we had to do was find the incident and allow me to relive it as a grown woman.
            My mother always said my phobia began when I was frightened by a pheasant while walking in the woods with my father.  But this didn't explain why I was more afraid of dead birds than live ones, especially black birds.
            My hypnotherapist put me into a light trance, having attached an electrical skin resistance meter (the old fashioned lie detector).  I felt relaxed and in control.  I didn't believe I'd been hypnotised at all and , when I began answering his questions, I was convinced my answers were coming from a desire to co-operate. 
            He persuaded me to describe the scene.  I was in the wood. It was a bright, cold Sunday morning.  My father was wheeling the pushchair along a path.  I was running on ahead.  Then, nothing.
            'A bird flies up in front of you,' the hypnotherapist said.  'It startles you, but it won't hurt you.  There's nothing to be afraid of.'
            But something was desperately wrong.  Suddenly I was crying and shaking.  The hyphotherapist told me later the monitor had shot off the top of the scale.
            'I don't think we've reached the root of the problem,' he said.  'We need to try again.'
            At home, I kept remembering the session, and something more.  It was as if I was watching a photograph develop in my mind, snatches of something I could almost see.
            A week later the hypnotherapist repeated the procedure.  The barrier – apprehension – was still there, blocking my memory. 
            This time I had a hazy impression of branches cracking in a tangle of trees. Someone was there.
            'I am going to snap my fingers,' my hypnotherapist said. 'When I do, you'll remember what happened.'  He snapped his fingers.  Suddenly I heard the crack of gun shot.  And then a violent fluttering in the undergrowth beside me and a bird, large, black and broken, anguished in its death throes, at my feet.
            I was screaming.  And a childish voice sobbed: 'It's dead!  I don't want it to be dead!'
            Tears were streaming down my face.  At last I had remembered the horrific incident which had been buried deep in my subconscious. 
            My parents had no doubt encouraged me to forget.  And the bottled-up horror had remained with me, out of reach, but overwhelmingly powerful.
            The hypnotherapist advised me my fear may not go all at once.  'You have a lifetime of terror to overcome.  But now you know the root cause you will soon learn you don't have to be afraid.'
            I could hardly believe it.  As I left his surgery I saw a pigeon on the pavement and decided to put it to the test. I couldn't bring myself to walk close enough to make it fly, I was tense and nervous.  But my skin didn't crawl any more.
            Today, my phobia is totally cured.  I no longer fear the flutter of wings which in my experience had preceded a horrible death.  And my memories of that long-ago have gradually developed into a clear photograph.
            I remember just what it was like to be a child, but I remember with the understanding of an adult.  Hypnotic regression exorcised my demons and opened a new world for me.  And my freedom from fear is wonderful.
 I was photographed with a cockatoo on my arm!