If your reading this and you manage to get to the end of this sentence without wanting to ring my neck with both you’re hand’s then consider yourself lucky – because its’ unlikely your affected by Post Grammatical Stress Disorder (PGSD).
While you might be familiar with some of the milder symptoms of PGSD, you’ve probably never heard of it – because I made it up.
Actually, that’s not quite true. An old school friend of mine, Martin, made it up during a recent chat we were having on a Facebook post.
The Facebook conversation came about because Martin posted a satirical news article entitled “Apostrophe misuse sparks riots and civil unrest across England”.
The article centred around the fictitious Professor of Pedantry at Essex University, Stephen Emmsworth, and the anger he felt on spotting a shop sign that read “Simon Williams Cake’s and Fancy Good’s”.
The Professor simply could not stand such misuse of the apostrophe any longer, and he drove his car into Simon’s shop window in anger. Word then spread through the country as to the cause of the Professor’s misdemeanour, resulting in nationwide civil unrest and uprising.
Martin’s Facebook post also sparked some comments from another old school friend, Stella, who added that their was no excuse for all the obvious errors, which where giving her palpitations and nausea, and that she had too go lie down. But not before Martin suggested she might have a case of PGSD.
I’d never heard of PGSD before, but it was catchy, I liked it, and seeing as I hadn’t come up with anything new to write about on this blog for over eighteen months, I decided to explore it further.
And so, while Stella went for a wee sleep back in Scotland, my research began on the other side of the world. I scoured the Internet, and much to my surprise, despite a vast number of officially recognised phobias listed on (a?) myriad (of?) websites, I could not find one anywhere for a fear of bad punctuation or grammar.
I did, however, stumble across a couple of other grammar-related phobias – verbophobia, the fear of words, and hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.
Not the first one to spot the irony in the latter, I couldn’t help but imagine the effect of a psychologist telling a patient this was what they were suffering from.
But as I read on, it dawned on me that this is no laughing matter – hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is a real thing.
The condition even has many officially-recognised unpleasant symptoms including panic, terror, dread, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea, dry mouth, trembling and anxiety. All this inflicted on people who are simply scared of long words.
That list of symptoms reminded me of particular fear that gripped me for many months around seven years ago. As I’ve written about before, at that time I owned a small investment property in Melbourne – a one-bedroom apartment, on the second top floor of a block of 14.
I’d bought the apartment off the plan several years earlier. A year or so after completion, mould began to appear in every apartment throughout the entire block. Cracks then began to appear on the internal plaster walls. On closer inspection, cracks also began to appear on the render on the external walls. Years of toing and froing between insurers, lawyers, builders and various building inspectors ensued.
As the stress of the situation took its toll, my irrational mind created endless scenarios that raced around inside my head all hours of day and night. I worried incessantly about the likes of plaster ceilings caving in on top of tenants, and what damage might be going on within the concrete walls themselves.
At the height of my irrational worrying, I can still clearly recall being consumed for months on end by obsessive worries about the entire building collapsing. I suffered from those same panic, terror, dread, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea, dry mouth, trembling and anxiety symptoms of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia – often simultaneously, and often for long periods of time.
Back then, if anyone had told me they were suffering the same symptoms as me just from thinking about long words, my initial reaction would have been to wonder what they had to worry about. After all, their worry wasn’t real, whereas I had the actual walls of a real apartment block falling down to worry about.
It never dawned on me at the time that there were 13 other owners of apartments in the block, and all their apartments had similar ‘symptoms’. For all I knew, any one of the owners could have been the opposite of me. They could so easily have been suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia and struggling to cope with some of the lengthy words in letters from the building insurer’s lawyer. At the same time, they could have been rationally remaining confident that building issues would be rectified – as they eventually were – and never once worrying that the building was going to fall down.
Conversely, and with the utmost respect for the millions of people literally soldiering on through life while suffering from PTSD, I never felt any less panic, terror, dread and anxiety about the apartment block falling down even though I knew that many PTSD sufferers were dealing with far tougher circumstances, far bigger things to worry about – having to deal with the aftermath of actual horrific and traumatic events in their lives.
In my search for the existence of a phobia for fear of bad grammar, I did notice that quite a few people had been writing about it in online forums. So while it may not have an official name, it does appear to exist.
And so I began to wonder – whether anyone is suffering from a fear of bad grammar, fear of a bad building falling down, or a fear of a badly-named fear of long words, does it matter what the cause is, or how trivial the apparent cause of their fear may seem to others? Is it perhaps only the symptoms – the fear, the panic, the terror, the dread and the sheer anxiety – that matter, regardless as to why?
Is it possible that through all those years I troubled myself over an apartment, I was suffering from the very same symptoms, caused by the very same brain chemistry catastrophes in my head, as a sufferer of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia or PGSD?
Were the same metaphoric walls actually falling down within all our heads?
Perhaps, I thought, this is another great illusion the sneaky black dog has in his repertoire that allows him to survive amongst us. After all, we are all led to believe that in all problems life, you need to address the cause and not the symptoms.
Could it be that the black dog manages to hide the true cause of our anxieties by replacing it with a catalyst? Could it be that we are then tricked into believing the catalyst is the cause, leading us to want to treat the catalyst (the things we get anxious about, like apartments falling down) rather than the cause (our predisposition to get anxious)?
It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to realise the real cause of my extreme and irrational anxiety was indeed my already imbalanced and vulnerable brain chemistry – one that reacted to certain external stimuli, triggering those further brain chemical reactions that produced anxiety, that fed the black dog and kept him howling in my head for many years.
But throughout all those months of irrationally believing my apartment was going to collapse, I believed it was the apartment that was causing my anxiety.
For sure, on a productive note, my anxiety drove me to put all my efforts over a number of months into bringing the other owners together, arranging an independent building inspection, lodging an insurance claim and finding a good lawyer to represent us. But that was all addressing the catalyst while on a far less productive note, I spent countless sleepless nights living with the real cause – with my mind racing over and over again about all the most unlikely of outcomes – including but not limited to a building falling down, my finances in ruin, and life as I had known it being over.
For so long, I believed that if I could just focus my efforts on getting the defects fixed, all my worst nightmares would go away. But the apartment is just an analogy here, an example of the many things I worried about over the years. I lost count of the times I found myself facing so many different worries about so many different things, and thinking to myself – if I can just fix this one last worry, I’ll have nothing more to worry about – ever again.
And yet as soon as I managed to get one worry out of the way, after a brief period of relief, I always and without fail managed to something else to worry about; something else to consume my thinking on the inside while I led a seemingly happy, normal life on the outside. Or to put it more accurately, something else to worry about always found me.
All those years, I also believed the cause and effect must be two different things – therefore I believed the cause was always the apartment, and the effect my extreme anxiety.
It never dawned on me that the true cause was my already imbalanced brain chemistry, primed and ready to trigger feelings of anxiety.
It never dawned on me that the apartment was just a catalyst.
It never dawned on me that the effect was the same as the cause – that the effect was a further imbalance in my same brain chemistry, this time triggering those feelings of irrationality and anxiety.
It never dawned on me for many years that I should have therefore focused more effort on fixing what appeared to me to be the symptoms – because they were also the cause.
But now I’ve come to realise that grammar and anxiety have at least one thing in common – rules and exceptions. As weird a species as we are to unquestioningly accept the “i before e except after c” rule, the heinous black dog is so proficient is his ability to consume our conscience by making us think the same about the “cause and effect” rule – that cause always precedes effect; that they can never be one and the same.
Could I be so bold as to say that nothing could be further from the truth?
And how does this help anyone struggling through life in a daily battle with the black dogs of anxiety and depression?
Well, to answer that question, I’d like to close off with one important point and one final analogy.
My important point is that while it does seem that most if not all forms of anxiety and depression boil down to imbalances in our brain chemistry, I am not suggesting that the only way to fight them is with other chemicals in the form of medication. That is just the way I fought and beat them. I’ve heard many stories of people who have beaten their own black dogs with the likes of exercise, counselling, CBT, meditation and so on.
I am, however, of the firm belief that, whether directly or indirectly, all these forms of treatment can ultimately address imbalances in our brain chemistry.
As for my final analogy, first consider that what seems to be the greatest strength of our most daunting nemesis can often be camouflage for its greatest weakness. Also bear in mind that whenever you stand up to a nemesis or a bully, they tend to reveal their true cowardly self and run a mile.
So the next time you feel panic, terror, dread and anxiety building up in your head and the black dog tries to torture you further by whispering in your ear, “your not strong enough to beat me”, let him know you are onto him. Whisper back in his ear with just a single word:
Or is that two words?