It's estimated that everyone has a phobia. The majority of the world is terrified by something. Most people's phobias revolve around something normal – spiders, maybe, or snakes, or something tangible – something that can be seen. But for Emma Pillsbury, the biggest phobia is the unseen.
Maybe that makes it worse.
She clutches her anti-bacterial solution and she washes her hands multiple times a day, and Emma considers herself normal. Everyone has something they're scared of. In her case, it's a problem with messes – messes where germs hide, where sicknesses lurk to create other messes. And sometimes she just doesn't have the strength to keep the lurking smell at bay – that disgusting scent of feces and blood, and the memories that threaten to burst through.
It's those days that she sits, a Kleenex over her mouth, trying to keep the gagging down, and she knows:
Emma Pillsbury will never be normal.
She was born on a warm day in October in the Central Appalachias. The youngest of three, she was a welcome surprise and was accepted warmly into her family. The Pillsburys are a proper Virginian family; they pride themselves on manners and politeness. But there's a shock of warmth in every touch, smile, and gaze from each member, and Emma was born into a family that loved her very much – maybe more because she was so precious from the moment she entered the world.
She always had red hair. It was a light orangey-blonde fuzz when she was born and quickly transformed itself into little round red curls all over her head as she grew. Emma had slate-grey eyes when she was born, but as she got older, they darkened and warmed into the beautiful chestnut eyes that melt men's hearts today. Always petite and underweight, there was never a moment where her feet touched the ground in the first years of her life. She was cuddled constantly, always in someone's arms, always with her head on someone's shoulder. Her older sister was thirteen when she was born and Emma spent that first year gazing at the world from her proud sister's arms as she took her little sister everywhere.
She was a bad sleeper – this would carry into her adult years. It's as if she couldn't turn off her curiosity about the world long enough to sleep. Many a night, her parents would be awakened by the heartbroken wailing of their tiny youngest girl, and find her clinging to the side of her crib, her big eyes full of tears, her lower lip trembling. Rarely was anything wrong besides a wet diaper or a need for a quick bottle – she just wanted to be with people. Though it was frowned on by all members of their family, Emma was permitted finally to sleep between her parents so that they could all get some sleep . . . and she stopped her night waking as soon as she was able to snuggle between the people she loved most in the world. Now, Emma sleeps with pillows all around her to emulate the closeness of someone against her back. She needs physical touch to self-soothe.
She grew into an inquisitive toddler with a delightful laugh and sparkling eyes. She got into anything and everything, and ended up in the corner more than she was out of it. But nothing could kill her spirit – and all she had to do was pout at whoever was punishing her. She was out in a matter of moments and being cuddled. Emma had everyone wrapped around her little finger . . . and she carried that charm through her life. Her smile and laugh, though rare these days, break her entire demeanour open. Her expressions are beautiful; her emotions contagious. Emma was hard to teach and impossible to resist. Always sensitive and cuddly, she sucked her thumb until she was twelve and still chews on her fingers when nervous today.
Though inquisitive, Emma was and always has been painfully shy. When she went to school on the first day, her eyes welled with tears to see her mother leaving her. She spent most of the day sucking her thumb in the corner, her long red hair hiding her pale little face, until the teacher beckoned her to the Play-Doh table and taught her how to mold the funny-smelling modelling clay. In a matter of moments, the teary little girl was transformed into a laughing, sparkly-eyed child just loving to create. Emma looks back on those moments now and can't fathom being able to get her hands dirty and to laugh without abandon. She envies her former self.
Sometimes that's the hardest – knowing that it can be better.
When Emma thinks back, she remembers things as "before the accident" and "after the accident". The accident; or as Emma thinks of it, the Accident, was really not that bad by anyone else's standards.
They visited a dairy farm for Emma's eighth birthday. By this time, the little girl had all sorts of ideas about what she wanted to be when she grew up. One day, she was an astronaut, climbing trees and launching herself into the air, waiting to splash down into the lake behind her parents' house. Or she was a doctor, helping her brother "heal" from cuts and scrapes and tummy aches. Sometimes, she was a teacher, telling her stuffed animals the ABCs and how to spell "cat"; other times, she was happy to be a writer or an artist, creating colourful paintings with lots of yellow, her favourite colour.
But Emma always wanted to be a dairy farmer. Living in a white farmhouse with a big red barn, full of black and white spotted cows – it seemed like the perfect life, and growing up in the country, she saw a lot of farmers around that were only too happy to let the little red-haired girl pet the cattle and listen adoringly to their stories.
Her parents arranged an outing on the day of her eighth birthday to visit her neighbour's dairy farm, one of the biggest in their small Virginian town. Emma had put on her coveralls and a crisp white shirt and her sister braided her long red hair to emulate a "farmer look". She had entered the farm happier than she'd ever felt before or since. It's always a thrill to finally realize our dreams.
And it was a dream come true – to see the clean black and white cattle lined up in the stalls, and the shining milking machines pumping away. And it continued to be a dream come true until Emma's brother decided to pull a fast one and hip-bump her into the runoff lagoon.
To this day, Emma doesn't really remember what happened. All she remembers is the all-encompassing smell – the rotting, stinking, creeping organic smell of feces and blood and pus. And she remembers vomiting, over and over, until she had nothing left in her stomach, and then vomiting some more as the vile, unspeakable liquid splashed over her, in her hair and ears, in her nose and mouth, and all over her clothing.
It could be said she never really forgave her brother for simultaneously ruining one of her childhood dreams and saddling her with post-traumatic stress disorder so bad that she wet her bed every night for two months after the accident, which, of course, did not make the creeping mysophobia any better.
She stopped eating meat and drinking milk – that's how it started. She drank a glass of milk at dinner, gagged, and immediately threw it back up all over herself. Her parents, alarmed, helped her clean up, but thought nothing of it. It could have been a touch of the stomach flu; it could have been something that disagreed with Emma's stomach.
When it happened the next night, and the night after that, they got concerned. When Emma started scrubbing the tile in the bathroom with a toothbrush and crying when her clothing wasn't washed twice in a row, her mother made an appointment with the family's doctor.
The formerly smiling, laughing red-haired pixie of a girl had been replaced with a hesitant, anxious, nervous waif who kept losing weight and eventually, her hair. Her doctor had checked her over quietly, moving slowly so as not to startle her, and diagnosed her as being underweight and psychologically disturbed.
The next week, Emma and her mother drove into Richmond to see the psychiatrist there. It would become the first of many appointments spanning the next five years.
Emma stopped talking when she realized that it wasn't doing any good. They put her on medication that was supposed to make her sleep, and instead made her cry and want to kill herself. They sent her to group therapy, to exposure sessions where she had to touch mud and look at her fingers under a microscope. She stopped laughing and cried at the drop of a hat. She refused to let anyone touch her and spent hours walking outside, just to get away from everything. She lost friends and she didn't care.
Nothing helped. She grew up into a serious, nervous adult with a thick Appalachian accent and a stammer that got worse when she showed any emotion. Her clothing was spotless; her home surgically clean, and she refused to dream anymore about what she could make of herself.
For awhile, it was survival. And that was good enough – until it wasn't. Because who wants to live this way, with the axe over your head, just waiting to fall and slice you open for the world to see?
Mysophobia is easy to hide. Emma's learned to not eat in front of anyone and to ensure that she doesn't visit the bathroom too often, especially if anyone else is around. For awhile, it was uncomfortable to deny her basic needs, but the questions and stares were worse as people started to pull conditions out of the bag of mental and physical illness to describe her. Was it OCD? Germaphobia? An eating disorder? A kidney problem?
Sometimes she feels like she's standing in the centre of the room screaming, but no one can hear her. And that's when Emma Pillsbury realizes that there is nothing normal about living with a phobia. In fact, it's about the least normal thing about her.
When she met Will Schuester, she realized that it was okay to fall apart sometimes. That she couldn't always hold the control tightly in the palm of her hand. That denying her basic needs, and her basic emotions, was no healthier than practically bathing in hand sanitizer.
Now, she lets him cuddle her at night. She forgets that he may have germs on his hands, or on his breath, and she relaxes after a hard day at school, letting the tears fall, letting her back relax against his stomach. And he rubs her back, her shoulders, her arms, her stomach, slowly, helping her muscles unclench; helping her let go of the stress of the day.
It's then that Emma Pillsbury knows that Will Schuester's saved her life.
And it's then that she remembers why out of all her dreams, she decided to be a guidance counsellor. Because she has a commitment to herself, and to the students she teaches, that no one should ever suffer the effects of a phobia like she does every day.
She's committed to helping the world be a better place.
And it, mysophobia, doesn't win when she remembers why she throws herself into the fray every day.
Because the sparkle of life is so much better than the fear, and she can't live without either.
It's just who Emma Pillsbury is.