Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified Thursday about an alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh when the two were in high school in the 1980s. And as if describing her trauma in front of the entire world weren’t enough, she also had to endure people questioning her experience with anxiety.
During the hearing, Rachel Mitchell, the Republican special counsel for the Judiciary Committee, probed into Ford’s fear of flying. The questions were regarding Ford’s initial refusal to be interviewed by the Judiciary Committee, which Ford and her lawyers attributed to her anxiety around getting on a plane to travel to Washington, D.C.
Ford said she was hoping that someone would come interview her so she could avoid getting on an airplane. But when she realized that wasn’t going to happen, she got on the plane to fly to the hearing instead.
Conservatives were quick to jump on this exchange during the hearing, seemingly using it as a way to diminish Ford’s overall credibility:
Make no mistake: The implication that Ford is a liar because she was able to get on a plane when she claims she has anxiety over flying is a blinding example of how many people don’t comprehend mental health and trauma. Just because someone experiences anxiety or a phobia doesn’t mean that person will always avoid what causes it. In fact, in a lot of cases, they shouldn’t.
Exposure to certain anxiety triggers is vital to treating the condition, said Victor Schwartz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and chief medical officer at the mental health organization The Jed Foundation.
“The way we typically try to treat phobias or anxiety-based fears is teaching relaxation techniques and then graded exposure, where you slowly expose yourself to small doses of what scares you,” Schwartz told HuffPost. “It’s a way of inoculating yourself so you can then tolerate bigger doses of the thing that you’re afraid of.”
There’s also no particular rule or pathology for when people can or cannot avoid their anxiety triggers, Schwartz said.
“These are not black and white things … people do things they’re afraid of. A person who has anxiety or a phobia has a real hard time doing it, but that doesn’t mean that under the proper circumstances they’re completely incapable of doing it,” he said. “Just like someone who might have some cardiac problems or an injury. If someone is chasing them, they’re probably going to be able to run, though it might be extremely uncomfortable or painful for them.”
Many on Twitter were quick to make this point.
An estimated 40 million American adults live with an anxiety issue. The disorder is expansive. It can include excessive worry and rumination. It can prompt panic attacks. It can bring about physical symptoms like headaches and a racing heartbeat. It also can stem from specific, intense fears (in some cases, that fear is getting on an airplane). But mental health professionals stress that it’s possible to live with these symptoms and still carry on with your daily routine.
Using Ford’s anxiety over flying as a possible attempt to undermine her credibility or experience is gross, wrong and completely misunderstands how anxiety works and how it needs to be medically treated. If we want more acceptance around mental health in this country, we have to stop questioning people’s personal experiences with it. We have to recognize that it affects everyone differently. And we also have to believe that a person’s mental health condition is just one part of their life; it doesn’t define it.
Sometimes, that means getting on a damn plane ― on your own terms ― despite the anxiety. Doing that makes you strong, not a liar.