I'm at my friend's flat-warming party. We're sitting around a table of snacks, drinking beer and chatting about crazy things we've heard, when one woman says, "this guy I know had a tapeworm. He actually had to pull it out of his bum while on the toilet and apparently it was still wriggling after."
In case you don't know (and hopefully aren't in the middle of a meal), a tapeworm is basically a parasitic flatworm that can live in your intestines via the ingestion of eggs in uncooked meat. They can survive for up to 25 years and grow up to several feet in length.
"Wait. Do tapeworms have eyes?" my friend asks.
"I don't know, I'll check with him," the woman replies.
Meanwhile, I start to feel my stomach churning. Not in an I-feel-sick-at-the-thought-of-this-story way, but with an almost squirmy sensation, as though I've had a tapeworm all this time but it's only just made itself known.
This sensation is pretty common to me by now. Ever since I was around ten and heard my teacher talking about tapeworms, I've been both obsessed and terrified by them. In my early twenties this became especially extreme.
I'd seen a story trending on Twitter about a guy in America who got a tapeworm in his brain. This was enough to set me off. For weeks after I was scared to sleep or go to the bathroom. I'd try to eat as little as I could and obsessively checked food and washed my hands. This is a real thing—it's officially known as Teniophobia.
The doctor prescribed me Diazepam to deal with these particular periods of tapeworm-focused anxiety since my 25th birthday—during a particularly upsetting episode where I sobbed sporadically and ordered herbal detoxes all day—I have mostly been able to manage.
I have figured though, that if my doctor knew what medicine to prescribe right away, that I can't be the only one suffering from such a degree of terror about these potential invaders.
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"In my experience, [these] phobias are more common in the western world compared to under-developed regions," says Phil Craig, a professor of parasitology at the University of Salford. "However in any society when a Taenia [saginata]—a beef tapeworm—patient sees what they have, if treated correctly, voided, the blood usually drains from their face. And they show varying degrees of shock...especially when the worm is large and writhing."
Now there's an image for you. Their relative rarity in the Western world makes tapeworms a sensationalist fear—like being struck by lightening or killed by a psychopath. This is the stuff you see in medical TV dramas or Amy Schumer comedies, it doesn't happen to regular people—right?
Unfortunately the Internet has made the reality of parasites easily accessible for those of us with a morbid curiosity—you only need to type 'tapeworm' into YouTube for this to be proven—or, if you're feeling really brave, peruse some tapeworm forums. Then, this past May, there were those sushi scare stories that started circulating social media, with videos of raw salmon containing small squirmy party-crashers.
"The Internet has definitely made things worse, and even more so than the old medical dictionaries which people used to self-diagnose illnesses with," says Matthew Exell, a psychologist in Reading, UK. "Some people also have a sense of wanting to look at this type of thing via social media—they then can develop a fear from a memory of looking at something which can in turn develop into a full-on phobia."
To contrast this, some say that exposure therapy (facing your fear head- or in this case, eyes-on) is actually the most effective way of tackling a phobia. "Once the person is confident in managing anxiety, they would then undertake exposure work—confronting the fear—starting with the least scary to most," says psychologist Beth Fell, another UK-based psychologist. "This can sound very scary but it is all done through agreement with the client and therapist so that both know what to expect in each appointment."
Being confronted with an actual tapeworm is probably the worst situation I can ever imagine, so I suppose YouTube videos of them is as close to this form of therapy I'm going to get. So I try watching one and then switch it off four seconds in. Nope.
Mostly, tapeworm phobias develop from a fear of illness rather than directly seeing graphic images of them. "It often starts with a more general fear of being sick and the issues around that. But then it spreads out into a fear of parasites and the prevailing thoughts of them," Exell says.
Yes, the idea of getting really sick is scary. But for me, it's the otherworldliness of parasites that makes them such a focus of fear. While I know a tapeworm can't kill me (extreme circumstances aside), the thought of something invading your body feels so much worse, like I'm John Hurt in Alien.
Exell adds that a healthy level of fear surround parasites is a good thing, especially is it pushes you to be cautious about what you eat as well as your hygiene. Perhaps this is why so few came forward to share their own experiences of Teniophobia with me. Most are grossed out by tapeworms, but recognize that it's normal to be freaked out by living worms inside your bowels.
I did manage to find a few fellow obsessives that had posted on Facebook about regularly ingesting various toxins said to prevent tapeworms, while other forums were rife with discussions about how parasites were impacting mental health and possibly even controlling our minds. Do what you will with that.
Like it or not, tapeworms do exist and they're more common than you think. If, like me, your fear is extreme, take comfort in knowing good hygiene will likely keep you safe—and staying away from YouTube.
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