In elementary school I was a cognitive behaviorist. At around nine years old, one day I decided for no apparent reason, no more nightlight. Maybe I thought I was too old, or I was tired of being afraid of the dark, or perhaps I just wanted to vanquish one fear. Whatever my reason, that night I got to work.
I asked my dad for an extension cord which I plugged into the outlet from which my nightlight had provided a beacon of comfort during insomniac nights. The nightlight went into the other end, the cord coiled so that the light rested sideways on the carpet just below its former post. The crooked bulb gave off a weird arc of light, but I told myself it was okay.
After that, each night I moved the nightlight about two inches towards the door. Pretty soon the nightlight made it into the hallway. Triumphantly I handed my dad the nightlight and the extension cord. I was done with them, I told him.
Buoyed by my success, I resolved to learn to sleep with my door closed using the same method. One inch per night I closed out the reassuring light of the hallway and soothing presence of my parents across the hall.
My current therapist, a certified cognitive behaviorist, tells me this technique is called successive approximations, and I could use it to start driving again. This was great news. After 10 years of panic attacks, I would cure myself as painlessly as I had with my fear of the dark!
Or, not exactly.
“You’re going to feel anxious,” my therapist reminded me, “and you’re going to have to ride that out.”
“That’s terribly disappointing,” I said. And then I felt unaccountably optimistic. It probably wasn’t that easy with the nightlight, either. It was going to be hard and I was going to do it anyway. As Huck Finn said, “All right then, I’ll go to hell!”