I’m Terrified of Chewing Gum

I think chewing gum is the most disgusting thing you can possibly do with your face, which is just about the only thing I have in common with Oprah.

Despite watching many hours of Fox News each week, I rarely find myself agreeing with the network’s outrage cheerleaders. But last month when ​Charles Krauthammer appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and referred to President Obama’s gum chewing during a summit in China as disrespectful, I found myself nodding in feverish approval. I’ve said similar things myself, though my remarks are usually met with, “He’s chewing Nicorette gum. Would you rather he smoked?” Yes. Yes, I would, because I think chewing gum is the most disgusting thing you can possibly do with your face.

A few years ago a girlfriend of mine said my aversion to looking anyone in the eye while they chewed gum was symptomatic of a phobia. She did some research, and to my delight she introduced me to the term c​hiclephobia. Although it’s obscure, I’m not the only person who might suffer with this condition outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Although there aren’t statistics available on exactly how many people are afraid of gum, we do know that there are folks diagnosed with chiclephobia in every echelon of life. Even Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women of the 20th century, famously suffers from the disorder.

Back in 2010, Oprah told People magazine, “I hate chewing gum. It makes me sick just to think about it. When people chew loudly or smack it and pull it out of their mouth, that’s the worst.” She is so turned off by gum, she is rumored to have had the stuff banned from her production studio.

As someone who finds his incessant gum chewing the most disgusting thing about Jerry Lee Lewis, a man who married his 13-year-old cousin, I could definitely relate to Oprah’s desire to rid her world of gum. But because most people don’t find chewing a synthetic paste repulsive, people like Oprah and myself are forced to encounter it constantly.

As a child, I almost threw up when reading about Violet Beauregarde sticking her three-month old chewed gum on her bedpost at night in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (or behind her ear in Wonka). When Kirsten Dunst surprised Josh Hartnett with an unexpected make-out session in his Pontiac Firebird to the soundtrack of Heart’s “Crazy on You” in The Virgin Suicides, an otherwise thrilling scene of pubescent recklessness was ruined for me by the across-the-line disgusting moment when, immediately after they kiss, Hartnett finds Dunst’s old gum in his mouth.

I’ve had desperate crushes on women that I’d suddenly feel nothing for after watching them chew gum. I’ve had important lunch meetings ruined when someone I’m supposed to be paying attention to puts his or her old gum on the side of their plate. Suddenly my appetite is gone, and I can think of nothing but counting the minutes until the waiter takes that plate away.

“Of all the consumer products, chewing gum is perhaps the most ridiculous. It literally has no nourishment—you just chew it to give yourself something to do with your stupid idiot Western mouth,” Russell Brand wrote in his memoir, My Booky Wook. “Half the world is starving, and the other’s going, ‘I don’t actually need any nutrition, but it would be good to masticate, just to keep my mind off things.'”

I often cite Brand’s point when explaining chiclephobia to people. Though if I’m honest, my hatred for gum has nothing to do with class or decadence or famine. I just think it’s gross. Really, really gross. But does a deep-rooted aversion to gum really qualify as a legitimate phobia? ​

“Usually a phobia is defined as an intense fear that is irrational, and the person tends to realize it’s irrational, but still can’t help feeling it,” Dr. Gregory Carey of University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience tells me. “A phobic disorder is when a phobia gets so intense it starts interfering in your life or those around you.”

I do have pretty strong reactions to the sight of gum, but I couldn’t say that it impacts my life on a daily basis. When I think of the word phobia, I think of people who are terrified of innocuous things like balloons (glob​ophobia), moths (mottep​hobia), or the color purple (porphyroph​obia, not to be confused with a fear of the Oprah film The Color Purple). Dr. Carey says that these types of cases are rare, and that most common phobias are of usual suspects like heights, enclosed spaces, public speaking, and various sorts of animals.

Like much of our emotional makeup as adults, Dr. Carey says that often phobias have their origins in a negative childhood experience. “We’re evolutionarily predisposed to develop certain fears at certain times in our lives,” he explains. “It’s always been important for children to learn quickly about their environment, especially when it comes to things like animals.”

This was certainly the case with Oprah, who once told  InTouch weekly that as a child her family was so poor they would recycle chewed gum. “My grandmother used to save it in little rows in the cabinet,” she said. “I’d be scared to touch it because it was so gross, so I have a thing about gum.”

I suppose I do have a memory of my sister sticking her gum into my hair as a kid. Having gum in my hair freaked me out more than the time I had a leach stuck to my belly. I was livid. I threw an explosive tantrum until my Mom just cut it out with scissors. I feel nauseous every time I think about that. Though at the same time, I don’t feel I fit Carey’s criteria for a phobia sufferer since I don’t see my feelings as irrational. To me, chewed gum is like used toilet paper, and I don’t understand why no one else sees that. If I had gum stuck in my hair today as an adult I’d react about the same as I did as a child and freak the fuck out.

In our conversation, Carey makes the distinction between fear and disgust by proposing that “if you are walking along and step in dog poop, you say, Yuck, that’s disgusting. But you’re not afraid.” When I take his parable one step further and ask about the person who avoids parks or walking in grass altogether to avoid dog poop, he reiterates that “you’re still just disgusted by the poop, not afraid of it. Unless you’re having panic attacks about it.”

So what’s a gum-fearing boy to do?  Ultimately, I’ve mostly accepted the fact that pretty much everyone in the world other than me and Oprah likes to chew gum. So I typically avoid mentioning my chiclephobia to anyone. You can only pick so many battles in life, and if some people enjoy gnawing on sorbitol, gum base, maltitol, caffeine, Xylitol, and stuff like niacinamide, soy lecithin, calcium pantothenate, taurine, maltodextrin, sucralose, titanium dioxide, refined glaze, carnauba wax, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, Calcium silicate, and Red 40, then far be it from me to deprive them of their fun. If I were to mention my disgust with gum, then no one would chew gum around me, which sounds nice, but won’t actually help my condition.

According to Dr. Carey, if I have any interest in desensitizing myself to the sight of humans debasing themselves with their open-mouthed chomping, then I need to soberly face down the source of my discomfort.

“Usually the best [method of overcoming a phobia], is a combination of cognitive therapy and actual in vivo exposure,” he says. “If someone’s afraid of snakes, you work your way into actually handling snakes. People can be anxious during the initial stages of this treatment, but it can be very effective, leading to their anxiety going down by the end of treatment.”

So perhaps it’s for the best that I’m not a gazillionaire like Oprah who can have gum banished from my sight at all times. If I’m ever going to get to the point where I can handle a lunch meeting involving chewed gum on a plate, or even kiss a girl with gum in her mouth (I just squirmed in my seat typing that sentence), then I guess I need to witness this unsightly, inexplicably acceptable culinary custom as often as possible.

…On second thought, fuck that. Gum’s gross.

Josia Hesse cringing