Once upon a time, I was pathologically afraid of spiders. When I was a child, I screamed for my father, paralyzed, whenever I encountered one. Size was irrelevant. Interestingly, I wasn’t paralyzed if he wasn’t home, nor did I call for my mother – she was terrified too. On those occasions, I fled.
My father picks spiders up with his bare hands. He’d laugh at my fears and bring them closer to show me. He might have had more success if he’d been sympathetic. I simply retreated in terror as they crawled across his palm.
It was a problem that persisted for years and there have been, at times, negative life impacts. Phobias aren’t always convenient. There isn’t always someone available to rescue you. Kicking them is a good choice.
Complicating the spider situation is my dislike of killing things, even insects. It gives me guilt. Rock and hard place is a common destination of mine.
While I was at university, I signed up for a systematic desensitization study. I have no idea what they were really studying – psychology studies are never about what they tell you they are. But I took lots of them, and other departmental studies advertised on campus, mostly because they paid well and I needed the money.
The spider one, however, was personal. Good thing – it only paid twenty-five dollars.
I was exposed to spiders of varying sizes and degrees. We talked first. I was given various bits of information about the species. I watched videos, looked at pictures, and answered questions about my anxiety and stress levels. I’m not sure how many sessions there were – it was a long time ago – but my brain wants to say four.
The final test involved crossing a room from a distance of about ten feet and placing my hand in an aquarium holding a tarantula. It sat on a table, covered in a black shawl. You were to cross the room, remove the shawl, and put your hand in the tank in one fluid motion.
I’ve never sweated so much in my life, at least before menopause. Those hot flashes are no joke. Thank God mine only lasted a few months. As in, I got them for a few months. Can you imagine one that lasted ninety days?
I was terrified, but I did it. Mostly because I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of the teaching assistant.
It wasn’t my first experience with flop sweats, but they never stop being nasty.
The tank was empty. I suspect they were testing anxiety or fear response. I was so jacked up that it took several heartbeats to realize the space was spider-free.
I was a lot better with spiders after the study. I no longer ran screaming from the room when they appeared. I did, however, kill them if they got too close to comfort and were too big for capture. We get wolf spiders here, and they’re an intimidating bunch. [i]
If I found them on the floor and near to me, which they often were in the condo I shared with my son’s father, they were toast. The floor is close to feet, and feet are close to legs, and from there it’s just a hop, skip, and jump until they’re eating your face or something like that. He’d come home and find heavy books sitting on the floor here, there, and everywhere. I could drop them to save us all, but I couldn’t retrieve the remains.
They might still be alive.
Who says you won’t use those university textbooks again?
But then I got pregnant, and my stepdaughters, aged four and five, came to live with us full-time, and I realized I didn’t want to pass my fears on to another generation. So, I conquered it. Mostly. When the girls squealed over a discovered spider, I sympathized and cuddled them for a bit, before pointing out how interesting it was. we took out books from the library. I’d talk about how spiders eat mosquitos that bite us, how they make sure our house isn’t full of bugs, and how we should be grateful. Instead of dropping books, I’d get a cup and a card and we’d catch it, look at it for a bit, and then release it into the great outdoors.
I know they come back. It’s the effort that’s important.
Out of sight, out of mind.
And my children don’t run screaming from rooms at the sight of eight legs.
[i] A spider and I startled each other in my library earlier this year. I shrieked. The spider ran at top speed diagonally across the wall. One, spiders running is a terrifying thing to behold and two, they run really fast. I may have regressed a bit after that.