Friday, January 9, 2009

BPG, Friend of the Arachnid

Phobia is an interesting little trick of the mind. It usually makes no sense, and the conquering of one phobia often leads to the development of another. Neurotics unite! But, relentless psychic masochism aside, here's a little story about how a Blog Princess overcame her fear of our eight-legged friends... to an impressive extent for such a lily-livered old softy.

Now, I'd been afraid of spiders for as long as I can remember. On a family holiday in Italy, at the age of seven, I remember seeing a daddy-long-legs on my bedroom wall one afternoon, running like mad downstairs to where the family was hanging out, and my grandmother commenting on how my heart was racing. Someone had to kill the spider, and in years to come, I sort of learnt to kill my own spiders. I always felt bad about it. I'd read Charlotte's Web, and even though Charlotte gave me the creeps, she was such a good friend to Wilbur, and I can still see the image of the poor little porker crying in the straw because no-one would be his friend... no-one but a damned ugly spider.

This went on and on. Spiders came and spiders were killed. Splat... and I had to wash the walls again and another good magazine was wrecked. Then, at about the age of 30, my friend Dave and I were talking about a mutual friend who had a crippling fear of snakes. Her phobia made my phobia look pretty pathetic. This woman couldn't hear the word "snake" without starting to panic. I thought that she'd be well off getting some therapy, and mentioned that I might summon up the guts to do so sometime, as I knew that the common house spider was not a bad little guy to have around, as he'd deal with any other little creepy crawlies. I might have know that Dave would have a comeback for this. It took two weeks, but then he called me. I'd conveniently forgotten that he was working for the Clarke Institute for Psychiatry and he duly reported that they were performing a study to test the efficiency of their aversion therapy program and... they were using spiders! AND.. they needed volunteers who would each be willing to give a half-day of their time. Ruh roh.

I accepted this challenge with a queasy stomach, took a half-day vacation from work (my colleagues were amused) and reported for my afternoon. It was an interesting process. I spent the time, one-on-one, with a young female lab assistant, or... maybe she was head of the Wacko Department of Silly Fears, I'm not sure. She had a white coat on, so... either way. I filled out a questionnaire and was fitted with a wrist heart-rate monitor so she could see how my heart rate leapt (and stopped) throughout the afternoon.

Then we entered a large, empty lounge, full of ugly 1970s-era sofas. I sat (obediently) on one at the far end.

She explained very carefully that she was going to fetch the "control spider."

What in Sam Hill???

He would be in a sealed jar, in a large plastic box. Okay? Okay.

When she came back in, she had the box in her arms and put it on the coffee table in front of me. She told me that I would be asked to report on my comfort levels between 1 and 10 at different points in the afternoon; 10 being panicky, 1 being totally relaxed. How did I feel with the box in front of me? Fine, about a 2. Well, apparently, upon seeing her enter the room with the box, some people burst into tears, they were so afraid. I began to feel a bit better about my own phobia. It became clear that as much as I couldn't live with spiders, I was on the near side of the fear spectrum.

My smugness soon faded as we progressed. I was instructed to touch the closed jar with a pencil... with my finger... to pick it up... to look at the spider... to unscrew the top... to tap him out into the large plastic box... to touch him with the pencil... to touch him with my finger... to (OMG) let him crawl onto my hand.

Within 10 minutes the control spider (CS as I fondly called him after a while) was walking over my hands, one after the other, like a hamster. I marvelled at how he released his silk as he went. It was creepy and fascinating. How did this comfort happen so quickly? Well, I suppose it was because we were in a quiet, focussed environment and she talked me through it so calmly. The spider stopped at one point and she asked me

"What do you think he's doing?"

"Oh, I think he's planning something." (Embarrassed laugh.)

"He's a spider. He'd like to build a web, he'd like to catch a fly. He's not planning anything more than that."

"Uh huh."

And so it went. CS went back in the box after I'd played with him for about 20 minutes. Then... things got interesting. Different spiders were brought in, progressively bigger. It took time with each one. The lab was having an interesting time raising them and having enough to work with as most of them only lived about two weeks. Fascinating.

Finally, out came the daddy-long-legs. Oh boy.

Oh boy.

Ohhhhh boyyyyy.

"See how he sits on the wall?" she said. "The shadow he then casts is what makes him so intimidating."

"I'm about a billion times bigger than him.

"Yes... yes you are."

Reader, by the end of the afternoon, I had spiders walking up and down my arms, including the daddy-long-legs. Each time CS came in for a spot check, I was all over him... completely relaxed. It was truly amazing and one of those wonderful light-bulb-over-the-head moments. If I could overcome this, what else might I achieve? The lady I spent the afternoon with was a delight. And no, we never got into tarantulas. As she told me, there are some spiders you don't want to go near. What we were doing was to get me comfortable with the regular harmless house spider.

I left after a debriefing, with a sheet of paper with aversion therapy practice notes. They basically told me to keep handling spiders, dagnabit.

I got back to work and my waggish friend Mark had covered my work station with black plastic black widows. Witty boy.

The next day, another friend, Paula, on hearing that I needed to keep up my practice, dropped off a gift bag. I lifted out the jar. I couldn't see anything. Then I turned it over and nearly passed out. Sitting on the inside of the lid, nicely camouflagued, was no spider. It must have been a very small pony. When I finally tapped it out and lifted it up (heart racing), this thing had HEFT. I mean, it weighed something. That was my worse moment of all... but I survived!

How have I fared since then?

That winter I was at my parents' home one night and I found a spider in the kitchen. Not one to kill a spider now, I scooped him up onto some paper and put him outside, onto a thin crust of snow. I watched as he began to shrivel up and... brought him back inside.

Last summer, at a cottage, I was laying on the dark quilt on my bed one afternoon, and I saw a daddy-long-legs walking slowly down the wall to the bed, which was set against it. I idly watched him. I saw as he gingerly trod onto the quilt. And I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but I closed my eyes and continued napping. He was there somewhere on that quilt with me, but I was okay with that.


Anyway, that's my story. I'd love to hear about any phobias, whether they have been overcome or not. It's an interesting topic, yes?

And a big thank you to Dave, who challenged me to meet my fear. :)


Bill Stankus said...

Very amusing story. You need a button that says something like, "I Conquered Spiders".

I don't do well being around Republicans. Really. After a few moments of talk my blood pressure definitely elevates.

I don't mind snakes except I hate the sound of a rattling rattle snake.

Betsy said...

Oh my. I have the willies now that I've read this! I've always been scared of spiders. We had very large ones that tried to attack our little pet turtles when I was very young. It made a lasting impression. You are brave, BPG! I had a rather large brown spider bite my foot this summer. I killed him for it....and before he could bite any of the boys. I was too scared to kill them until I had kids and didn't want them to be biten. Sounds like you had nice, "Charlotte" spiders to crawl on your for your therapy! Next time I'll put one in a jar and Fed Ex it to you. tee-hee. He can curl up on your quilt with you! aaaack!
Yes, I repeat, are brave!

Joyce said...

Spiders are great! They help to keep down the number of pests in agriculture (my area of study). But, I am so afraid of spiders that I don't think I could ever let one walk on me. I can look at them with interest, but I can't touch them. You are so brave!

Edward Hegstrom said...

Mice and, especially, rats. It's the tails...creepy, bare, slithering behind them as they scurry about. Ugh...I get creeped out just visualizing the damned things.

Protege said...

Ah, this was a fun read! I can't believe it only took one aftrenoon for you to loose that phobia.
I am not too crazy about spiders either. I overall do not like insects. Nevertheless, spiders are ok, as they catch other annoying insects. I have no trouble holding spiders, up to a certain size. When they start to look more like animals than insects, I might become a bit more apprehensive.
I suffer from two interlinked phobias, that do complicate my life somewhat. I am claustrophobic and I am terrified of flying. In fact I have not been on a plane for over 5 years. This has more or less to do with a loss of control, which I hate. I am a control freak.;))
By the way, I love the new picture in your header.

glamah16 said...

You are brave! I dont think I have any phobias .

Dave Coulter said...

Hmph. No spiders crawlin' on MY arm!

Hilary said...

About a 6.

That's where I was on the scale of comfort levels just reading this post. I don't like them. I don't want to like them. I just want somebody else to put them outside.. because neither do I want to kill them.

willow said...

I'm okay with spiders and have no problem killing them. Except those huge hairy brown wolf spiders, you know, the ones that look like tarantulas. Those I have a problem with.

Kudos to you for tackling your fear, BPG!

zoe said...

Dear God Almighty. I cannot believe you did this and survived. CLEARLY they brainwashed you. I was at a 10 when I read you agreed to the half day. I was at 15 when she went to fetch the Control Sp***r.

You are a brave woman and I will call you when I see one so you can befriend it.

I will be breathing deeply in a paper bag in the corner.

Blog Princess G said...

Thanks for your comments all - so interesting! Phobias are so fascinating. Protege, I'm not crazy about flying, and that's increased with age. I can relate to your control issues.