Think back to your childhood. What made you feel safe? Now remember what scared you to pieces. For me, it was a common baddie, a creepy-crawly, a long-legged, furry-bodied, eight-eyed* mini-monster. No, not my Aunt Deirdre – I’m talking big and bad, black or brown . . .
I’m talking SPIDER.
The house I lived in with my family boasted many different insects, arachnids and other sneaky species. From caterpillars to silverfish and beetles to butterflies, we had them all. They lived in fruit trees outside, crept beneath peeling wallpaper, ran across dark carpets and swarmed at the back of the toilet. It makes my skin tingle to think of it now, but at the time it was home and I accepted it as quirky and, as mum put it, “countryfied”. Well, mostly I accepted it – because there was one class of creature I couldn’t abide and that was the quick-witted, quick-crawling spider.
Anything smaller than a baby fingernail, I can tolerate. But if it’s bigger than a thimble, I will leap three feet instinctively if I enter a room and even glance at one on the wall. By the age of about seven, my family were sure I had the skills to predict where the next one would appear and, even spookier, where one already lurked, even if I wasn’t in the room with it. I began to be known as The Girl with the Spider Sense – literary comparisons aside, not a very desirable nickname if you have pulse-stopping arachnophobia. If there was someone around to help box’n’whizz my furry foes, life was fine, but when the house was empty of adults, spiders posed a much bigger problem.
One summer’s morning, I was sat cross-legged on the lounge carpet watching kid’s TV with our dog. Engrossed in Sesame Street’s big bird singsong, stroking our poodle’s silky fur, I’d forgotten the rest of the world existed. Mum was out working (she sometimes did Saturday’s) and my grandparents (who lived with us) were enjoying a lie-in, so doggie and I had the ground floor to ourselves. We were both licking ice-creams. Then, like a streak of black lightening, a spider as big as an old penny piece and as fast as a rolling marble came scurrying out from under the sofa and into the middle of the room. Knowing I mustn’t wake grandma and granddad, I gulped in a scream, but sent my ice-cream flying and gave the poor dog a fright so bad he vomited all over my mum’s favourite, sheepskin rug. This story is no exaggeration: it really was dog sick, ice-cream and me hiding in the kitchen peering into the room through glass partition doors unable to venture back in.
The dog started whining. It took me an hour to pluck up the courage to report the incident to the matriarch of the house, my gran, who didn’t take kindly to being woken up from her weekend sleep to embark on a major cleaning project. She was a bit annoyed at first, but then she realised how scared I was and said that, if she could, she’d put all the spiders in the world into someone else’s country. My grandfather, a world war two veteran, told her that place existed and it was called Burma.
Eventually, the lounge returned to normal. Our dog stopped crying for attention and finished his ice-cream and I accepted that I would always live in fear of big, hairy, ugly tormentors in the form of the dreaded (as gran started to call them to soften each blow), “Mr Spiddly”. I felt deflated. I felt unsafe. Every time I entered the lounge from that day onwards, I obsessively checked under the sofa, scanned the floor, scoured the walls and hunted the long-escaped shadow of that spider.
Ten years later, when I moved away and started out alone, I suffered the same fate, always checking and rechecking corners, kneeling and stretching to see under and over furniture. Friends I lived with laughed and reminded me the spiders I searched for had been thrown out the window long ago, but to me, no spider ever really disappeared. Memories of ones I’d met and detested – from childhood to adulthood – remained with me and I began to doubt if I’d ever beat it.
I was thirty-six when all that changed.
On a visit to one of those big, fancy aquariums, my partner spotted an advert for the “creepy-crawly hotel”. We both laughed loudly, as if I needed reminding that it was a highly unlikely destination for us. Instead, we set about having a fish-based afternoon, emerging from glass tunnels, our contented faces surrounded by toothy sharks and manta rays.
Out of the blue, I said, “Stop.”
And he looked at me and said, “What?”
Without another word, I marched us both out of the shark tunnel and back to the spider hotel. It was a dark blue door without a handle. To get inside, you simply pushed the door panel. I could draw a picture of that door right now if you asked me to, in stunning detail. All manner of deadly images built up in my mind as I stood there, behind it – of man-sized hairy spider-beasts with tentacle-legs and gleaming multi-eyes looming up out of the darkness to capture and torture me. But, blow me, I pushed.
The spider hotel was a circular room edged with glass tanks. At first, I wandered nervously in the centre while my partner fearlessly (or so he claimed) gawped through the glass panels pulling grossed-out faces and saying things like, “yuk,” or, occasionally, to brag in my direction, “awesome”. I didn’t listen. All I cared about was breaking a rule I’d had since childhood. I was determined to look this time – and not run away.
It took five cautious steps to get to where I needed to be. And then I saw. I truly saw. Tanks upon tanks of warmed-up tarantulas, lit by dull yellow bulbs. Grimly poised, their fat, hair-covered legs arched in anticipation, unmoving. All apart from one. I, too, stood stock-still, solid as a statue with terror, and watched a hand-sized bird-eating spider from Madagascar gently lift each horrible limb and place it down again, resettling its large, bulbous body.
I was also being watched – by both the spiders and my gob-smacked partner of twenty years, who’d seen every aspect of my debilitating arachnophobia. Two things amazed me about the situation I’d chosen to put myself in: one, that I was in tears without knowing it and two, that I found the tarantulas genuinely fascinating. You might imagine that a person who has, in some ways, been a prisoner to a species from being a child, would want to obliterate every bristly example. I felt no hatred towards them. I didn’t. I shunned all that payback nonsense and offered respect – to the innocent creatures in those cages (prisoners of us humans that day) and, dare I say it, to myself, for challenging old beliefs, for taking a big risk and just for being downright unpredictable, a trait I respect so much in others.
All-in-all, fear – and my reaction to it – taught me a lot that day. I’m an ordinary person – no special powers to speak of – so how did I make the changes needed to confront my worst nightmare? It’s bizarrely simple and straightforward: I just accepted the unpleasant feelings, moved physically closer to the thing I was scared of and realised it was not impossible, after all, as I had always imagined.
Ordinary people can do incredible things. (Although, yes, I must admit, I did struggle a bit to select the photograph for the post . . .)
Flying, agoraphobia, trypophobia – common or rare, what’s your fear?
*Eye count varies and is actually very important in the identification of different spiders. Like me, however, many people don’t get close enough to check.