My Enduring Phobias

            I have always hated spiders. Going way back into my earliest memories, I cannot recall a time when I was ever intrigued by spiders or wanted to observe them or even yearned to know anything about them. To put it simply, they terrify me.

            A scientist might be able to explain all the beneficiary things spiders do to enrich our earth, which is good, but it would not change my mind.

            Spiders, unlike dogs, creep about. They make no sound as the crawl across my ceiling or up my walls. Sometimes when I am sitting on the couch one appears and crawls across my book or, even worse, up my arm. Or maybe on my neck.

            They have the ability to drop on you without any kind of fanfare. One minute there is no spider, next thing you know, there it is.

            My reaction is swift and certain. I sit up in horror as I attempt to brush it away. I might leap (as best as this aging body can do) while brushing away the offensive creature. If it’s anywhere near my husband’s shoes, I will use deadly force by slapping or squishing. Only with his shoe: never mine.

            Some kids are intrigued by spiders and like to make temporary pets out of them. This gives me the willies. I get the same feeling when I visit an animal sanctuary and see spiders of various sizes and shapes in aquarium environments. I want to look yet can’t get away fast enough.

            I have had negative encounters with spiders.

            There was a time when I was a young teen and was taking a bath. I was just about finished when I felt something land between my shoulders. I screamed so loudly that both my parents stormed into the room, assuming that some terrible thing had occurred. I was embarrassed to have them in the room while I was completely naked, but I put that aside in order to be rescued.

            They didn’t save me. They made fun of me.

            Thankfully my dad left while I dried off, but my mother lingered. Perhaps that was a good thing because she discovered a small, round, red spot on my back. And when the tub was drained, a spider remained. My dad was summoned to witness that I had not imagined it, then terminate it.

            There was no lasting damage and I didn’t become ill, but the event solidified my fear of spiders. This was proof that they were out to get me. I knew that this was not the last attack, but rather the first of many to come.

            Many years later, after I was married, I was taking a shower to get ready for work. Suddenly an intense pain began in the little toe of my left foot. I looked down and spotted a brown spider sitting there. It was probably seeking refuge from the water, much like a swimmer finding higher ground during a deluge. I panicked, to say the least.

            There was nothing I could use to smash it, so I shook my foot until the spider fell off. I turned off the water and got out as quickly as I could. I would have gone for my husband’s shoe, but then I realized that it was, in fact, a brown spider. By this time I’d heard of recluse spiders whose bite could make a person quite ill. Thinking that this might just be a recluse, I wrapped myself in a towel, went into the kitchen and retrieved a glass jar.

            The spider was still in the shower when I returned, so I trapped it. I screwed on the lid and was going to leave it on my husband’s dresser as evidence in case he came home and found me dead. But then I remembered that there would be no air in that jar. Granted I would have smashed the spider if it hadn’t bitten me, but now I wanted to preserve it just in case.

            I carried the jar into the garage and using a hammer and nail punctured several holes in the lid. I kept the spider trapped all day, sitting on the dresser.

            Because I began feeling ill almost immediately, I called in for a sub (I was a teacher) and stayed home. My toe did become a bit inflamed and I thought I saw a red streak going up my leg. I spent the good part of the day with my leg hanging down, trying to prevent poison from getting to my heart.

            This was before the Internet so I had no way to research what type of spider it was nor any side effects of its bite. I acted on impulse, not on fact.

            By the time my husband returned home from work, I was feeling fine and embarrassed. It turned out that it was a common brown spider, it was not poisonous and I had wasted a day of sick leave for nothing.

The next major encounter with a spider was when my husband decided we would head south to the Grand Canyon. I was excited about the trip as I had never been there. After finding a camping spot and setting up the tent, we went to the Visitor’s Center.

            As we followed the path to the entrance, I trailed my hand along the top of a brick wall. Thankfully my hand was on the top and not gracing the side and that my eyes caught something in time for me to withdraw my hand. Nestled in a depression in the wall was a large tarantula. Imagine if I had touched its hairy legs! Imagine if I had brushed its abdomen! The horrors!

            I felt ill just thinking of all the things that might have happened. My young son, however, was intrigued. He wanted to pick it up and let it sit in the palm of his hand. My husband seemed to agree that it would be a great thing to do, but I refused. Even after another visitor did just that. He let the spider sit on his arm and offered it to my son. I shivered as I shook my head. I grabbed my son’s arm and pulled him away, enticing him with the air-conditioned center.

            My first teaching job was at a city-run preschool. Every session I took my classes to the local nature center. I was brave enough to touch the snakes (in order to reassure my students that it was okay to do so) but never the tarantulas. I tried, I really did, but just the thought of doing so made me ill.

            Over the next several years no major spider encounters happened. Yes, one would appear in the bathroom where it would be smashed to death. Yes, one would walk on my arm while I sat on the couch. Yes, sometimes one would have gotten inside my car and have to be dealt with before I could continue driving. But no bites.

            Then my daughter’s family bought a house in Utah that had a serious spider problem. These were not tiny brown spiders or even medium-size spiders. They were gargantuan. They had long legs and thick, round bodies. And they were everywhere.

            You’d spot them walking down the hall or front room. They’d be above your head on the ceilings or coming down a wall. They clustered in windows inside and out. They seemed to be wherever I was.

            One time I was downstairs brushing my teeth, getting ready for the morning. I heard a loud thump behind me, turned around, and discovered that one of them was now sitting on the edge of the tub. The sound I’d heard was it dropping from the ceiling. Put that thought in your mind: a spider so heavy that when it landed it made a thumping noise.

            Add to that the sheer size of the spiders. You couldn’t smash it with a piece of toilet paper or a tissue. It would have needed something the size of a shoe with plenty of applied pressure.

            I had my own shoe handy, but there was no way I’d have spider guts on the bottom of my own shoe. I seem to recall going into the hallway and finding a magazine that had seen better days. I’m pretty sure that I used the magazine to smash that spider so it could never drop down and terrify me again.

            On another visit I was getting ready for bed when a spider came from the ceiling and landed in my open suitcase. I felt nauseous as a shiver shook my body. At first I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. When some degree of rationality returned, I began flinging my clothes, one article at a time, out of the suitcase. As each piece of clothing fell to the floor, I stared to see if the spider emerged.

            I threw socks, t-shirts, pants and underwear, not caring what it was. The spider had to be gone and the only way that was going to happen was if I lifted it out inside my clothes. I got down to the layer on the bottom. I picked up the last pair of panties, shook them, and out fell the spider.

            Relieved that it was gone, I was able to breathe easier. However, it was there, in the hallway, inches from my room. I had to act. Had to do something so that it could never return. The only thing I could find was that same magazine from before. I dropped it on top of the spider then stomped over and over until I was sure it was dead. I didn’t look.

            After my clothes were back in the suitcase, I zipped it up and kept it that way.

            But now I couldn’t sleep. My bed was a foot away from where the spider had dropped from the ceiling. Knowing that the house was infested, I couldn’t sleep. At least with the lights off. So I kept them on. But every time I closed my eyes I imagined spiders dropping. Even though it was warm, I pulled the sheet up over my head, encasing me in cotton. That’s how I got through the night.

            It’s not just spiders that scare me. I am terrified of heights. Back when I was in college in Los Angeles my parents insisted the I fly home every other week. This was back when it cost $14 round trip.

            I hated it. Take offs were terrible, but landings were worse. One time I was waiting to board and so nervous that my entire body was trembling. A man sitting next to me noticed and began talking to me. He told me to keep in mind that the pilots wanted to take off and land as safely as I wanted them to. Just as I wanted to go home, so did they.

            Those calming words spoken over fifty years ago still resound with me today. Because of one kind man I have flown to many different states and countries.

            But I won’t climb ladders. When we first bought our house, my husband needed help cleaning the gutters. He knew I was afraid of heights, so he asked me to just climb high enough to be able to hand him tools. I did it even though it scared me.

            When our kids were young, we bought a blow-up boat. One camping trip we were near the Truckee River. It was peaceful looking, so he decided we would float down the river. As long as the river was smooth, I was happy. When it began getting choppy, I got scared. I rode down the first set of rapids, but from then on, I insisted on getting out just before the rapids began.

            I’d walk back to the truck, drive to the end, pick them up, return to the starting point. While my fear kept me from enjoying the ride, there was a plus: they didn’t have to carry the boat.

            Recently we were on a vacation trip in Colorado. The only excursion option was a raft ride down a class three river. Just thinking about it scared me.

            I can swim. In fact, I am a lap swimmer. So why does the thought of floating in rapids scare me? Because it’s the unknown.

            That’s the way it is with most phobias. We fear the unknown.

            Movies have taught us to be scared of sounds in the night. To be wary of strangers. To not go into the unknown. Bad things happen to characters who break those taboos. They die or come perilously close to death.

            We’ve seen people slide off roofs, fall out of planes, drown in lakes. Boats explode, snakes escape their tanks, lions eat the unaware. Fires consume houses, gasoline bursts into flame and water turns into floods that sweep people away.

            There are infinite possibilities for things to fear. It’s no wonder that we develop long-lasting phobias.

            While I do fly and I did learn to swim, I am still terrified of spiders. I did conquer the river in Colorado and would have gone a second time if the opportunity had arisen. I don’t like ladders of any height, but if my husband needed me, I’d do it for him.

            My phobias will always be there. It’s whether or not I allow them to control my life that makes the difference. And I am determined to live the fullest life possible.

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