There’s an old saying around these parts: “I think TrailDragon is a pretty cool guy. He runs all day and isn’t afraid of anything.” It’s sweet but it’s not entirely accurate. You see, despite being a 6′ 2″, 200lb athlete, diver and former rugby player with a casual disregard for his own well-being and a penchant for horror films, I also happen to be an arachnophobe.
I am afraid – wait, no – terrified of spiders.
As was recently pointed out (although not to my face I might point out), that makes me “a big girls blouse” because I don’t happen to live in a sub-tropical country where spiders are as big as dogs, hide in the ground waiting to drag unwary passers-by to their sticky, dessicated fate, can jump on to your face from a mile away and are so venomous that they won’t just kill you to death but will also the next four generations of your descendants. Where I live, the indigenous arachnid population is largely innocuous. That, coupled with the fact I am a bajillion times bigger than most house spiders, makes my phobia entirely irrational and illogical.
No-one knows how illogical it is better than me.
Here’s how irrational and stupid my phobia is:
- It isn’t to do with being nervous. My current hobby is running ultramarathons. I spend between 20 to 30 hours or more running along wild trails, day and night, in all weather – hardly something I think the stereotypical nervy, risk-averse, cotton-wool wrapped, “big girls blouse” I might otherwise be taken for would do. (Accusations that I’m having a mid life crisis are, however, entirely fair).
- It isn’t to do with being afraid of potentially dangerous animals. Years ago when diving in the Red Sea, I found myself happily floating with a beautiful but highly venomous Lion Fish drifting two feet away from my face, heart rate steady, breathing calm. If it had been a shark, my heart rate would obviously have gone up because, well, cool! Shark! That’s exciting – let’s get closer. (No, seriously. This one time, at diving camp, we were on a boat when another group surfaced and told us there was a shark 30 feet below us. So we grabbed our masks and snorkels and dived right in to have a look.)
- It isn’t to do with the shape. I have absolutely no problems whatsoever with Daddy-Long-Legs and will quite happily pick them up, handle them and show them the door.
But it comes to spiders though… well – here’s an example:
When I was a teenager, I went with a friend to the Natural History Museum. We ambled about, chatting and exploring when we found ourselves in a room with pictures on the walls. Except they weren’t pictures, they were entomological mounts and in the mounts were spiders of every shape, size and species. Every wall was covered with these frames. I froze. I was rooted to the spot, staring at the floor in front of me, heart rate through the roof, sweating, trying not to cry. My friend told me to just leave and stop looking at them but I couldn’t move and he had to lead me out of the room. He said to me afterwards “I think I now understand the phrase ”paralyzed with fear’.”
25 years later when I took my own kids to the museum to see the dinosaurs, I still had feelings of anxiety about finding myself in that room again.
A decade and a half ago, I lived in an old townhouse in Leeds. For reasons I don’t remember now, my bed, in the third floor bedroom, was right underneath the attic hatch. One evening, while lying in bed reading, there was a quiet noise as if something had just plopped onto the duvet. I instinctively knew what it was so I didn’t look at first, thinking if I didn’t see it then it wouldn’t be what I feared. I did look and, sure enough, a ginormous house spider had fallen onto the covers. Without any hesitation or deviation, I leaped out of bed and ran downstairs. I spent the next three nights sleeping on the couch in the lounge.
That’s what it’s like with a phobia. It’s a measurable, tangible response to certain specific stimuli. My heart rate goes up, my breathing quickens, adrenaline surges, I get sweaty palms – no matter how much I tell myself it’s illogical and silly and only in my head, I have a very physical, very real reaction. In fact, the spider itself doesn’t even have to be real – I can’t look at pictures of them, watch movies of spiders or even play video games with them in. I even get into a panic state when people inadvertently (or, like some bastards I won’t name, intentionally) post pictures of spiders into my Facebook timeline. When the headlines about the biggest spider ever found ever in the history of the world known to mankind ever was all over the news earlier this year, I had to stay off Facebook for days in fear of what might appear on my feed.
Not a lot of people know this but the NHS classes phobias as a type of anxiety disorder and other institutions also classify – and treat – them as a mental health disorder. Maybe they’re right to do so because although not proven beyond a shred of doubt, it’s commonly held that the neurobiological “fight or flight” response is stimulated by the part of the brain called the amygdala. Well, amygdalae because there are two of them. A lot of research has suggested that region – or possibly the prefrontal cortex which processes the alarm reactions from the amygdalae – is at the root of both anxiety disorders and phobias with some hypotheses suggesting that the reactions are caused by abnormalities in those parts of the cerebral cortex. (That may not be the right way to describe the brain but come on, “cerebral cortex” is such a geekily cool phrase!)
It is, apparently, possible to treat phobias. According to the expert on the NHS website, it only takes about 3 hours of exposure therapy to get over simple, specific phobias like those of animals or objects. London Zoo even offers a day course called the Friendly Spider programme. I’ve heard people who have had success on this course but I’m not convinced. I spent more hours than I care to admit editing Skyrim files to remove spiders from the game just so I could play it and gave myself nightmares doing so. Additionally, if phobias are some type of neurobiological disorder, how does simple exposure treat them? Isn’t that like saying you can cure Autism? Still, as much as it affects me, I don’t usually have problems with my day-to-day life. I’m confident that arachnophobia, at least for me, isn’t as debilitating as agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder or other phobias that have significant and adverse affects on their their sufferers. I have, what, maybe one or two encounters with a spider per year? Why would I actually pay £100 or more (the price of a good ultramarathon event) to put myself in a room with spiders in the hope that it might be cured?
Anyway, I’m in good company: Sam Warburton (captain of the British Lions rugby team), Sir Christopher Lee, Andre Agassi and Johnny Depp are all arachnophobes. And like Simon Pegg I’ve had to learn to confront my phobia, mostly because I didn’t want to nurture the same behaviour into my children. I can cope well enough these days to at least get a pint glass, a postcard and escort them from the premises (when I’m feeling brave) or use the business end of a vacuum cleaner and the extra long extension (when I’m not). I’ll admit, I nerve myself up to it and recite some sort of mantra while doing it (usually the Sith Code because, hey, geek!). Afterwards it usually takes me an hour and a bottle of wine to calm down and I’ll spend the rest of the evening jumping at shadows, ducking under door frames and hesitating before going into a dark room
I’m not proud of the fact that spiders terrify me; it’s not big, it’s not clever, it’s not even uncommon and it’s most definitely not rational. But I’m an arachnophobe, and like a well-written, suitable conclusion to this blog post, I just can’t handle those monstrous, eight-legged, little freaks.