An Inside Look at Phobias: More Than Fear

I wanted to write this last night but I was still too shaky to put my thoughts into any kind of coherent form.

We’re all passingly familiar with the term phobia, and we tend to use it jokingly to refer to anything we fear to any degree (or sometimes just for stuff we dislike). Phobias are no joke though.

Fear is not (necessarily) phobic. When I’m somewhere high up, looking down (or up!) makes my knees wobbly and my legs feel like Jello. My stomach doesn’t love it either, and I probably won’t stay — even for a great view or whatever — as long as many people would in that high place.

Heights make me nervous; I have some degree of fear of them — but it’s not a phobia for me. As soon as I’m down, I’m fine, and the day can continue. I don’t worry about whether I might randomly be someplace high or stress in advance about going somewhere high up.

I might make a startled exclamation if a large bug scuttled into the living room or across my foot (ewww), but then I’d squish/remove it and all would be well shortly thereafter. I don’t have a phobic fear of bugs.

I do have a phobic fear of spiders. Arachnophobia is a fairly common phobia as such things go; unfortunately it’s also one of the most widely mocked.

Here’s how a triggered phobic event actually plays out (for me, at least).

Last night, I entered the bathroom for my shower. I shucked my clothes and, because I’m not ok with peeing in the shower (apparently a lot of people, especially guys, do it…gross!), I proceeded to take a porcelain seat and do the necessary.

I was mid-task when a spider crawled out from under the mat by the shower…the same mat my left foot was resting on (it’s not a large bathroom). There were maybe eighteen inches between myself and the arachnid.

As spiders go, I’ve seen bigger (ha) but as arachnophobia folks also know, every centimeter larger than microscopic is another notch upward on the HOLY SHIT A SPIDER Panic Scale. This guy was a good inch long, and built for jumping.

In those first few seconds, several thoughts barreled through my no-longer-rational brain:

If I moved, it might jump at my face. Or elsewhere on my naked (vulnerable) form.

It was between me and the door. No escape.

I couldn’t reach my phone.

The kids were sleeping in one of the rooms next to the bathroom. Don’t scream, Mel. Don’t scream. Must.not.scream as that primal scream of sheer terror was building inside me.

If the spider went under the door it’d be loose in the house (no sleep, none).

(etc., round and round in rising hysteria)

I raised my arm to throw an object I didn’t remember grabbing, but I couldn’t make myself let go of it because what if I missed and the spider escaped or jumped at me or went up the wall and then dropped onto my head from the ceiling or–

Ask for help. My husband was in the other adjacent bedroom, hopefully not asleep. I waited a frozen moment-eternity to be sure my voice wouldn’t come out at top volume (and I still wasn’t sure) and after an initial attempt when my vocal cords were like¬†Nah, you’re on your own, we out! I managed to squeak, “Honey?” and then I clamped my jaws together to keep from screaming or crying as the spider scurried another couple of inches toward the door.

An angry bull would’ve had nothing on me for sheer force of breathing at that moment. (Sorry, nostrils.)

I don’t know how he heard me but apparently the note of losing-my-shit-here was strong enough in my voice that DH heard me and came quickly.

“Don’t open the door all the way it’s behind it and if you open it all the way I can’t see it and then it’ll escape and I won’t sleep and the kids are asleep and I can’t scream but I really need to and OMG it moved again!”

(or something. I don’t remember)

I jumped into the tub as he got into position (and banned me from panic-narration of his every move), and I pulled the curtain across myself (the only shield I had — and I was more than willing to rip out the bolted-in shower curtain rod and fling it if Spiderzilla landed on said shield at any time — panicking-Mel puts the Hulk to shame). DH threw a tissue over the spider (I don’t know why either) and of course it immediately scurried out from under it — and out the door.

My dutiful spouse kept his eyes on it and followed…and I heard our bedroom door open and close.

OMG it’s in our room what if he can’t find it I’m going to have to tear everything up/out of the room to find it so he can kill it and OMFG what if it hides in my pillow and bites me or drops onto my face in the middle of the night or —

*audible crunch*

“Bring it to me I need to see the body did you get it bring it here bring it over here and NOT THAT CLOSE eww eww make it go away!”

He flushed the spider down the toilet and left, telling me, “Enjoy your shower.”

I flushed the toilet several more times and put heavy stuff on the lid.

Then I ransacked the bathroom — turned over every object, shook out every towel, washcloth, mat, scoured the cabinets, behind the toilet, inside the toilet paper roll that was on the dispenser, between the pages of the magazines in the rack, under the rack, EVERYTHING for signs of any further arachnid infestation.

It still took me ten minutes to convince myself to take my glasses off (extra-vulnerable; can’t see spiders w/o them) and actually get in the shower. I quaked bodily through my whole shower. My jaws were clamped again before I got out because the scream was still in there.

I shook a towel out again, put it down over the mat I had already shaken out, and stomped every square inch several times.

I shook the other towels out again, dried off, shook out my pajamas — again — and got dressed.

I caught myself scanning all the corners and ceilings in the bathroom, hallway, and our room before I sat on the bed (which I’d also checked even though I knew the spider was gone).

DH asked me if I was alright. I told him I was actually brave because I hadn’t screamed the entire house awake. That is significant progress for me, actually, and it’s not consistent progress but I’ll take it. (I do work no one ever sees, just to cope with the reality that spiders will always be part of life.)

Two seconds later, I was crying. Hard. Delayed fear response/rational brain re-asserting control.

You see, I know spiders have a role to play in the ecosystem. I know they have a place. I also know there are very few around here that are capable of inflicting real harm. I am fully aware that spiders are not out to get me, that there is no anti-Mel arachnid conspiracy. That they’re not actually evil incarnate.

I know all of these things but in the grip of phobia confrontation, none of it matters. And I feel really, really fucking stupid afterward — stupid and ashamed, and shame isn’t something I have much truck with these days.

So I cry. And I hate that even more.

And none of that stops me from obsessively checking every room as I enter for the next few days. My bed linens. My shoes. The door and porch area when I go outside. The car (especially the sun visor — I had a spider drop down from mine a few years ago).

Eventually, things are alright again.

Until the next time.

Phobias suck. They’re powerful. They ruin things.

But we make them into jokes. If I bring up arachnophobia, someone will post a GIF or a picture of the biggest, gnarliest spider they can find — because it’s funny, to them. They don’t know that even a photo of a spider can make me scream at my computer screen and sign off for the night, and sit awake for an hour convincing myself that there aren’t any more spiders around than there were before I saw that photo.

Yeah, remember what I said about phobias not being rational?

And no, I can’t just hold it in or “get over it” — don’t you think I’d rather do that if it was possible??

The spider (or clown, for those with coulrophobia, or…) photo isn’t funny. It’s cruel.¬†The friend you’re “just kidding” with may laugh it off with you, politely excuse himself/herself and then spend the next hour locked in a bathroom stall trying to remember how to breathe properly.

Don’t be that person who’ll exploit fears, phobic or otherwise, for a laugh. Just be glad you don’t have to experience it — if I see a spider in public, everyone around me gets to witness my freakout. I don’t get to control it or necessarily choose who knows.

I never thought I’d be sharing all of this here, but the more we understand one another, the more easily we can embrace our common humanity.

[Comments are moderated, and any links/pics/etc. of spiders will not be posted.]



One thought on “An Inside Look at Phobias: More Than Fear

  1. It’s an awful feedback loop, isn’t it? Having an intense fear reaction reinforces for your brain that an intense fear reaction is called for, and so next time you have a fear reaction that’s as bad or worse, and you can’t control it. Brains are stupid.

    There are therapies to help with phobias, and I’ve heard that some of them can be very effective. Most of them involve slowly increasing your tolerance, in situations that are relaxed and entirely under your control. It might start with exposure to a different thing that reminds you a little of (the thing that shall not be named) and moves in small steps, so you never have that full-on fear reaction. I’ve heard of people who have gotten over their fear of flying with that method. If your phobia is interfering with your normal life, it might be worth looking into.


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