A Nature Lover's Phobia
—Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (1994)
I. Significant and enduring fear to phobic stimulus
I’m not prone to premonitions, but my gut has long told me Arizona would bring the showdown. I haven’t avoided the desert southwest because of it. After all, I risked seeing the creatures every time I left my Pacific Northwest home for either Mexico, Laos, Thailand, India or Kenya. And I had traveled through the southwest before—long enough to pee in the dark near a saguaro during a marathon cross-country drive and to use airport restrooms in Phoenix and El Paso.
It’s early November, and I’m visiting my son in Prescott. I’ve hiked along Granite Basin, the red rocks outside Sedona, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve been careful. I scan the sand on either side of the trail and look under boulders, before I sit to sip water or eat lunch. So far, there’s no sign of what I most fear. I almost forget them. Almost.
Now I’m walking a paved nature trail at Montezuma Well National Monument, off I-17 halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. It’s been clear and hot the last few days, but thunderheads are building over the mountains to the southwest. I read somewhere that fall rainstorms tempt randy males out from hiding. But I’m not dwelling on that possibility. I’m reading an interpretive sign, next to the trail, about broom snakeweed. I’m daydreaming about the Sinagua, who abandoned their adobe cliff dwellings in the 1400s, even ones in this fecund oasis where the limestone sink hole still channels water into a hand-dug irrigation canal.
I let my guard down, and that’s when it happens. Examining dry leaves, contemplating the ancient, and sniffing the moisture in the air, I glance below the sign and see my bête noire on the coarse sand. It’s larger than members of the same class back home, but smaller than the full-grown creatures of my nightmares. I assume it’s immature. Or maybe it’s a dwarf species. It’s about the length of the first two joints of my index finger and covered in coarse, black hair.
II. Anxiety response to phobic stimulus (children may cry, cling, freeze or display tantrums)
Taking a deep breath, I balance my right arm on the interpretive sign, raise my left leg, and hover a hiking boot over a tiny theraphosid.
III. Recognition: Although adolescents and adults realize that their fear is unreasonable and disproportionate, children may not
Seeing a spider of any size, my mother still shrieks and calls for immediate removal or death. My father, who lived separately from my mother and me, loved spiders. He caught black widows and housed them in jars on his windowsill in suburban California. He spent hours watching them spin webs and devour prey. As far as I remember, he never kept a pet tarantula (perhaps my stepmother drew a line at black widows), but he handled those that belonged to others and yearned for one of his own. He once described to me the thrill of feeling the hairy, segmented legs tickle his palm. I conjured the sensation for myself and almost fainted.
I’m not proud of it, but with spiders, I take after my mother.
My stepfather used to tease us. He’d never just remove a spider from our home in Seattle. First he had to cup it in his hands and threaten to throw it on us. “Is this what you’re scared of? This little, itty-bitty, teenincy spider?” He’d laugh and push his spider-filled hand towards us. “It wouldn’t hurt nobody. And it eats flies.”
“Stop,” my mother shrieked. “If you put that on me, I’ll kill you.”
I always ducked out of his way, ran into my bedroom and locked the door.
V. Impairment and Distress
Fumbling towards puberty, I grew embarrassed about my phobia. I prided myself on a keen intellect, and I revered animals. I collected pets, especially ones that others abhorred: snakes, frogs, toads, lizards. With my mother’s encouragement, I caught flies, collected them in plastic bags and placed them in the freezer next to the peas and steaks. I poked needles and pulled strings through the iced cadavers and dangled them in front of my hungry snakes and amphibians. My arachnophobic mother and I shared some of our most cherished moments watching these frozen treats disappear. With no compassion for others suffering from specific phobias, we teased herpetophobes with detailed descriptions of sticky frog tongues and double hinged snake jaws at work.
The National Institute of Mental Health classifies phobias to specific things, such as spiders or snakes, as a form of anxiety disorder and estimates them to be twice as common in women as men. I never wanted to be among those kinds of women. I dreamed of being Jane Goodall. Not be like her – be her. But I couldn’t imagine her being afraid of spiders. Trying to forget my aversion for eight-legged members of the natural world, I dissipated much of my childhood curled on the couch, reading books on animals and memorizing zoological classifications to prepare for my career as Jane.
Yet no amount of determination, reason, or study overcame my fright. Friends and relatives echoed my stepfather’s question: how can you, a smart girl and nature lover, fear mostly harmless and usually shy creatures? Bites and toxins are not the point, I told them. Urticating hairs are not the point. Irrational fear is the point. Specific phobias don’t have to be grounded in actual experience or legitimate cause. But that doesn’t make them any less real or terrifying to the estimated 19.2 million adult Americans who suffer from them.
A fear of harmful creatures would make sense. But I never feared creatures because they could bite or inject deadly poisons. On a camping trip, my mother and I once worked for several hours to detach a garter snake’s mouth from my knuckle so we could return it alive to the riparian wilds of Southern Oregon. My practical stepfather offered a more practical solution. “One quick chop,” he said. “Then it’ll let go.” My mother, who authorized spider executions without remorse, was appalled. With the pain of so many prickly teeth digging deeper into my knuckle and blood dripping down my hand, I chanted a mantra through my tears: my suffering does not matter as long as this poor snake survives.
Traveling in East Africa and India, I had to teach myself to be cautious around the deadliest snakes. Outside a guesthouse in the Biligirirangan Hills of southern Karnataka, I spotted my first cobra. Thrilled, I walked forward for a closer look. The cobra’s head rose and flared, reminding me that curiosity could lead to a rapid and agonizing death. I backed up until the cobra relaxed but continued to watch from a safer distance. I was three months pregnant at the time, which shows how little reason has to do with any of this.
Rather than becoming Jane or a zoologist, I ended up as a cultural anthropologist.
After marrying a Brahman from Nepal during graduate school, I began living with his family in 1987 to conduct dissertation research on women’s organizing and to carry a pregnancy to term. I knew I would have to negotiate cultural differences with his extended family in the plains but never anticipated sharing the household with so many species. I didn’t mind the mice, except when they built nests in my clothes. I welcomed the sparrows and bats that flew through our house, even though I grew tired of their droppings. Of course, I delighted in the geckos that scampered over the walls and ceilings and wondered if I could house free-range geckos back in the Pacific Northwest.
What I wished for was a huntsman-free home.
The huntsman spider has a three to five inch leg span. First encountering one of these monsters in my bedroom, I opened my mouth to do what my mother and I always did: call for removal or death. But then another appeared. And another. I looked up into the dusty rafters, under the bed, and behind the framed pictures on the whitewashed cement wall. I couldn’t bear to count them all.
Over the three years I lived in Nepal, I had to accept these arachnid housemates. And by all rational calculations, they were good housemates—better than many I’ve had. They ate mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, and moths. They mostly kept to their dark corners and didn’t make too much noise. Or at least I hoped they weren’t responsible for the nighttime skittering I heard under the bed. Must be the mice, I told myself. Please dear gods and goddesses, let it be something, anything other than saucer-sized spiders. Even a giant cockroach would be A-okay with me.
Denial can be a powerful coping tool. Only now, far from Nepal, can I admit to myself that the many rapid taps I heard most nights probably did come from spider toenails.
At least the huntsmen spiders didn’t invade my physical space very much, not until they died anyway. The barrage came in cycles. I’d notice the females with white egg sacs like round felt pads on their abdomens and brace myself for the hail of translucent carcasses on my bed and pillows days later.
I had a few close calls with the living. Seven months pregnant, I sat on the wooden floor of my loft above the buffalo shed, delighted by the tumbles and kicks from within. Fantasizing about the child I would one day cradle in my arms, I spied a huntsman marching across the floor in front of me. They usually stayed hidden during the day, so the brazen act surprised me. Leaning away from the beast to rise and flee, I witnessed a spectacle that has since surpassed my horror of any single spider.
A large wasp swooped down, buzzed the spider, and helicoptered back up towards the rafters. The spider turned and scrambled for cover. The wasp turned in mid-air, hovered, then dive-bombed and winged back up again. The spider paused, turned and hastened in its original direction. On the third run, the wasp landed on its target. The two arthropods tussled and rolled. The wasp came out on top and thrust its stinger into the spider’s soft belly, not just once, but again and again. The spider writhed, flailing its long legs and curling them in a grotesque dance of death. Finally, it lay still.
Twenty years later, I still recall this attack in slow motion. Yet altogether, the chase, attack, and death took no more than a minute.
I don’t know if spiders feel pain. I do know that I did. My legs lay as limp as those on the corpse before me. Closing my eyes, I fought back bile, hugged my swollen belly and keened.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Empathy led to curiosity. One spring on the family farm, I discovered our zucchini, cucumber, pumpkins, bottle gourds, and bitter melons chewed by cucumber beetles. Clearing out weedy hiding places and killing the beetles by hand, I startled at the sight of a large brown spider retreating into a hole near my finger. I fought back my usual response and watched. The spider extended several front legs and pulled debris over the hole. I should have been happy for the disappearance. Instead, I braved the unimaginable: I picked up a small twig and investigated. I discovered leaves and twigs matted to form a door, hinged on one side with silk. Taking care not to disturb the hinges, I opened the hatch. I vaguely remembered a nature show that included a segment on trap door spiders, but I’d closed my eyes when the camera focused on a spider. I did remember a door that looked like the one before me. Putting one eye near the hole, I glimpsed the spider huddled inside. I didn’t like the close-up any more than I imagine she did. I backed up so both of us could feel safe again. But I didn’t turn away; I wanted to see her repeat her deft move. After a minute or so, she obliged. Stretching out one leg, then a few others, she grasped the door, flipped it over and adjusted it to fit tight. Through the cracks, she pulled in nearby debris for a good seal. I was tempted to play more but did not want to exhaust my newfound ally. I left the remaining cucumber beetles for her to eat. Within days, the beetles disappeared. From then on, our cucurbits flourished.
Returning to the Pacific Northwest after living in Nepal, I found the spiders smaller than I remembered and easy to keep out of the house. Still, some fear remained. I tried not to pass it on to my son.
At seven, he chose to spend his own money on The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders at a bookstore in Olympia, Washington. Not long after, he rushed into the house with two neighbor friends. He grabbed his field guide and asked me to help him look up a spider they found down the street.
I mustered courage. Photographs of any spider in books and magazines, especially ones that magnify the details of eyes and hairs, inspire a classic flight response: palpitating heart, tensed muscles. I always close my eyes and flip past the pictures without touching the photograph. If the photograph is on a page I’m reading—and the writing is worth the trouble—I hide the image by folding the page or holding another document over it.
With my son looking to me to model reverence for the natural world, I quelled my revulsion. I sat down and cushioned the book on my lap, confident that many pages of words lay between my thighs and the close-up portraits. My son and his friends stood around me. Pinching the far corners without being too obvious about it, I turned the pages. We examined photo after photo. I focused on inhaling and exhaling with a steady rhythm. We came to the grass spider.
“That’s it,” they all said together.
With relief, I turned to the photo-free text and found the grass spider’s family: funnel web weavers. I read the long description aloud and then explained what it meant. “The spider spins non-sticky silk into a funnel near the ground. It hides in the narrow end and waits for an insect to wander by.”
I paused to look at my son. His already round brown eyes had widened more than usual. “Then what?”
I didn’t have to explain the next sentence: “Then the spider rushes out of the funnel, bites its insect prey, drags it back to the funnel, and feeds.”
“Cool,” he said. He led his friends back outside.
I avoided more pictures but continued reading.
Several weeks later, my son and I visited friends in Portland. He and our host’s son noticed a large yellow and black spider in the center of a web near the back porch door. We could not pin down an exact identification but did narrow it to a species of orb weaver—those industrious engineers who produce the classic spiral webs that even an arachnophobe can admire. I, who as a teenager had kept lists of every species of bird I identified, had never bothered to attach a name to these common spiders.
My son and his friend nicknamed our orb weaver “the greeting spider.” She was our first sight when we came through the door in the evening. Her daily efforts at repair, rebuilding, and hunting captivated us. She had picked a prime spot next to the light bulb. One evening, we watched a light-dazed moth tangle in her web. She dashed along one of her radiating lines, seized the moth with her legs and began turning it over and over. With each revolution, she shrouded it in another layer of silk. She left it suspended there and retreated back to her post by the bulb. By morning, the moth and shroud had disappeared.
By middle age, I had shared curiosity about spiders with my son, protected spiders as garden allies, and cohabited with huntsmen in Nepal. As any therapist would recommend, I’d come to terms with my mostly absent (and by then deceased), spider-loving father. I shook off some of my mother’s fears. So I stopped screaming at the sight of a tiny jumping spider or grass spider crawling on my arm. I no longer called for death. I continued to seek removal when spiders invaded my body or my house in Portland. But I sometimes did it myself. The smallest ones I learned to flick with the tip of my fingernail (the fingernail providing more protection, I reasoned, than the fleshy part of my finger). The larger ones I trapped on a piece of paper or in a container and put outside. I marked my progress with this assessment: I don’t like spiders, but I do respect them.
Yet dread of meeting the largest, hairiest arachnids remained. Although not prone to fainting, I continued to believe that the mere sight of a tarantula would render me unconscious. Living in Oregon, I did not have to face my terror every day—only when I traveled.
Several years before my trip to Arizona, I had a close encounter with a large tarantula in Palenque in southern Mexico—or so I’m told. I still can’t look at the pictures. My partner Jerry took several photographs of it outside our hotel room. Then, believing he had to take extreme measures to protect my mental health, he squashed it with his Vibram-soled boots and threw it in the trash.
Applied Muscle Tension Therapy
So here I am in the Arizona desert holding my boot over this inhabitant that challenges all the progress I’ve made in my forty-eight years. I haven’t fainted or fled, and that’s something. Leaning against the sign, I wave my foot to make a moving shadow. I’ve read that despite multiple eyes, as many as eight in some species, most spiders don’t see very well. This tarantula probably registers my presence as no more than movement and changing light intensity. He glides right several inches and stops. I shake my boot over him. He shuffles in a wide circle to the left. I respond with a one-leg shimmy. He scampers out of the flickering shadow and stops underneath some low branches of the broom snakeweed identified by the sign and flattens into the sand.
I return my foot to the paved path and look around. Families with children of all ages are coming our way. I turn back towards the tarantula. He is still visible but at least not so obvious to those who might decide to stomp him.
I figure it’s the best I can do and move on.
There are only two things that could make my skin crawl more than touching a live tarantula: killing one and watching (or imagining) someone else killing one. I could never bear the sensation or sound of cracking carapace and crunching legs under even the thickest-soled boots. It’s partly why I can’t look at the picture of the doomed tarantula at Palenque. I conjure every sensual detail of its gruesome end. I would have preferred removal to death.
But there’s more, and that’s what surprises me. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want it to crawl on me. But after my initial startle, I experienced no fear or revulsion towards the specific tarantula in front of me. Without hesitation or thought, I embraced the role of a mother hen scooting her chick towards cover.
I admit I got off easy. As tarantulas go, it is as my stepfather would say, “little, itty bitty, teenincy.” He’d laugh as much at my sense of progress as he did at my fear. I laugh at myself, knowing I may still faint on meeting a large tarantula.
I’ve heard some arachnophobes work their way up to allowing a tarantula onto their hand. Some grow so fond of the sensation, they acquire pets: a Chilean Rose Hair, Costa Rican Zebra, or Mexican Red Knee. They name them and take them to veterinarians for check-ups. They probably cry when their pets die.
I don’t aspire to such close bonding – and although I’ve heard they’re good sports – I suspect tarantulas don’t either. I’ve been looking for another benchmark of progress in my disordered psyche, a measure more in tune with the imperatives of the natural world, especially the mission of that male tarantula. And I believe I may have found it in a prayer. Almost colliding with the word “cute,” the prayer floats through my consciousness and becomes more elaborate with every recollection of that wee Arizona theraphosid. Forcing me to consider, learn and name frightening details of tarantula desire, it goes something like this: May you survive the shoes and boots along that nature trail long enough to thrum the silks outside a female’s burrow. And (although you may not survive her hunger and fangs) may you live long enough to slip the fertilized tips of your pedipalps into your mate’s epigastric furrow and make hundreds more of your eight-legged, hairy kind.